CODY DAY AT THE OMAHA EXPOSITION
SINCE 1893 the "Wild West" exhibitions have been restricted to the various cities of our own land. Life in "Buffalo Bill’s Tented City," as it is called, is like life in a small village. There are some six hundred persons in the various departments. Many of the men have their families with them; the Indians have their squaws and papooses, and the variety of nationalities, dialects, and costumes makes the miniature city an interesting and entertaining one.
The Indians may be seen eating bundles of meat from their fingers and drinking tankards of iced buttermilk. The Mexicans, a shade more civilized, shovel with their knives great quantities of the same food into the capacious receptacles provided by nature. The Americans, despite what is said of their rapid eating, take time to laugh and crack jokes, and finish their repast with a product only known to the highest civilization—ice-cream.
When the "Wild West" visited Boston, one hot June day the parade passed a children’s hospital on the way to the show-grounds. Many of the little invalids were unable to leave their couches. All who could do so ran to the open windows and gazed eagerly at the passing procession, and the greatest excitement prevailed. These more fortunate little ones described, as best they could, to the little sufferers who could not leave their beds the wonderful things they saw. The Indians were the special admiration of the children. After the procession passed, one wee lad, bedridden by spinal trouble, cried bitterly because he had not seen it. A kind-hearted nurse endeavored to soothe the child, but words proved unavailing. Then a bright idea struck the patient woman; she told him he might write a letter to the great "Buffalo Bill" himself and ask him for an Indian’s picture.
The idea was taken up with delight, and the child spent an eager hour in penning the letter. It was pathetic in its simplicity. The little sufferer told the great exhibitor that he was sick in bed, was unable to see the Indians when they passed the hospital, and that he longed to see a photograph of one.
The important missive was mailed, and even the impatient little invalid knew it was useless to expect an answer that day. The morning had hardly dawned before a child’s bright eyes were open. Every noise was listened to, and he wondered when the postman would bring him a letter. The nurse hardly dared to hope that a busy man like Buffalo Bill would take time to respond to the wish of a sick child.
"Colonel Cody is a very busy man," she said. "We must be patient."
At perhaps the twentieth repetition of this remark the door opened noiselessly. In came a sixfoot Indian, clad in leather trousers and wrapped in a scarlet blanket. He wore a head-dress of tail, waving feathers, and carried his bow in his hand.
The little invalids gasped in wonder; then they shrieked with delight. One by one, silent and noiseless, but smiling, six splendid warriors followed the first. The visitors had evidently been well trained, and had received explicit directions as to their actions.
So unusual a sight in the orderly hospital so startled the nurse that she could not even speak. The warriors drew up in a line and saluted her. The happy children were shouting in such glee that the poor woman’s fright was unnoticed.
The Indians ranged themselves in the narrow space between the cots, laid aside their gay blankets, placed their bows upon the floor, and waving their arms to and fro, executed a quiet war-dance. A sham battle was fought, followed by a song of victory. After this the blankets were again donned, the kindly red men went away, still smiling as benignly as their war paint would allow them to do. A cheer of gratitude and delight followed them down the broad corridors. The happy children talked about Buffalo Bill and the "Wild West" for weeks after this visit.
North Platte had long urged my brother to bring the exhibition there. The citizens wished to see the mammoth tents spread over the ground where the scout once followed the trail on the actual war-path; they desired that their famous fellow-citizen should thus honor his home town. A performance was finally given there on October 12, 1896, the special car bearing Will and his party arriving the preceding day, Sunday. The writer of these chronicles joined the party in Omaha, and we left that city after the Saturday night performance.
The Union Pacific Railroad had offered my brother every inducement to make this trip; among other things, the officials promised to make special time in running from Omaha to North Platte.
When we awoke Sunday morning, we found that in some way the train had been delayed, that instead of making special time we were several hours late. Will telegraphed this fact to the officials. At the next station double-headers were put on, and the gain became at once perceptible. At Grand Island a congratulatory telegram was sent, noting the gain in time. At the next station we passed the Lightning Express, the "flyer," to which usually everything gives way, and the good faith of the company was evidenced by the fact that this train was sidetracked to make way for Buffalo Bill’s "Wild West" train. Another message was sent over the wires to the officials; it read as follows:
"Have just noticed that Lightning Express is side-tracked to make way for Wild West. I herewith promote you to top seat in heaven."
The trip was a continued ovation. Every station was thronged, and Will was obliged to step out on the platform and make a bow to the assembled crowds, his appearance being invariably greeted with a round of cheers. When we reached the station at North Platte, we found that the entire population had turned out to receive their fellow-townsman. The "Cody Guards," a band to which Will presented beautiful uniforms of white broadcloth trimmed with gold braid, struck up the strains of "See, the Conquering Hero Comes." The major attempted to do the welcoming honors of the city, but it was impossible for him to make himself heard. Cheer followed cheer from the enthusiastic crowd.
