Q: During a recent vacation, I visited a marvelous museum in Cody, Wyo. — the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Among the many exhibits was a map of the United States with pins marking every city where Buffalo Bill Cody performed shows. I didn’t find it unusual to see that he had played St. Louis, but I was surprised to find pins in both Alton and Belleville. Naturally, I’m very curious to learn anything I can about his performance in Belleville. What can you tell me?
Gary Lawrence, of Belleville
A: Who says the twain shall never meet? On Monday, Sept. 30, 1901, a piece of the old West lit up the metro-east when Buffalo Bill Cody put on a parade and not one, but two rompin’-stompin’ spectacles that the hundreds of Belleville residents who attended likely did not soon forget. According to the museum, he returned for two encores — Oct. 9, 1911, in Belleville and Sept. 25, 1914, in Alton.
Stories in both the Belleville News-Democrat and Daily Advocate made it sound like the 1901 show was the most astounding event to hit our fair city since its founding in 1814. Cody’s two trains rolled into Belleville early Sunday morning, carrying 600 men with 500 horses. The entourage quickly made its way down to the old National Ballpark near what is now South Second Street and Cleveland Avenue. While Cody, the man perhaps most responsible for the Hollywood image of the “wild West,” rested in his private train car, hundreds of curious residents converged on the park to get a glimpse of this remarkable corps of performers who would bring the old West to life for area tenderfeet.
“The cowboys are well to the fore in all sorts of feats of horsemanship,” the Advocate reported. “These men ride bareback like the Indians, and do all sorts of tricks, many of which would raise the carefully plastered hair on a champion circus rider’s head. Neither are they in tights and slippers, but in dress uniform and cavalry boots or shoes. Thus accoutred they mount and dismount while in rapid gallop, shift from one horses’s back to the other, face forwards and backwards, singly and by twos.”
But that was just the start.
“There are (Boers) fresh from the bloody fields of South Africa, who carry the very guns they fired at the imperial troops of Queen Victoria and Edward VII,” the News-Democrat reported. “Close by are the lithe and handsome sons of the Arabian desert. ... In the same line of march are the slender Cossacks riding under the banner of Nicholas II.”
There were Mexicans in sombreros, Germans riding under their eagle (this was long before World War I, remember), representatives of the Canadian Mounted Rifles and troopers from the 6th U.S. Cavalry. You can only imagine the parade that marched through Belleville on Monday morning as crowds elbowed each other for a closer look.
“(Their) expectancy was rewarded by a cavalcade totally unlike any other which has ever traversed the streets of Belleville,” the News-Democrat gushed. “The glitter and tinsel of the circus parade was missing, but in their stead an array of sturdy soldiers and manhood, historically and ethnologically valuable. Every man in line, whether Boer, English, German, Mexican, Indian, etc., was the genuine article. Col. Cody has no room for sham or subterfuge.”
Afterward, the afternoon and evening performances showed them all off at their rootin-tootin’ best as they re-created a number of historic battles.
“The grand battle scene this season shows the allied forces in the battle of Tien Tsin (during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900), enroute to the relief of Peking,” the Advocate noted. “The show is so novel that there is nothing else under the sun like it; it is so genuine that its advertising may be believed implicitly.”
Of course, like today’s pro athletes, not all of the officers were always gentlemen. Under the headline “Cowboy Got Gay,” the Oct. 1 News-Democrat told the sad story of John M. France, “one of the rough and tumble rough riders” in the show. Apparently after imbibing too many of “Bellevile’s famous brews” at the Belleville House Hotel, he became “possessed of the idea that the world was his’n.”
“The extra load of liquid refreshments carried by Mr. Cowboy made him perspire freely, and as he walked into the dining apartment of the hotel, he began removing his coat. The clerk requested Mr. Cowboy to please and kindly keep on his coat if he intended to take supper and to please remember that there were ladies present. The fellow became angry and began using obscene and offensive language towards the clerk, at the same time saying that if he felt so disposed he would remove his shoes, too.”
After being hustled off to the Belleville hoosegow, French, who wanted his paychecks to continue, admitted the error of his ways, paid a $3 fine and scurried off to that evening’s performance.
As it turns out, Belleville residents were most fortunate to see the show when they did. Less than a month later near Lexington, N.C., a freight train collided with one of the show’s trains, killing 110 horses and leaving sharpshooter Annie Oakley partially paralyzed temporarily. She would undergo five spinal surgeries and many months of rehabilitation, and some say the show itself never again regained its original splendor.
Still, Cody soldiered on, bringing his performers back to the metro-east twice a decade later. By the time he returned to Belleville in 1911, his Wild West show had teamed up with Pawnee Bill (Lillie’s) Far East entourage for a double-barreled blast of fun Oct. 9 at the Ninth Street Show Grounds. Tickets were 25 cents to a dollar. But even though advertisements warned that this would be Cody’s “absolute last” appearance here, the shows hardly rated a mention in the local papers. Then, three years after playing Alton, Cody died of kidney failure at age 70.
How did Buffalo Bill get his nickname?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Here’s a scary thought: What if Frau Blucher from “Young Frankenstein” played Timmy’s mom on “Lassie”? I can hear those horses whinnying now. Well, not many people probably remember, but it actually did happen. During the show’s fourth season in 1957-58 when Jon Provost replaced Tommy Rettig, the producers also hired 31-year-old actress Cloris Leachman as Timmy Martin’s adoptive mother. But Leachman soon found she despised the role, reportedly feuded with co-workers on the set and earned no love from viewers. They were happy when the show quickly dropped her for June Lockhart. However, you still can find a 60-year-old cast picture on Leachman’s Wikipedia page.