Sunday, January 30, 2011

Buffalo Bill comes to town

That good old Iowa boy William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody brought his “Rough Riders of All Nations” Wild West Show to Chariton during September of 1900.

And down in Benton Township early that Saturday morning, the 15th, my grandfather, Irwin Myers, then 18 and the eldest of Daniel and Mary Belle Myers’ six children (Nolan wouldn’t come along until 1902), helped hitch some horses to the spring wagon and saddle up others so that the whole family could head up the New York Road and into town together.

The goal was to get to Chariton, find a place to hitch the horses and be in place along the parade route before the “Grand Street Cavalcade and Review of the Rough Riders” began at 10 a.m. (a half hour later than originally advertised).

This was not an event that anyone in south central Iowa wanted to miss and by the time the parade started an estimated 12,000 people lined Chariton’s streets. City slickers for the most part had walked to avoid the congestion, folks from the country arrived by horse and hundreds more poured in by train.

Extra cars had been added on the main line --- No. 3 from the east and No. 10 from the west --- as well as to the north branch passenger steaming down from Indianola through Milo and Lacona. A special train on the southern branch departed Davis City early with stops in Leon, Garden Grove, Humeston and Derby before chugging up the current Cinder Path route to arrive at 9:15 a.m.

The weather was wonderful. “Saturday was an ideal day for the great Buffalo Bill show,” The Chariton Herald reported, ” and by eight o’clock the largest crowd that has been in Chariton for some time (something of an understatement) had assembled in the streets.”

The Wild West Show troupe itself had traveled by special train early Saturday morning from Clarinda, where it had performed twice on Friday, allowing weary performers and support staff to catch a few hours of sleep. As a rule, the show was performed rain or shine twice daily, arriving, setting up, performing, tearing down and traveling on within 24 hours. Performances had been held in York, Nebraska, on Wednesday and in Nebraska City on Thursday before the mythic Wild West crossed the Missouri and headed into Iowa early Friday.

Upon arrival in Chariton, the show train was pulled onto a siding, unloaded by support staff and performers, and equipment and animals hauled or walked to the fairgrounds, then located just north of the city on the west side of what now is Highway 14 (or North 7th Street), for setup. It seems likely that Buffalo Bill himself, the faithful Annie Oakley and other stars slept a while longer.

By early morning, much of the work had been done, breakfast was served in the mess tent and everyone began to get their costumes sorted out and their gear in order. The big parade, organized at the fair grounds, would proceed south on North 7th, then turn west on Lucas Avenue to Grand.

“Promptly at 10 o’clock,” The Herald reported, “the parade formed and started (south) down Grand street, crossing over to Main at Stewart’s lumber yard and proceeded down Main street and around the square back to the (fair) grounds ….”

Here’s the lineup, as reported by the Herald. Imagine if you can what the day must have been like.

Martial band composed of five fifers, three snare drums, one bass drum and cymbals.

Col. Cody seated in a trap with footman behind.

Nine German cuirassiers (mounted cavalry soldiers) in charge of a lieutenant.

Nine Bedouins.

Band of ten pieces seated in a band wagon drawn by eight horses.

Seven Indians.

Six Japanese.

Nine Cossacks.

Electric light plant drawn by six horses.

Three nondescript.

Thirteen soldiers.

Seven Mexicans.

Seven Indian squaws.

Two Indian men.

Mounted cowboy band of eighteen pieces.

Eleven Rough Riders.

Troop of colored cavalry, numbering eight men.

Electric light plant drawn by six horses.

Troop of Cubans, numbering eight.

Seven Indians.

Stage coach drawn by eight mules and filled with women and papooses.

Twelve cowboys.

Nine Indians.

Band of twelve pieces seated in a band wagon drawn by eight horses.

Troop of United States cavalry, numbering fourteen.

Field piece drawn by four horses.

And finally, caisson drawn by the same number followed by another field piece and a second caisson, three outriders with each.

That was the parade, but by now nearly everyone who had lined the streets had fallen into line behind it to form an even grander cavalcade --- back to the fair grounds where a “free open air exhibition” was given before the 2 p.m. performance.

It’s not clear exactly what the “exhibition” included, but most certainly teepees had been erected, other tents and other attractions put into place and the performers deployed so that the crowd could interact with them. Food also would have been available on the grounds --- and souvenirs. This is where my granddad purchased the card bearing Buffalo Bill’s image and printed autograph at the top here (he held onto it until the day he died). The advertisement for the show itself, below, had been published in Chariton newspapers for two weeks prior to the event.

Tickets for the performances (50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children) --- one at 2 p.m. and the other at 8 p.m. --- were available on the grounds. Those who had wanted reserved seats could have purchased them Saturday morning at Dougherty’s Drug Store on the west side of the square for $1.

The show itself seems to have rendered the editor of The Chariton Patriot speechless. “No elaborate description is adequate to fully depict the many interesting and instructive attractions,” he wrote. “It must be seen, in all its comprehensive and realtistic features to be fully appreciated.”

The editor of The Herald was not intimidated, however.

“The performance in the afternoon at two o’clock was largely attended,” he wrote, the seats being all taken; it was estimated they showed at this performance to 11,000 people.

“The program given consisted of 26 numbers, each one entirely different and original. Rough-riding by men of all nations, fancy shooting by Miss Annie Oakley, Mr. Johnny Baker, and Col. W.F. Cody himself.

The Col., despite the fact of his advancing years, has lost none of the skill which has made his name famous, and can break the little glass globes with a Winchester as easily as he could in his younger days.”

After the 2 p.m. performance ended, most people headed home. The Myers family and many others had chores to do and others had trains to catch. Most wanted to be home before dark.

The crowd at the 8 p.m. performance, designed primarily for cities but given in country towns nonetheless, was much smaller. The attendance was “still fair,” however, the Herald reported. “It is emphatically a daylight show,” according to The Patriot.

The Patriot editor summed it all up this way: “There are no illusions, but you just see before you an assemblage of representative native groups from every county (a slight exaggeration). It is like taking a trip around the world, to visit the ‘Wild West’ show.”

After the last of the 8 o’clock crowd had departed, Wild West Show show staffers tore down and packed up and by early morning the show train had been loaded, pulled off its siding and pointed east to steam through the night to Ottumwa. Sunday was a day of rest and perhaps crew members slept a little later.

But on Monday, the Wild West Show was ready to wow Ottumwa before moving onto Keokuk for Tuesday shows. Early Wednesday, the Wild West train crossed the Mississippi and headed down to Quincy, Ill., then on Thursday back across the river for performances at Louisiana, Missouri, and as the days passed many more small Missouri towns before settling in at Kansas City for a longer stay.

The Wild West Show's stay in Chariton may have been brief, but those who attended seem to have remembered it for as long as they lived --- my granddad certainly did.

More about Buffalo Bill and his appearance in Ottumwa next time.

1 comment:

Debbie McCoy said...

love this story!