We had expected to reach the place some hours earlier, but, our late arrival encroached upon the hour of church service. The ministers discovered that it was impossible to hold their congregations; so they were dismissed, and the pastors accompanied them to the station, one reverend gentleman humorously remarking:
"We shall be obliged to take for our text this morning ‘Buffalo Bill and his Wild West,’ and will now proceed to the station for the discourse."
Will’s tally-ho coach, drawn by six horses, was in waiting for the incoming party. The members of his family seated themselves in that conveyance, and we passed through the town, preceded and followed by a band. As we arrived at the home residence, both bands united in a welcoming strain of martial music.
My oldest sister, Julia, whose husband is manager of "Scout’s Rest Ranch," when informed that the "Wild West" was to visit North Platte, conceived the idea of making this visit the occasion of a family reunion. We had never met in an unbroken circle since the days of our first separation, but as a result of her efforts we sat thus that evening in my brother’s home. The next day our mother-sister, as she had always been regarded, entertained us at "Scout’s Rest Ranch."
The "Wild West" exhibition had visited Duluth for the first time that same year. This city has a population of 65,000. North Platte numbers 3,500. When he wrote to me of his intention to take the exhibition to Duluth, Will offered to make a wager that his own little town would furnish a bigger crowd than would the city of my residence. I could not accept any such inferred slur upon the Zenith City, so accepted the wager, a silk hat against a fur cloak.
October 12th, the date of the North Platte performance, dawned bright and cloudless. "To-day decides our wager," said Will. "I expect there will be two or three dozen people out on this prairie. Duluth turned out a good many thousands, so I suppose you think your wager as good as won."
The manager of the tents evidently thought the outlook a forlorn one. I shared his opinion, and was, in fancy, already the possessor of a fine fur cloak.
"Colonel, shall we stretch the full canvas?" asked the tent man.
"Every inch of it," was the prompt response. "We want to show North Platte the capacity of the ‘Wild West,’ at any rate."
As we started for the grounds Will was evidently uncertain over the outcome, in spite of his previous boast of the reception North Platte would give him. "We’ll have a big tent and plenty of room to spare in it," he observed.
But as we drove to the grounds we soon began to see indications of a coming crowd. The people were pouring in from all directions; the very atmosphere seemed populated; as the dust was nearly a foot deep on the roads, the moving populace made the air almost too thick for breathing. It was during the time of the county fair, and managers of the Union Pacific road announced that excursion trains would be run from every town and hamlet, the officials and their families coming up from Omaha on a special car. Where the crowds came from it was impossible to say. It looked as if a feat of magic had been performed, and that the stones were turned into men, or, perchance, that, as in olden tales, they came up out of the earth.
Accustomed though he is to the success of the show, Will was dumfounded by this attendance. As the crowds poured in I became alarmed about my wager. I visited the ticket-seller and asked how the matter stood.
"It’s pretty close," he answered. "Duluth seems to be dwindling away before the mightiness of the Great American Desert."
This section of the country, which was a wilderness only a few years ago, assembled over ten thousand people to attend a performance of the "Wild West."
Omaha, where the opening performance of this exhibition was given, honored Will last year by setting apart one day as "Cody Day." August 31st was devoted to his reception, and a large and enthusiastic crowd gathered to do the Nebraska pioneer honor. The parade reached the fair-grounds at eleven o’clock, where it was fittingly received by one hundred and fifty mounted Indians from the encampment. A large square space had been reserved for the reception of the party in front of the Sherman gate. As it filed through, great applause was sent up by the waiting multitude, and the noise became deafening when my brother made his appearance on a magnificent chestnut horse, the gift of General Miles. He was accompanied by a large party of officials and Nebraska pioneers, who dismounted to seat themselves on the grand-stand. Prominent among these were the governor of the state, Senator Thurston, and Will’s old friend and first employer, Mr. Alexander Majors. As Will ascended the platform he was met by General Manager Clarkson, who welcomed him in the name of the president of the exposition, whose official duties precluded his presence. Governor Holcomb was then introduced, and his speech was a brief review of the evolution of Nebraska from a wilderness of a generation ago to the great state which produced this marvelous exposition. Manager Clarkson remarked, as he introduced Mr. Majors: "Here is the father of them all, Alexander Majors, a man connected with the very earliest history of Nebraska, and the business father of Colonel Cody."
