Cody, Wyoming, was established in 1895 and epitomizes Wild West Wyoming. It bears Buffalo Bill Cody’s name, but what was his true involvement in the town’s origins? What was the area like when Cody was established, what was the significance of its location, what were some of the local industries, who were some colorfully notable characters? And how’d the Shoshone River derive its name? Taking a brief break from duck blind, Ramsey Russell adds cultural context to his Wyoming duck hunt by meeting with Eric Rossborough, librarian at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum in Cody, Wyoming. Hang on boys and girls, this one bucks around at times like a bareback bronc–and they only scratched the surface of this fascinating topic!
Coming to You from the Big Horn Basin Wild West!
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere in Wyoming to Shoshone River. The big horn basin Wild West, all these years later from today’s topic, Wyoming still conjures the Wild West. And while hunting out there on the Shoshone River, I became enamored. We were driving by one morning and there’s a hotel and I recognized it out of history book. That’s where Buffalo Bill started that hotel, and we got to go in there and we walked in, and it looks just like it did back in the day when one of the queens of England gave Buffalo Bill a big bar and it’s still sitting there. And it was just amazing to be walking through Wild West history with a shotgun and waders. Today’s guest is Eric Rossborough, he’s the librarian, it’s the McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West Museum in Cody, Wyoming. Eric how are you today?
Eric Rossborough: I’m very good. Thanks for having me Ramsey.
Ramsey Russell: Shoot, man, I’m glad to have you on. Maybe it’s just the kid in me, I’m absolutely enamored with the Wild West. And all the John Wayne movies and everything else I’ve ever seen, those boys didn’t go out duck hunting like I did. They were shooting other things and some of the most colorful characters existed right there around Cody, Wyoming. And that’s why I’m glad to have you on today, to kind of help put my duck hunting in Wyoming, up near Cody, in kind of a historical perspective. I think all the listeners got a little boy that loves them John Wayne movies and cowboys and Indians stuff.
Eric Rossborough: Well, I’ll tell you what, that’s my story. As a little kid, I was a Wild West buff. How small children frequently turn themselves into experts on a certain subject, my subject that I was an expert on was the Wild West. When I was a kid, I had one stated goal up until I was about eight or nine, which was I was going to be a cowboy when I grew u,p and I absolutely meant it, I was not kidding. There was one day I came home from school and they had Career Day at the elementary school, and my mother is sitting there and she’s like, well what happened at school today? I said they had Career Day, they had a chemist, and a secretary, and a doctor, and she said, “Oh good, what do you want to be when you grow up now?” And I said, “Well yeah, like we’ve already covered this.” I said, “I’m going to be a cowboy.” Her face just fell. Yeah, I guess he’s 10 and he still hasn’t given up on that. But anyway, decades later, I happened to get this job here. And so it’s really pretty wild that I’m working and I spend all of my work time dealing with books about the Old West and talking to people about the Old West.
The Wild West Museum in Cody, Wyoming
The pass, actually, you get when you buy a ticket, is multi-day with five museums and they deal with five separate subjects: Buffalo Bill, Western Art, Firearms, Natural History, and Plains Indians.
Ramsey Russell: That’s great. I did not have time to go and walk through the center of the west museum while there. I did walk in. I did catch a glance at it real quickly. Now, this is not just some little hole in the wall museum. This thing is ginormous. Talk a little bit about the museum itself, so that people understand when you go to Cody, Wyoming, you need to allow several days to walk through this museum.
Eric Rossborough: The pass, actually, you get when you buy a ticket, is multi-day with five museums and they deal with five separate subjects: Buffalo Bill, Western Art, Firearms, Natural History, and Plains Indians. So the museum has its genesis, the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association, that’s the name on like your paycheck stub. It was started in 1917 which was after Buffalo Bill died and Buffalo Bill’s niece, I believe, she was a niece named Mary Jester Allen, admired him very much. And at that point she started the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association in 1927. Ten years later the ground was broken and it was – at that time Cody was smaller – the museum was the Chamber of Commerce building which is a log cabin on Sheridan Ave across from the main museum now. And one interesting thing is that at the groundbreaking they had baseball stars Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb standing there in suits.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
Eric Rossborough: Why were they there? They had come out here on a hunting trip. And so if someone found out there was a couple of relative celebrities in the area and so they were roped into attending the groundbreaking. But that was the start of the museum, and it started out as a small community museum, and gradually grew over decades, and had a couple of substantial jumps in that time.
