Legendary 19th century showman and entrepreneur William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody could play today’s ‘celebrities’ on a break. Take image for instance. Cody nailed his personal style with flowing hair and neatly trimmed goatee, his tall frame clad in fringed buckskin suits. This neo-romantic Wild West look certainly set female hearts a-flutter while his tales of derring-do and spectacular arena shows staged throughout America and Europe unleashed men’s inner cowboy. It also transformed him into one of the most recognized men in the world.
We’re propping up the cherry wood bar that was a gift from a smitten Queen Victoria in the Irma Hotel, Cody. Founded by him in 1895 when Crow Indians lived in 12 tepee villages spread across the plains, Cody would be delighted to know that in his eponymous town, gunslingers still perform a nightly shoot-out, the rodeo at Stampede Park packs them in and that the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the Plains Indian Museum and well-preserved Old Trail Town are keeping the Wild West legends alive.
It seems that celebrity was in Cody’s DNA, first as a teenage Pony Express rider who out-rode everyone by covering 520kms in an incredible 21 hours and 41 minutes. A big shot in more ways than one, he hunted buffalo for the railroad company shooting 4,000 in one year to feed their workers and was a much decorated Army scout. As a raconteur, Cody was the master of spin blurring the line between truth and entertainment as he created a unified narrative of the Wild West. For three decades from 1883 his shows captured the public imagination taking him from rustic prairies to royal palaces where Cody was feted by European nobility who flocked to see his shows. It’s said that it took two steam ships to transport the company to Europe and three to bring back the gifts lavished on him by the rich and famous.
Behind the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, an imposing bronze ‘The Scout’, sculpted by artist/ heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, depicts Cody as a Pony Express rider ‘riding hard and fast all the way’ towards his beloved spiritual home of Cedar Mountain. In the Plains Indian Museum, we find beautifully curated depictions of the seven Plains Indian tribes including priceless war bonnets and finely decorated buckskin clothes. The buffalo, an animal honoured for its physical and spiritual nourishment by the Crow, Blackfoot, Sioux, Shoshone and Rapahoe Indians were hunted seasonally but the coming of white settlers, wholesale slaughter of the buffalo, disease, warfare and loss of land changed everything for the Indians as prophesied by the famous Sioux chief Sitting Bull:
“They promised us how we are going to live peacefully on the land we still own and how they are going to show us the new ways of living…but all that was realized out of the agreements with the Great Father was we are dying off.”
Thankfully, his prophecy wasn’t entirely fulfilled as hypnotic drumming and chanting draws us to the nearby park where each June, Arapahoe, Shoshone and Crow families gather for a Pow-Wow. Under a vivid blue sky it’s an animated scene as fringed skirts and leggings swirl and sunlight polishes tiny mirrors and jangling silver bells embellish lavish costumes. Under feathered headdresses, painted faces peer out at us with casual curiosity before young men and women enter the grassy arena like a gaggle of exotic birds to inhabit their ancestral stories.
Ten minutes away at Cody’s Historic Trail Town, the site of the original town settlement, it’s easy to imagine the boom and rolling echo of gunshots across the plains accompanied by wisps of black powder smoke drifting on the breeze. Overlooked by majestic Cedar Mountain, a collection of historic buildings and memorabilia from Wyoming’s frontier days are housed in log cabins. Filled with riding tack, sun-bleached steer skulls, antlers and animal skins, this authentic cowboy décor is framed by a rickety boardwalk.
In Curley’s cabin, a ragged woven Indian blanket covers a rusted iron bedstead and animal pelts soften wooden bench seats. A pot bellied stove, small brown leather saddle, stirrups attached, a bear skin robe, well-worn moccasins, a gun and fine bone breastplate are remnants from the life of this famous Crow scout to Custer’s Seventh Cavalry who carried the news of Custer’s death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Some of Robert Redford’s most memorable film roles have strong links to Cody’s Historic Trail Town. We enter the Hole in the Wall gang’s cabin where a trio of well-ridden saddles hang on one wall and a splendid portrait of Sundance, Ben Kirkpatrick, Butch, his bowler hat at a jaunty angle, Will Carver and Kid Curry depicts them all spivved up in 3-piece suits and shiny shoes. Jeremiah Johnson, popularized by Redford in the eponymous film, must have struck a personal chord as he was one of the pallbearers at the legendary mountain man’s re-internment here in 1974.
That evening, as bruised clouds drift across Cedar Mountain, we perch above the cattle pens on the Buzzard side at Cody’s Stampede Park. Marty Robbins is crooning on the sound system, kids race around in Davey Crockett raccoon hats and a young cowboy in check shirt and Stetson limps painfully past. Every night between June and September, this is action central as the myth and romance of the Old West is packaged into a rip roarin’ commercial enterprise.
To the accompaniment of bellowing steers, barn doors fly open and a bunch of horses fly out in a flurry of hooves and dust before the familiar strains of AC/DC’s ‘Dirty Deeds’ cues the bucking broncos to cut loose. No-one lasts the required 8 seconds and loosening the girth, the animals are expertly corralled by rodeo riders. Calves are roped and tied, kids take on a calf scramble un-tying ribbons from their tails while others are thrown like rag dolls off baby steers. Steel doors clang, cheers erupt, cowboys are pumped, music is amped, and one hell of a good night’s entertainment is had by all. Buffalo Bill would’ve loved it……
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