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May 17, 2012 9:01 am

New Buffalo Bill Museum tells ‘the rest of the story’

Written by Ilene Olson

It’s time to throw out or alter most of the things you’ve heard about Buffalo Bill Cody, along with many of the images you remember from the Buffalo Bill Museum.

You’ll have help doing that at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody. There, the museum honoring its namesake is about to reopen after an extensive reinstallation, which took months and $2.75 million to accomplish.
The Buffalo Bill Museum now tells a much-expanded story of the life of the scout-turned-showman and developer.
A “soft” opening is scheduled for Saturday, May 19, with the exhibit about 90 percent complete. It will give local residents a preview of the scenes and information that will greet museum visitors this summer.
The first thing visitors will see when they reach the museum will be a 6-foot tall image of Buffalo Bill Cody projected through a very fine water vapor mist using state-of-the-art technology.
“It gives kind of a three-dimensional appearance — a ghostly feel to it,” said museum curator John Rumm.
The model for the 3-D moving image was Pete Simpson of Cody, dressed up as Buffalo Bill, beckoning guests to enter.
“Pete’s got authenticity — the right height, right build and the right West,” Rumm said.
Portrayed by Simpson, “Buffalo Bill will invite people to take a journey with him through his memoirs,” Rumm said.
The story begins in the Midwest. Cody was born in Iowa and later lived in Kansas, where he served as an Army scout.
One section of the exhibit features a panorama of the Kansas prairie, where visitors can look for the signs that Cody used to navigate, find game and watch for Indians.
Another section features life-sized reproductions of pieces from a board game created in about 1895 with horses and riders, cowboys and Indians placed around a real, historic Deadwood Stagecoach.
“This will let people imagine what it was like,” Rumm said.
The actual game has been reproduced by Parker Brothers and will be available in the museum store.
Elsewhere, a humorous “Monte Python-like” animated presentation talks about Buffalo Bill’s stage career.
Another part of the exhibit will be a scale model of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show,” which will help visitors appreciate the massive scope and scale of the show, which traveled all over the country and Europe as well.
One wall features a 28-foot-long, 13-foot high poster used to advertise the Wild West Show, the biggest poster ever produced for the show.
“It looks like it was printed yesterday, but it came off a press in 1888,” Rumm said.
On another wall are photos of Cody’s family, including his four children — two of whom died in childhood.
A different area provides information about his development of the Big Horn Basin —  irrigation, tourism, town building and minerals. Visitors can play a game that will let them decide what you need to build a town.
Photographs and videos will show the landscapes and images that Cody knew and loved.
“You’ll be able to understand the pull that those landscapes had for him,” Rumm said.
The objective of the museum’s redesign, Rumm said, is to tell the story of William F. Cody — not just the tale of Buffalo Bill — and to make the museum more interactive and informative.
Buffalo Bill is only one aspect of Cody’s life, Rumm said.
“We’re not doing this exhibit to tear down myths, but to tell the true story,” he said. “The story we’re telling is, ‘Man of the West; Man of the World’ ... Through an accident of history, he got the nickname of Buffalo Bill through his skills as a hunter,” he said.
He then met dime novel writer Ned Buntline, who was hired by a newspaper in New York City to write about a Western hero. Buntline intended to write about Wild Bill Hickok, but a couple of scouts said he should feature Buffalo Bill Cody instead.
Buntline wrote his first story about Buffalo Bill in 1869, and it was reprinted in newspapers throughout the United States.
“Buffalo Bill was no longer a nickname; Buffalo Bill is becoming a character,” Rumm said.
Later, Cody became an actor and showman, first appearing as Buffalo Bill on stage in plays, then in 1883, creating his world-famous “Wild West Show.”
While Cody earned his nickname by killing about 8,000 bison, “he killed almost all of them as a market hunter to provide meat for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, meat for workers and for markets on the Eastern Seaboard,” Rumm said. “He was very much opposed to leaving them to waste.”
At that time, there were 40 million bison roaming the American plains. Years later, Cody became a champion of preserving bison, Rumm added.
It also is true that Cody had extramarital affairs. But the other side of that story — the tragedy of Cody’s private life — is rarely told, Rumm said.
“He probably married too young to a woman who was not the best match for him,” Rumm said. “They loved each other, but within a few months after they were married, he was spending more and more time away from home.”
Cody and his wife, Louisa, lost three of their four children to death, two in childhood — a son at 5, a daughter at 11.
“He and his wife were grieving, and they weren’t able to help each other,” Rumm said.
“He was the most famous person in the world as Buffalo Bill, but as William F. Cody, one of the most lonely people in the world,” Rumm said. “Paradoxically, he was charismatic and larger than life in persona, but in real life, he was insecure, depressed and struggling with a lot of things ...
“We see that in our own time with celebrities — people who struggle with fame, addictions, drinking, not being able to hold onto money. That’s William F. Cody’s life; he was the first one cast in that role — the first international superstar.
“Ultimately, he decides what’s the most important is to become the man he really was — a man of the West. He comes back to Wyoming. He was still performing, but his real focus was developing the Big Horn Basin.
“Cody looked at it, and he saw the future. He saw cities; he saw agriculture; he saw tourism. He saw minerals that could be taken from the soil; he saw potential for manufacture. He saw the basics of this becoming an economic engine.”
While the Big Horn Basin wasn’t destined to become Denver North, as Cody envisioned, “without his vision, there is no question that this region would not have developed as it did,” Rumm said.
“That was the way he wanted to be remembered; this was going to be a monument to himself ... But all people remember is Buffalo Bill, of a West that never existed.”
The new museum exhibit strives to tell that story — the rest of the story — about William F. Cody, which until now, history has mostly forgotten.
“Was he flawed? Absolutely,” Rumm said. “Was he human? Fully. Did he do bad things? Without question. But he also did a lot of good things.”

 

IF YOU GO

While some finishing touches still are needed, the newly redesigned Buffalo Bill Museum opens at 8 a.m. May 19 in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
A special celebration will showcase the renovation that evening from 6-8 p.m. The evening event is free.
A formal opening of the redesigned museum will take place on July 3.
For more information, visit www.bbhc.org/explore/events/buffalo-bill-museum-reopening.

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