Before I visited Wyoming I thought I knew all about the Wild West: gun-toting cowboys, cattle ranching and endless fighting. An image that seemed to be confirmed as I drove to Cody, home of the legendary Buffalo Bill, passing through towns that could have passed as movie sets. Cody itself may be primarily a place where tourists stop on their way to Yellowstone National Park, but for me it was the place where the Wild West came alive.
Buffalo Bill Cody and the Wild West Show
The town of Cody was founded in 1895 by William Frederick Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill”. Cody himself was an entrepreneur whose career encompassed hunting, prospecting for gold and several military campaigns. He came to symbolise the pioneering spirit of the times.
In 1883 he created a show called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” that toured the United States and Europe. This included displays of shooting and horsemanship, and re-enacted highly-coloured accounts of historical episodes with names like “Train Robbery” and “Custer’s Last Stand”. The shows were enormously popular and helped to build up an image of life in the Wild West in the minds of people who had never been there.
Cody: the Town and its Museums
Cody is clearly proud of its western heritage. Cowboy culture is everywhere, and the town styles itself the “Rodeo capital of the world”, with rodeo shows taking place throughout the summer. There are lots of museums here, more than you could see in a day. Most of them are places where you can learn more about the town and western history.
The largest museum is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. I didn’t have time to explore this one, but it looks like a massive celebration of all things western. It includes a number of separate collections, including the Buffalo Bill Museum, Cody Firearms Museum and Plains Indian Museum. It also hosts a major powwow each year in June.
Cody Heritage Museum
The Cody Heritage Museum is a small museum in a house that once belonged to the influential DeMaris family. It tells the story of Cody from its beginnings, from agriculture and ranching, to mineral exploration and the coming of the railroad, to the present day tourist industry. It also includes profiles of prominent local families.
Old Trail Town
Old Trail Town is on the Yellowstone Highway, about three miles from the centre of Cody. This is an outdoor museum, with 25 historic buildings arranged to resemble a pioneering town.
The museum includes a shop and saloon, several homesteads and artisans’ houses. Some of the buildings have historical significance, having been associated with legends of the past, such as Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang. And, of course, there are lots of wagons.
Historic Cody Mural and Museum
For a different perspective, visit the Cody Mural and Museum. This is housed in the Church of Latter-Day Saints, built by Mormon settlers in the mid-20th century. The detailed and impressive mural covers the upper walls and ceiling of one room, and shows the history of the LDS church, from its origins and early persecution, to the founding of Salt Lake City.
The small museum inside the church is devoted to the story of the Mormons in Wyoming. In the late 19th century a group of church members were sent by the elders in Salt Lake City to settle the area and engage in missionary activity. Later they moved into Cody and established a church and community there. (Curiously, there was no mention of the Mormon settlers in the Heritage Museum.)
Keeping the Myth Alive
Later I stood in the wide main street (presumably a relic of cattle-herding days) and gazed at the tall mountains in the distance. There were pioneer-style houses, western-style diners and references to Buffalo Bill everywhere. I started to wonder whether the whole thing was a pastiche, an invented reality for the benefit of tourists.
But in the evening I sat in one of those diners, surrounded by people eating oversized steaks. There was western memorabilia on the walls and people were dancing to a country and western band. These were not tourists, but local people enjoying an evening out. Clearly the culture of the Wild West is alive and well.