Ramsey Russell: Cody, Wyoming and that part of America really was the Wild West. I know that from my memories of hunting along to Shawnee River driving around that area that if I cross just over one of those mountain ranges, I descend into Yellowstone Park, which is still an American icon wilderness. But one thing about it, Eric, I did not realize, I really don’t know a lot about Buffalo Bill Cody, but when I think of Buffalo Bill, I just didn’t think of him as being a big buffalo hunter in Sagebrush, Wyoming.
Who Was Buffalo Bill?
He was more than one thing, he was sort of multifaceted and he really took the showbiz really young.
Eric Rossborough: Yeah, he was. So the thing about Buffalo Bill is, Buffalo Bill was an actual frontiersmen. And one thing that’s really puzzled me about him is that we have all these biographies that Kit Carson, and Daniel Boone, and all these guys, and basically the ones that became famous, you can generally trace their fame to a certain reason. The reason is usually someone wrote a book about them. Daniel Boone became famous because some land speculator wrote a book about him encouraging people to move to Kentucky. That was the real reason he wrote the book. Kit Carson became famous because John Fremont hired him as a guide and wrote about him as a book. There’s a story that Fremont was on a steamboat going up the Missouri. I think it was the Missouri, and someone said, look, I need a guide, who should I hire? And someone pointed to this small slight short man and said you want him. And Fremont thought, no, that’s just ridiculous and not that guy, I needed a big strapping side of beef. So then he asked someone else who should I hire, and they pointed to the same guy, and they said you want him. And that’s how Kit Carson got the job. But most of these frontiersmen were not out here in the outer precincts because they wanted public attention. They were largely indifferent to their fame. A lot of them didn’t prove adaptable to changing times and withdrew into the woods or whatever. Buffalo Bill was a frontiersman and we know this because there’s accounts of his exemplary work as a scout by cavalry generals. But he adapted. He was more than one thing, he was sort of multifaceted and he really took the showbiz really young. So what he would do in his twenties is the beginning of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. That was Buffalo Bill going to New York in the winter, and basically sitting on a stage, and this is before TV people would pay money to see these guys. And one of the first shows he did was with Wild Bill Hickok, and I think they hired a bunch of show Crow or Cheyenne, so they brought him to New York state and it just didn’t work out that well. The Crow did not like the Indians out East, and Wild Bill Hickok did not like being a performer. But Buffalo Bill stuck with it and he gradually phased out his frontier work by the time he was in his mid to late twenties. He was going out here in the summer and then in the winter he’d go to New York and do these stage shows, these very crude stage shows, and then it gradually morphed from that into a huge show. And his idea was – now the show was called Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, not the Wild West show. And the reason was that is, his idea was he was going to educate people about what life was like out in the West, albeit in a romantic fashion.
Ramsey Russell: Well let’s talk a little bit about Buffalo Bill before the show. Who was Buffalo Bill? Where was he born and how did he get from there to Cody, Wyoming?
Eric Rossborough: Buffalo Bill was born in Iowa. He had no brothers. He had a bunch of sisters and when he was about 10 or so, his dad was stabbed – his dad was killed at a rally. His dad was anti-slavery and pretty noisy about it. And this was a time where there was a lot of political combat about whether Kansas, where they had moved, would be a slave state or a free state. They called it bleeding Kansas. One of the casualties of this was Buffalo Bill’s dad, who at that time was Bill Cody. Buffalo Bill was sort of a stage name. His friends and family called him Will. And so at the age of 10 or 11, he went to work for Russell majors and Waddell as a cavity boy. He herded the cattle on the Santa Fe trail. I think it was the Santa Fe trail. Anyway, so he was doing this stuff from about 10 or 11 and so there’s a story after the first summer, he came back to the house after being out with the wagon train all summer and he came home and his mothers and sisters came out of the house and took one look at him and they were like, get your clothes off. He was covered with lice. They shaved his head and they stuck him in a tub in the yard because he was too foul to let in the house. So this guy’s like 12 years old and he’s out on the prairie and from that he went on to do different things. He was a scout, he was a buffalo hunter for a short period of time.
Ramsey Russell: When and where was he a buffalo hunter?
