The banners were hung, toasting the world famous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, the Show of Shows. Photographs and poster boards of clippings recalled the feats of the frontier scout, bison hunter and larger than life showman.
There were Indian singers and dancers, a magician’s act and, of course, birthday cake to celebrate the 172nd birthday of William F. Cody. At the last minute, the scheduled appearance of a Buffalo Bill look-alike was canceled due to illness.
Don’t be confused. This was not Cody, Wyoming, the town he founded, and which also does a pretty good job of throwing birthday parties for its namesake.
This was Oracle, Arizona, a town of about 3,500 on the flank of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. Oracle celebrated its third annual Cody Days with a two-day bash on Saturday and Sunday. Buffalo Bill was born Feb. 26, 1846, in Iowa.
The Arizona Cody Days event was all about Buffalo Bill the miner.
It’s a chapter that I knew almost nothing about. A story in the Tucson Daily Star announced the gathering and since Oracle is only about 15 miles up the road from our wintering grounds, the allure of Buffalo Bill drew us.
I came back with two purchased books about mining in the Santa Catalinas and some of its colorful history in Arizona’s territorial days and early statehood — including the legend of a lost Spanish gold mine with an Iron Door.
And Buffalo Bill was a player. He held a number of claims in the Campo Bonito mining district as early as 1902, though some of the details and dates of his mining ventures are murky. He was in and out of Arizona while he traveled with his Wild West show and maintained his life in Wyoming.
A company he headed acquired the Southern Belle Mine in 1911, one of the most well known gold mines in the southern Catalinas. This was one of Buffalo Bill’s mining holdings that turned a profit.
Cody’s mining companies produced commercial gold, silver and tungsten. Thomas Edison was said to be a friend of Cody’s, and Edison purchased tungsten from him for the development of his electric light bulb.
But that doesn’t mean the years of work in the mining camps yielded a bonanza by any means. Before going to Oracle, I had communicated with my brother, Bob, author of the book, “William F. Cody’s Wyoming Empire, the Buffalo Bill Nobody Knows.” I told Bob that I didn’t recall anything of Cody’s Oracle doings mentioned in his book, but we were going to attend the program to see what we could learn.
Bob offered: “My principal connection with Cody as a mining man was his self-destruction financially. He lost tens of thousands in Oracle, mostly as a victim of outright fraud. He had to mortgage just about everything he owned in Wyoming and then stay on tour with one show after another for the rest of his life. I wonder how much of that you will learn at the Buffalo Bill celebration.”
To the credit of one of the principal organizers of Cody Days in Oracle, William “Flint” Carter didn’t duck the question.
“He did lose money,” Carter said openly of Cody’s mining days in Arizona.
But that didn’t dim Carter’s cheerleading for Buffalo Bill and the part he played in Oracle history. He doesn’t want to see Buffalo Bill’s memory tarnished because he came up up short financially in his mining ventures.
Carter, 71, knows firsthand the trials of hard rock mining in primitive conditions. He is a prospector, miner and jewelry artist who has combed the Santa Catalinas around Oracle for more than 40 years.
After spending an afternoon at Oracle’s Cody Days, my takeaway is that the Buffalo Bill celebrity myth is still the winner.
The bottom line is simply that Buffalo Bill Cody was there. Not any scorecard on financial wins and losses.
Cody Days promoters want to flesh out the Buffalo Bill period in Oracle. Carter appealed for help in further constructing the picture of Buffalo Bill’s time in Arizona; there’s not even consensus on when Cody first came to Oracle.
Cody’s friend and fellow frontier scout, William Neal, built the Mountain View Hotel in Oracle in 1895. Carter said Cody was a co-owner with Neal, a silent partner. Did he come to Oracle in the late 1890s at any time?
The answer is out there somewhere in Tucson in the form of turn of the century artifacts, Carter insists. It might be in someone’s basement.
“If anyone knows of photographs or letters or clippings, anything that belonged to Cody, we would love to see them. Buffalo Bill was the biggest icon of the 19th century,” Carter said.
He had a hotel in town. He spent time in the camps with miners. He played Santa Claus for the children of miners at Christmastime.
That’s the Buffalo Bill Cody story that Oracle wants to preserve.