Buffalo Bill's Cody Wyoming: The town founded by the legendary frontiersman is celebrating its centennial, and big doings are planned throughout the summer.

June 02, 1996|By Brian Downes | Brian Downes,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

There's nothing like a centennial to instill in a community a sense of permanence and accomplishment. Besides being a time to reflect on a common heritage, it's also cause for jubilation. But when that milestone happens to coincide with the 150th anniversary of a city-founder's birth, and that founder was none other than Buffalo Bill Cody, well, that's really something to crow about.

With a summer jampacked with events geared toward the traveling public -- rodeos, parades, music festivals, Western art exhibits, a hot-air balloon rally and a host of other wingdings -- 1996 is shaping up as the year to discover why Cody has, for a century, been a favorite layover for modern explorers of the West.

For generations, travelers bound for Yellowstone National Park -- 50 miles to the west -- have spent the night in Cody to fortify themselves for the rigors and wonders of the wilderness. My first trip here was with my grandparents. Though I was only 6 years old, I distinctly recall Cody's abundance of motels and restaurants, not to mention the many filling stations where Grandpa might top off the tank of his big DeSoto.

I didn't much care about Buffalo Bill then, but with honest-to-goodness cowboys hanging out on nearly every downtown street corner, the allure of the West that I had only experienced on television soon took hold.

It was more than 30 years before I would return. When I did, I was accompanied by my daughter, Katy, who was not much older than I was when I first journeyed to Wyoming. The little city was much as I remembered it. Lying snugly at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, it was crisp, clean and colorful. But we weren't here to revisit scenes of my childhood. This time I came to satisfy my recently acquired fascination with the town's namesake, Col. William F. Cody.

Toward the end of his life, a Chicago newspaper said of Buffalo Bill, "He has been more than picturesque; he has been worthwhile." That's a pretty accurate summation of the man universally accepted as the archetypal frontier plainsman.

Cody was born in Iowa Feb. 26, 1846. Shortly after his family moved to Kansas, his father died, burdening young Will with financial responsibility for his mother and sisters. He was a mere boy when he hired out to drive freight wagons through Indian country, and as a teen-ager, he was among the most daring riders of the Pony Express. By his early 20s, Cody had earned his noble moniker as a buffalo hunter, providing fresh meat to railroad workers pushing westward across the plains.

His courage was beyond question, and for valorous service as a scout and guide for the U.S. Army during the Indian wars, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Proprietor and performer

Cody was best known, however, as the proprietor and star performer of Buffalo Bill's Wild West, a massive aggregation of cowboys, American Indians, sharpshooters, trick riders and ropers, and herds of livestock, including horses, longhorn cattle, elk and buffalo. For 30 years (1883-1913) the Wild West spectacle played to sold-out crowds throughout the United States, Canada and most of the capitals of Europe. By the 1890s, Buffalo Bill was, without a doubt, the most famous American on the face of the Earth.

"All of my interests are still with the West -- the modern West," Cody once said. And with a sense of his mortality, he later explained, "I don't want to die and have people say, 'Oh, there goes another old showman.' I would like people to say, 'This is the man who opened up Wyoming to the best of civilization.' "

Cody first visited Yellowstone country during his scouting days. He was enchanted with its natural splendor and its luxuriant stock of fish and wild game. Returning in the 1890s -- by this time a wealthy man -- he was determined to wrestle from the rugged environment a virtual Garden of Eden. On the South Fork of the Shoshone River, he developed a ranch and, with investors, embarked on a series of irrigation and building projects by which to attract homesteaders.

Cody's name was a big draw, and after he blazed a new trail into Yellowstone Park, Easterners began arriving in droves. They pulled into town on a spur line of the Burlington Railroad -- built at Buffalo Bill's urging -- and lodged at his Irma Hotel. (Named for his daughter and advertised as Buffalo Bill's Hotel in the Rockies, the Irma hosts overnight guests to this day, and it's still a gem.)

As an epitaph, the old scout suggested (though it wasn't to be used): "Here lies Bill Cody who made a million dollars in the show business and distributed it among his friends."

That was his trouble. What money he didn't lose in far-flung mining ventures, he'd give away to any old friend -- or stranger -- with a hard luck story. He was broke and brokenhearted when he died in Denver in 1917 while visiting his sister. And that's where he's buried, far from the Wyoming town that he loved.

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