Eric Rossborough: I believe he was in Kansas. He spent a lot of time in Kansas. At that time, Kansas was like the edge of the frontier. Kansas was the far West. This is in the 1860s, so the town of Cody was not founded until 1895, so there’s a huge, we’re not bumping up against each other in time. So he hunted buffalo for the railroads and was quite good at it. There was a lot of people that did it and he felt like what he had done was kind of wrong that just to slaughter all these buffalo.
Ramsey Russell: Wait a minute, before you get jumped that far ahead. What made him a good buffalo hunter? Do you do you have any idea when it would?
Eric Rossborough: No, what I can tell you is the accounts of him as a scout, as an Army scout are all like that this guy is really good. So this is before he’s celebrity. So we have these arms reports from these generals about this and that and they say that this guy is really good and he was known to the people in the West but he really transitioned into showbiz really young. He was really forward thinking in terms of what made him a good buffalo hunter. I can’t answer that question. There was a lot of buffalo hunters in those days and the way you did it, I don’t know how Cody did it, but in the way you did it was, you had one of those heavy sharps rolling block rifles, you just stock up to the buffalo and just start shooting them as opposed to this thing where you see the paintings where the-
Ramsey Russell: From a long distance where it would not scare him probably.
Eric Rossborough: There’s a story about – if you read about the Battle of Adobe Walls which is in the Texas panhandle, I don’t know if you’re planning on going there. But a buffalo hunter named Billy Dixon at the Battle of Adobe Wall shot a Comanche at like 1000 yards, and that wasn’t back in the days of iron sights, and that was a famous feat. So in other words, he had to be a good shot, and Buffalo Bill was again, he was out here and doing these things, but he really transitioned into showbiz and he really had other ideas. He wasn’t the guy who stayed in his lane, and that was one of the reasons he got wrapped up in the founding of the town of Cody.
Ramsey Russell: I read the story one time in another book. Gosh, I wish I remember the summary – it was about Comanche Indians, down in Texas and I read that story about –
Eric Rossborough: Oh, it’s Empire of the Summer Moon.
Ramsey Russell: Empire of the Summer Moon, one of the best books I’ve ever read. And the guy he shot, they were all huddled in into a building because the Comanches were kind of on the warpath and the guy he shot had presented himself as some kind of magical spirit, a shaman of sorts, impervious to bullets, when that bullet ripped him off that horse at 1000 yards.
Eric Rossborough: A similar story to the ghost dance religion that happened at the end of the 1800s where this guy went and said if you do this and that, you won’t get shot. This didn’t happen. That was down in Texas. But yeah, that’s a neat story, I don’t remember the name of that guy, but I know that story. That’s a terrific book. Everyone should read about Quanah Parker, Empire of the Summer Moon.
Ramsey Russell: Wonderful book. The whole thing about that strikes me about the American West – well, I’d like to have a guy on here – is that, basically, everything we know or think about the American West kind of occurred in a 20-25 year period. The Indian Wars, the buffalo, the railroads came and brought civilization to it, which ended American wilderness in the American West. But it all happened really in a very small-time frame. It was just in a couple of decades, all the buffalo were gone in a couple of decades, all the Native Americans had been relegated to reservations.
Eric Rossborough: Pretty much. The exception to that would be the Fur Trade era, which was in the 1820s and 1830s. But you’re right. The stuff that you see in most of the movies was in a really short time frame. And when you hear stories about Abilene or any of these cow towns, that would be a three-year period before the town was straightened out by more stably oriented people because the railroad would keep moving North, and a lot of that stuff was based on if they discovered a mineral someplace. The interesting thing is that Wild West stuff that you read about, or what you see in the old movies did not really happen here. And the reason is that this is too isolated an area. Now, if you look now, when you were duck hunting, you were hunting along the Shoshone River, that’s one of the only water bodies around the – if you look at the maps, if you go on Google Maps or Google Earth, you’ll see a lot of creeks with the same name and that name is Dry Creek. I don’t know how many dry creeks there are out here, but this is more than a couple. There just wasn’t a lot of water. In other words, there were not cattle drives going through here. There was not a lot of major battles. The fur trade guys did not spend a lot of time here because it’s too dry. They spent their time more over in the upper Green River valley. So there’s a story of the Bozeman Trail, which ran from along the base of the western edge of the Bighorn Mountains, was getting quite hot due to the wars with Native Americans. And so that was called the Bloody Bozeman. And so they asked frontiersman Jim Bridger, if we need another trail, can you blaze one? So he said, well, I can try. So he blazed the trail, he blazed the Jim Bridger Trail which goes right through the middle of the Bighorn Basin. They used it one year, only 1864, and then abandoned it just because there wasn’t enough water along the trail. So at the time that the town of Cody was founded, there wasn’t much here other than a few trappers and there was some ranching activity. But it was founded late 1895. And the idea was, the investors had this idea was, you had this river, a big commodity out here. Water is pretty much the driving force behind most everything and they thought they would irrigate the central part of the Bighorn Basin. They would irrigate it, and then put this town, and then they had Buffalo Bill came out, and he rode his horse, and I think 1895 or 1896 up the North Fork, and he came back and he said, we could put a gate to Yellowstone here. And so the idea was they put this town and then they put the road into Yellowstone from the town.
