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When the Wild West Comes to Town

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

124 years ago this week, on October 26, 1895, Buffalo Bill's Wild West made its first stop in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Along with Cody came two trains totaling fifty or more cars. On these trains were as many as 500 cast and staff members, including twenty-five cowboys, a dozen cowgirls, and one hundred Indian men, women, and children. They all were fed three hot meals a day, cooked on twenty-foot-long ranges. The show generated its own electricity and staffed its own fire department. Performers lived in wall tents during long stands or slept in railroad sleeping cars when the show moved daily. Business on the back lot was carried on in what one reporter called “a Babel of languages.” Expenses were as high as $4,000 per day.

William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, 1895.

Besides performers and staff, the trains transported hundreds of show and draft horses and as many as thirty buffalo. The show carried grandstand seating for twenty thousand spectators along with the acres of canvas necessary to cover them, ensuring that the "Show of Shows" would go on "Rain or Shine." While the audience was covered, the arena itself remained open to the elements. Advance staff traveled ahead of the show to procure licenses and arrange for the ten to fifteen acres required for the show lot, preferably close to the railroad; to buy the tons of flour, meat, coffee, and other necessities; and to publicize and advertise.

An 1895 poster for Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. Posters like this were a common sight in towns for weeks before Buffalo Bill arrived.

Bill Cody's relationship with Chattanooga extended past just his show stops. For several years, Cody's son-in-law, Clarence Stott, was stationed at Fort Oglethorpe with Troop E of the Twelfth Cavalry. Buffalo Bill made yearly stops in Chattanooga and Fort Oglethorpe to visit his daughter Irma, who lived on the base with her husband. He spent Christmas 1905 with his daughter in Fort Oglethorpe, enjoying a lavish Christmas feast at which he was the guest of honor. In addition to Roast Turkey with Oyster Dressing, Pork Loin, Mashed Potatoes, and String Beans, one unusual dish served at the Fort that day was "Roast Possum."

1905, the year of this particular Christmas visit, was the same year that Buffalo Bill and his wife Louisa went through a very public divorce proceeding that ended with the Judge refusing to grant Cody a divorce. Though the two eventually mended their marriage, Cody relished the chance to visit his daughter during the holiday.

In some years, Buffalo Bill's Wild West covered over 11,000 miles in 200 days, giving as many as 341 performances in 132 different cities and towns across the United States.

An ad for Buffalo Bill's Wild West in the Chattanooga Daily Times of October 14, 1895

Cody visited Chattanooga with his shows eight times, though during the last visit on June 7, 1913, he was ill at a cousin's house in Knoxville and was unable to attend, leading to poor ticket sales. The next month in Denver, the show was seized by a businessman named Harry Tammen after Cody fell behind repaying a loan. Though Cody was forced by the conditions of the loan to tour with Tammen's Sells Floto Circus, Buffalo Bill never owned or operated his own show again.

An ad for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Combined with Pawnee Bill's Great Far East from the May 28, 1913 Chattanooga News

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