This old pioneer was accorded a reception only a shade less enthusiastic than that which greeted the hero of the day. He said:
"Gentlemen, and My Boy, Colonel Cody: [Laughter.] Can I say a few words of welcome? Friend Creighton and I came down here together to-day, and he thought I was not equal to the occasion. Gentlemen, I do not know whether I am equal to the occasion at this time, but I am going to do the best for you that I can. Give me your hand, Colonel. Gentlemen, forty-three years ago this day, this fine-looking physical specimen of manhood was brought to me by his mother—a little boy nine years old—and little did I think at that time that the boy that was standing before me, asking for employment of some kind by which I could afford to pay his mother a little money for his services, was going to be a boy of such destiny as he has turned out to be. In this country we have great men, we have great men in Washington, we have men who are famous as politicians in this country; we have great statesmen, we have had Jackson and Grant, and we had Lincoln; we have men great in agriculture and in stock-growing, and in the manufacturing business men who have made great names for themselves, who have stood high in the nation. Next, and even greater, we have a Cody. He, gentlemen, stands before you now, known the wide world over as the last of the great scouts. When the boy Cody came to me, standing straight as an arrow, and looked me in the face, I said to my partner, Mr. Russell, who was standing by my side, ‘We will take this little boy, and we will pay him a man’s wages, because he can ride a pony just as well as a man can.’ He was lighter and could do service of that kind when he was nine years old. I remember when we paid him twenty-five dollars for the first month’s work. He was paid in half-dollars, and he got fifty of them. He tied them up in his little handkerchief, and when he got home he untied the handkerchief and spread the money all over the table."
Colonel Cody—"I have been spreading it ever since."
A few remarks followed indicative of Mr. Major’s appreciation of the exhibition, and he closed with the remark, "Bless your precious heart, Colonel Cody!" and sat down, amid great applause.
Senator Thurston’s remarks were equally happy. He said:
"Colonel Cody, this is your day. This is your exposition. This is your city. And we all rejoice that Nebraska is your state. You have carried the fame of our country and of our state all over the civilized world; you have been received and honored by princes, by emperors, and by kings; the titled women in the courts of the nations of the world have been captivated by your charm of manner and your splendid manhood. You are known wherever you go, abroad or in the United States, as Colonel Cody, the best representative of the great and progressive West. You stand here to-day in the midst of a wonderful assembly. Here are representatives of the heroic and daring characters of most of the nations of the world. You are entitled to the honor paid you to-day, and especially entitled to it here. This people know you as a man who has carried this demonstration of yours to foreign lands, and exhibited it at home. You have not been a showman in the common sense of the word. You have been a great national and international educator of men. You have furnished a demonstration of the possibilities of our country that has advanced us in the opinion of all the world. But we who have been with you a third, or more than a third, of a century, we remember you more dearly and tenderly than others do. We remember that when this whole Western land was a wilderness, when these representatives of the aborigines were attempting to hold their own against the onward tide of civilization, the settler and the hardy pioneer, the women and the children, felt safe whenever Cody rode along the frontier; he was their protector and defender.
Will was deeply touched by these strong expressions from his friends. As he moved to the front of the platform to respond, his appearance was the signal for a prolonged burst of cheers. He said:
"You cannot expect me to make adequate response for the honor which you have bestowed upon me to-day. You have overwhelmed my speaking faculties. I cannot corral enough ideas to attempt a coherent reply in response to the honor which you have accorded me. How little I dreamed in the long ago that the lonely path of the scout and the pony-express rider would lead me to the place you have assigned me to-day. Here, near the banks of the mighty Missouri, which flows unvexed to the sea, my thoughts revert to the early days of my manhood. I looked eastward across this rushing tide to the Atlantic, and dreamed that in that long-settled region all men were rich and all women happy. My friends, that day has come and gone. I stand among you a witness that nowhere in the broad universe are men richer in manly integrity, and women happier in their domestic kingdom, than here in our own Nebraska.
At a given signal the "Wild West" gave three ringing cheers for Nebraska and the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. The cowboy band followed with the "Red, White, and Blue," and an exposition band responded with the "Star-Spangled Banner." The company fell into line for a parade around the grounds, Colonel Cody following on his chestnut horse, Duke. After him came the officials and invited guests in carriages; then came the Cossacks, Cubans, the German cavalry, the United States cavalry, the Mexicans, and representatives of twenty-five countries.
As the parade neared its end, my brother turned to his friends and suggested that as they had been detained long past the dinner-hour in doing him honor, he would like to compensate them by giving an informal spread. This invitation was promptly accepted, and the company adjourned to a café, where a tempting luncheon was spread before them. Never before had such a party of pioneers met around a banquet-table, and many were the reminiscences of early days brought out. Mr. Majors, the the originator of the Pony Express line, was there. The two Creighton brothers, who put through the first telegraph line, and took the occupation of the express riders from them, had seats of honor. A. D. Jones was introduced as the man who carried the first postoffice of Omaha around in his hat, and who still wore the hat. Numbers of other pioneers were there, and each contributed his share of racy anecdotes and pleasant reminiscences.