A Forward Thinking Frontiersman
But I said that Buffalo Bill was not a typical frontiersman. He was always trying to get involved in business deals.
Ramsey Russell: He went and scouted the area for the investors and said, hey, I think this is a nice valley, a nice location as a gateway to Yellowstone Park, which is going to be something one day.
Eric Rossborough: That’s a good question. I don’t know if the investors came first and they roped him in or he came first and roped the investors. But I said that Buffalo Bill was not a typical frontiersman. He was always trying to get involved in business deals. He really wanted to build a major town here. He was forward thinking. You may notice that his show employed minorities and women at a time when that was not done and they got paid the same. He was sort of a liberal guy. There’s a story about how some of the Native Americans he hired were – the cook was giving him a hard time and wanted to feed them like biscuits and eggs, and they didn’t know what that was, they wanted meat, and the cook was hassling in them. And so Cody got word of this and he went to the cook and he said, you make those guys anything they want. I don’t want to hear any more about this. Like he really did employ a lot of women, most notably Annie Oakley. So my point is that this was a forward thinking guy. And one thing he was really into was – he was a show business person – but he wanted to be a businessman and he would invest in mines and things like that. And usually his investments did not pan out, and the result of this was that he never got to retire, and had to work basically till he died.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. Did you ever run across in your research why he regretted or what his regrets were about himself as a buffalo hunter?
Eric Rossborough: Just because he had realized that the buffalo he had taken apart were wiping the buffalo out. I mean it happened really fast. It was like, as you say, in the beginning of the 1870s there was buffalo everywhere. There were all these different herds and by the end of the decade they were all wiped out and people were just collecting bones and shipping them to use for fertilizer.
Ramsey Russell: Was that just like a bunch of hunters in the fur market, and this free economy going in and flying into this herd with reckless abandon, or was there some government design or government incentive to get rid of the buffalo to contain Native Americans?
The Role of Buffalo in the Politics of the American West
The history of the game laws is pretty much always too little too late.
Eric Rossborough: My information is there was no conspiracy. It was mainly the first, but at one-point people started making noise about game laws and one of the Generals, I think it was Sheridan, went to Congress and said we should give every one of these buffalo hunters a medal, because this is how we’re going to take over the country is by eliminating the buffalo hunters. The tribes live on a one crop economy and we knock it out from underneath them, they’re finished. Now, you’re from Mississippi. If you look at the history of other parts of the US and how long it took to wrench the country from the Natives, that actually ironically went faster out here just because of that reason.
Ramsey Russell: Right. They had them because of that, like you say, a one resource economy that revolved around the bison.
Eric Rossborough: The history of the game laws is pretty much always too little too late. Like it would get talked about when it was just, there was already a lot of problems. One thing that was a big thing around here was hunting elk for the ivory. So in those days if you remember the fraternal order of the elks, you would have ivory. So these guys would shoot these elk and just yank the teeth and away they go. And so this was a big thing.
Ramsey Russell: Ain’t that something? I’ve never heard that story before.
Eric Rossborough: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: I knew elk had those two little ivory teeth, but I didn’t know that there was a big market for it.
Eric Rossborough: Another thing, I mean it’s still, this were an international hunting destination. One interesting thing about this area is that this was a real, it’s an international hunting destination, and a magnet for hunters. George Bird Grinnell, Theodore Roosevelt had this idea that they were going to start a big game preserve just west of town and it would just be for them and they’re friends. Sheridan, I think, the same guy – I may not have the names right, Ramsey, but went basically went to Congress and said we should expand Yellowstone all the way out to the edge of the mountains. In other words, he wanted to make Yellowstone so it would go up to where you went duck hunting the other day behind the Rodeo grounds, it didn’t get off the ground, but he suggested that and this was just a big area for hunters. And Cody and the other town fathers were really interested in game laws because they saw this as a way to attract people to town. The same as agriculture and Yellowstone tourism.
