In August 1899 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was making its third appearance in four years in Lima and Delphos was feeling a little miffed.
“Our people are not compelled to go to Lima to witness a wild west show, even if Col. Cody (Buffalo Bill) and his big show slight us year after year and comes only near enough so that we are compelled to take an excursion ride to reach his big exhibition,” the Delphos Daily Herald wrote on August 1, 1899. “’Pawnee Bill and his wild west show, the most formidable rival in the amusement field that Buffalo Bill has to contend with, is not so slow in recognizing a good thing as his rival scout.”
On August 21, 1899, Pawnee Bill gave a show in Delphos in the Metcalf Meadow at the corner of Cass and Eighth streets. In 1908, Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill combined shows.
LIMA — William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was “rapidly passing into the deepening shadows” in December 1916 and the Lima Times-Democrat, taking note of the inevitable, paid homage.
“The final story of a well-filled life is about to be written; the last chapter of a romance in reality is nearing its end,” the newspaper wrote on Dec. 18, 1916. “We formed a good opinion of ‘Buffalo Bill’ as a boy. Later, when we had grown to manhood, and saw him in the circus ring, or met him personally and found him to be the same honest, sincere gentleman that we had pictured him in our boyhood, our mental valuation of him was enhanced.”
Lima had had many opportunities to judge Buffalo Bill. He appeared in Lima at least nine times during his career as a showman. As late as Sept. 14, 1916, “with his time-seamed face and long, hoary locks,” he headlined a show in Lima. A little more than four months later, on Jan. 10, 1917, Cody was dead.
Born in Le Claire, Iowa, in 1846, Cody left home as an 11-year-old, becoming a wagon train driver and herder. He also worked as a trapper, mined for gold and, in 1860, became a rider for the Pony Express. After the Civil War, Cody scouted for the Army and, according to an article in the April 21, 1898, Daily News, gained his nickname by “killing 4,280 buffaloes in 18 months to supply meat for railroad laborers.”
Cody’s exploits were enhanced in newspapers and the popular dime novels. At the age of 26 in 1872, he parlayed his fame into an acting career and began appearing in a drama titled “Scouts of the Plains,” written by dime novelist Ned Buntline, who appeared with Cody and another famed scout, “Texas Jack” Omohundro, in the play.
In October 1873, “Scouts of the Plains” played in Lima. The Lima Gazette was not impressed. “It was the thinnest piece of acting we have ever witnessed, and also very coarse,” the newspaper opined Oct. 23, 1873. The show was, of course, a success, mostly thanks to Cody, who audiences found charming and perceived as adding an air of realism.
By 1876, when Cody returned to Lima at the head of his own troupe, the Gazette had changed its tune. “As ‘Buffalo Bill,’” the newspaper noted March 22, 1876, “Mr. Cody stands at the head of the list. His acting is easy and natural, but telling throughout. No one but a genuine borderman could carry the part he does. At times in the play (he is) the kind-hearted lover, and at others the very death to his enemies, just as he is on the Plains.”
Cody was back on October 14, 1880. This time, the Allen County Democrat reported, “’Buffalo Bill’ and his company of twenty-four artists are billed for City Hall on Monday night next. ‘The Prairie Waif’ is his specialty this season.” He would not return for 16 years.
During that time, Cody’s show had grew. In 1883 in the area of North Platte, Nebraska, Cody founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and the circus-like show toured annually. In 1887, Cody’s troupe toured Europe, appearing for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebration in London. In 1893, the show was renamed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.
A typical show began with a parade on horseback featuring participants from the U.S. and other countries’ militaries, cowboys, American Indians and performers from all over the world. Main events included feats of skill, races, and sideshows featuring historical western figures. Performers also re-enacted western-themed events like attacks on wagon trains and stagecoach robberies. Sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who was born in Darke County, and her husband, Frank Butler, were among the many acts.
Cody ended his long absence from Lima on July 9, 1896, for a show on the “commons” at Elm and Cole streets. “A more disagreeable day couldn’t have been found,” the Allen County Republican opined. “It rained from one o’clock in the morning until the performance in the afternoon.” Weather notwithstanding, “an immense crowd witnessed the performance,” the Republican noted. “The feats of daring, riding and especially bronco busting were even more than the spectators were expecting to see, and certainly more than the tenderfeet would imagine could be human skill. Colonel Cody, John Baker, one of the finest rifle shots in the world, and Miss Annie Oakley, premier of all lady shots, gave wonderful exhibitions of shooting.” The evening performance was canceled because of the muddy grounds.
A year later, Cody returned. “It is the opinion of the oldest inhabitant that the crowd in Lima Wednesday was the largest that was ever in the city,” the Allen County Republican-Gazette wrote August 20, 1897. “That is saying a good thing, for there have been some big ones, but they will have to take off their hats to the aggregation collected by Col. Cody’s Wild West. Everywhere the parade moved it was greeted with a sea of faces. Standing room was at a premium, and the fellow with the biggest chest had hard work to breathe.” Restaurants and saloons “reaped a harvest,” the newspaper noted, estimating the crowd at 20,000, many of whom arrived from outlying towns on special trains.
Again in the summer of 1899, Cody attracted huge crowds in Lima. This time his Congress of Rough Riders of the World included some of the Rough Riders made famous by Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War. “Combining as it does so much that is instructive as well as entertaining, so much of history mixed with romance, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West never palls on the public taste,” the Lima News wrote in advance of the Aug. 3, 1899, show, “but the more it visits us and the more we see it, the heartier is our welcome for it. It is unique and original.”
As was the case three years earlier, the day turned disagreeable and there was a “scramble through mud and water for home” during the evening performance. “In the race to escape the storm at the show last night the ladies forgot all about their modesty,” the News wrote Aug. 4, 1899.
Cody would not be back until 1908 after yet another tour of Europe. The show was held in tents pitched on O’Connor Avenue just off North Main Street. “The street car company did a rousing big business yesterday, handling crowds for the Buffalo Bill show,” the News reported June 5, 1908. “Large delegations came in from the surrounding towns, on both the steam and traction lines, while many people from the country drove in.”
Two years later, an ad in the News announced that Buffalo Bill would make “absolutely” his last visit to Lima on July 9, 1910, at O’Brien’s Pasture at West Street and Ashton Avenue. That was nearly true.
In August 1913, the show, by then known as The Wild West and Far East of Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill, was sold off in ‘piece lots’ to satisfy creditors.
Cody regrouped, renamed the show, gave it a World War I theme, and in mid-September 1916, came to Lima for what truly was the last time. “Buffalo Bill and 101 Ranch have come and the general verdict seems to be that it was a high-class performance this afternoon,” the Times-Democrat wrote Sept. 14, 1916. “The attendance at the afternoon performance can be numbered by the thousands and was not seemingly handicapped by the rain which fell at noon.”
Cody is buried on Lookout Mountain overlooking Denver and the Plains.
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.