NORTH PLATTE, Neb. -- "It isn't exactly what we were expecting," said a quartet of visitors from Texas as they climbed out of their car in front of the Scout's Rest Ranch Museum, the former home of William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody.
The stately Second Empire-style house is painted white with extensive, Victorian-era trim, and a square cupola on the third floor. It's surrounded by green lawns, a white picket fence, and beside it is a large barn with horse stalls. In the distance, there's a delicate bridge built over a small pond that looks like something you'd find in an English park.
We had much the same reaction. What kind of fancy city dweller's home is this for "the greatest plainsman the West has ever known" as one newspaper hailed Cody, a former Pony Express rider, stagecoach driver, Army scout, and buffalo hunter? At the least, we expected lots of popguns, stuffed buffalo, and other tchotchkes, not the small selection of books and postcards in the foyer.
Perhaps we were thrown off by the flyer we had picked up several miles back for Fort Cody, "the home of Buffalo Bill," billed as Nebraska's largest souvenir and western gift store, complete with a 20,000-piece, hand-carved animated display of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in miniature.
But that's a tourist pit stop at an Interstate 83 exit interchange. This was Cody's home, since 1965 part of the 233-acre Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park, a few miles outside North Platte. Cody owned 4,000 acres in and around North Platte, and Scout's Rest was his stock farm, which bred Cleveland Bay and Clydesdale horses, short horn and Hereford cattle.
It was also here that Cody got the idea for his Wild West Show. The townspeople wanted him to put on a western show to celebrate the Fourth of July. In 1892, he mounted a spectacle called the Old Glory Blowout at the ranch. It was such a success, Cody expanded the idea into the Wild West Show, with dramatic reenactments of cowboy-and-Indian battles, stagecoach camps, the buffalo hunt, and other archetypal, if exaggerated, images of frontier life in the Old West. He held the first show in Nebraska in 1893 and staged it for audiences around the world for 30 years.
Scout's Ranch became the spot where Cody entertained friends and relaxed between tours of the show. He had the lavish two-story, nine-room house built in 1886, spending $3,900 on construction, and nearly as much for the furnishings. The following year, he added a horse barn, which still stands beside the house. In 1909, Cody had the house remodeled, adding another nine rooms, electric lights, a furnace, and indoor plumbing.
Visitors will find much of the original decor still intact. There's the rolltop desk and mantel clock that still adorn his den, for instance, as well as a hat rack made out of buffalo horns, and what looks like an uncomfortable chair made entirely of moose and elk antlers.
On display in the upstairs bedrooms are full-length horsehair and shaggy buffalo coats, and one of the beds has a long-horn steer hide for a spread. Also upstairs are several glass cases with artifacts from Cody's life: swords, rifles, ladies' hats, and fans of the time, and a marriage license he signed in yet another of his roles, that of justice of the peace. One case holds Cody's huge white cowboy hat, and reproductions of the heavily beaded jackets and fringed leather gauntlets he wore in the Wild West Show. Another has the death mask and photos of Iron Tail, the Sioux Indian chief who performed for many years in the show and was one of the models for the buffalo nickel, coined in 1913. There are also old newspaper clippings announcing Cody's death in January 1917, which was marked by a huge funeral in Denver.
Next door, the barn still carries the pungent odor of horses. (The state park kept horses here and offered trail rides until budget cuts ended the program last year.) But the barn is still full of cavalry saddles and 19th-century tack. In one corner is a large covered wagon that was part of a Nebraska wagon train. The grounds also include an icehouse, a springhouse, and a log cabin where Cody once lived when he worked as a scout, which was later moved to the ranch.
Across the road from the house and barn is a large field with a grandstand, which was likely the site of the Old Glory Blowout, where the idea for the Wild West Show was born. The Blowout was also the forerunner of the modern-day rodeo, and this grassy area is still the location of an annual Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association event held each June, called NEBRASKAland Days. The five-day celebration includes rodeo events for men, women, and juniors, and everything from parades and talent shows to chili cook-offs and the Miss Rodeo Nebraska Queen competition. With events such as the High-Noon Shootout, the Whips & Wheels Carriage Driving Show, and the Frontier Review, it's kept a bit of the Wild West Show intact -- something that no doubt would've met the approval of Buffalo Bill.
Kathy Shorr is a freelance writer in Wellfleet.