A Weekend With The Codys
From June 16th to 19th, 2022, the Cody Family Association held its biennial reunion in LeClair, Iowa, the birthplace of the Cody family's favorite son, William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. The family invited me to speak to them about Texas Jack Omohundro and the cultural impact of his friendship with Bill Cody on Saturday the 18th and then insisted that I join them for lunch, an afternoon of visiting the locations in the area where Buffalo Bill was born and lived with his family, and then for a dinner meeting full of friendly conversation and great food.
I had just a little time to explore on my own before I had to deliver my talk, so I headed for two buildings in the area that hosted performances of the Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack Combination in the mid-1870s. The first was Dart's Hall in Rock Island, Illinois. When The Scouts played there in 1876 on their final tour together, it was a hotel on the ground floor with a performance theater on the second story. Looking inside, I couldn't tell what the building is today, but I was gratified that it was still standing, unlike so many theaters of the day. The second was the Burtis Opera House in Davenport, where Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill performed "Life on the Border" on January 17, 1876, with Jack's lovely wife the Peerless Mlle Morlacchi. This building is now a Community Resources & Referral Center for the US Department of Veterans Affairs. I walked in to discover that the inside of the building has been completely refurbished and modernized. I don't know if I would have known it was a theater at all if pictures from the period didn't confirm. The building was lit on fire by an arsonist on April 26, 1921, and the top two floors were removed during renovations.
LeClaire, just northeast of Davenport, is home to the Buffalo Bill Museum, on the Mississippi River just down from the lot that once held the Cody family home. In the early 1930s, before the community decided it should do something to honor its most famous native son, the home was purchased by the railroad and moved to Cody, Wyoming, to become a part of the first Buffalo Bill Museum in that city, earning the honor of becoming the oldest building in Wyoming. The museum has displays dedicated to Buffalo Bill, to regional history, and to the steam tug Lone Star Stern Wheeler, the only surviving example of a wooden-hulled boat built in the traditional Western Rivers fashion. I was excited to find that the museum does more than merely mention Texas Jack, they have a corner display case showcasing Buffalo Bill's first and most important partner.
The display included photos of Jack with Cody and their partner for a season of The Scouts of the Plains, Wild Bill Hickok. They have a lithographic print of James Omohundro's rendering of Texas Jack's iconic Smith & Wesson 3rd Model American, copies of the Texas Jack Association Scout, a display copy of Herschel Logan's Buckskin & Satin, and descriptions of Jack's life and his relationship with Buffalo Bill. The museum also displays a real treasure, a .44 caliber Starr conversion revolver inscribed to "J.B. Omohundro Texas Jack" in 1873. This is an exceedingly rare instance of a verified Texas Jack gun being on public display, as most of Jack's known weapons remain in private collections.
The Cody Family filled up the museum to hear me talk about Texas Jack, and proved to be a wonderful and receptive audience. I chatted with a few of the family members before the talk began, and was put at ease by their friendliness and warmth. They listened to my talk with interest and asked great questions when I was done.
It is intimidating at the best of times to talk in front of people, and talking in front of the family, including direct descendants, of Buffalo Bill Cody would have been a chilling prospect if this group hadn't gone out of its way to greet me and then thank me for coming up to talk with them.
After my talk we went and had burgers together before heading out to view some of the spots in LeClaire that would have meant a lot to a young W.F.Cody and his family.
From Cody's boyhood home nearest LeClaire (the site of the house that was later moved to Wyoming), we drove deep into the fertile fields to the spot where Buffalo Bill was born on February 26, 1846.
Take away the memorials and the telephone lines, and you can imagine the future that Bill's parents Isaac and Mary envisioned for their family when they purchased this property in 1841. After this visit, we headed towards the Cody Homestead, where young Bill lived after his father was hired to build this home and work this land in the fertile Wapsipinicon River valley. Walking through the rooms and halls of the house and the grounds around it, I couldn't help but picture a young Buffalo Bill and his siblings running around, their footsteps echoing off the walnut floorboards and plaster walls, doors banging shut behind them as they headed out to climb the pecan trees that circle the homestead. The Cody family gathered for a group picture on the front porch, and I pondered the last time this property hosted so many members of the famous family that once called this place home.
On the way back to LeClaire proper, we paid our respects at the grave of Buffalo Bill's brother Samuel, who was killed after a fall from his horse at only twelve years of age in 1853 when his younger brother was just six. Young Bill had idolized his older brother and the first of many losses in his young life profoundly impacted the man who would become renowned for his own control of his steed and his displays of skill from a horse's back.
By the time the day's travels were complete, it was time for dinner and the family again insisted that I join them for a family barbecue, and this southern boy couldn't turn down a chance to sit at the long Cody table for a bit of beef brisket and a helping of pulled pork. At each stop, I had gotten a chance to talk with a different family member, to learn how their relationship with the great scout and showman had impacted their lives, to answer their questions about Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, and to grow in my estimation of this wonderful family. Many of them took time to ask after their friends in the Texas Jack Association, to inquire if this member was healthy or that one was still active in submitting articles to the Scout. Most expressed their desire to hold a future event with both the Cody Family Association and the Texas Jack Association sharing meals, memories, and memorizing the two best friends that shaped American history together 150 years ago when they transitioned from frontier celebrities to living legends. After my own time spent in fellowship with the Codys, I can't help but agree.