Ramsey Russell: They recognized game animals as a commodity.
Eric Rossborough: Definitely, definitely. And so that the heavy thing was that there was a lot of poaching going on and in those days, people were going into the park, the Yellowstone Park either from Cody or Gardner and just doing what they wanted.
Ramsey Russell: It wasn’t a lot of Game Wardens going on back in those days. Everybody just out to make a dollar.
Eric Rossborough: And in fact, the first Yellowstone ranger, his name was Harry Yount. His name was Harry Yount and he was an old school mountain man. And so he had been a packer on something called the Hayden expedition. And so they hired him to be the first stationed in Yellowstone and just keep an eye on the place, which he did for a couple of years. And then he was relieved of his duties by upper guy who thought that he was too much of a mountain man to be a preservationist park ranger. But this guy Harry Yount wrote this account that was published in the Congressional record about, look, if you guys really want to preserve the game in Yellowstone, then you’ve got to have a whole cadre of people, you need a whole group of people, not just one. And so he’s considered the first ranger in Yellowstone, and he was not retained, and he just went off and did his mountain man thing. He spent the rest of his life in that mountain range east of Orleans just prospecting and hunting, he lived until the 20s. People do what they do. But he’s considered the first ranger and in the first years, they really didn’t have any control over the locals in terms of the hunting.
Celebrity, Equal Opportunist, Visionary, and Entrepreneur
He was like this basic ambassador for the Wild West to the public.
Ramsey Russell: Why did the investors choose Buffalo Bill of all the buffalo hunters and people out there, he apparently had a proclivity for the show or he was a showman and an entrepreneur type. Why did the founders of Cody pick him to be the front man for Cody? Why’d they name the town after him?
Eric Rossborough: I think that was probably a no brainer on their part. At the time this happened, Buffalo Bill was so famous that they had this promotional poster that they would put up in the town before the show arrived, it’s just a picture of Buffalo Bill with some like western type stuff around him, and it just says “I am coming.” It’s like that Led Zeppelin record, Led Zeppelin Four, where they put it out and it does not say Led Zeppelin, or the name of their record. And their idea was, well, we can just make a record and everyone will know it’s us, and they did not. Everyone knew who Buffalo Bill was. And while there was a lot of frontiersman and because Buffalo Bill transitioned into showbiz so early, people that did more than him, but he was the most famous. He was like this basic ambassador for the Wild West to the public. So that’s why, and he was all in on this, he was putting up his own money, and eventually got the Feds to put up money for the canals that were built in the area for agriculture, and he felt this was a legacy for himself.
Ramsey Russell: He was right.
Eric Rossborough: It is. And he does loom over this whole institution in a way. When I first came to work here, my boss said to me, you’re going to have to come to terms with this guy, and I’m still trying to figure out what that meant, but I don’t think I quite have yet. Anyway, this is not a typical outdoorsman. He’s not a typical show business person, this is a multifaceted guy. First of all he wanted to be famous, like, these other guys who were frontiersmen, they did not have any interest in fame. He employed minorities and women. He developed something called the “Congress of the Rough Riders of the World.” He had people, Argentinian Gauchos, Russian Cossacks, and the idea was these people that could ride from all these different parts of the world, and then you’d see them all. Like, he was always, so he was expanding on the show. I mean, it’s kind of like he had to do it, so he couldn’t just have the same show. So he expanded it something called the Congress of the Rough Riders of the World. But this is a time where it was acceptable to think that anglo saxons ran the world. So he’s basically kind of going against the grain by a lot of the stuff that he did now, which would now seem not notable but then it was.
Promoting Cody, Wyoming
So they’d sell a program with the schedule and there would always be an article there about how great Cody was, the town of Cody and how you should move there immediately.
Ramsey Russell: The town was established in 1895. And you had told me previously that around 1900, a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt of this man had a lot of African big game fame and I’ve heard the name my whole life, anything associated with Africa, but that he actually visited the Bighorn Basin. What did he find by 1900, 5 years later after this town was established?
Eric Rossborough: So the man’s name was Frederick Courteney Selous. And he was a guy from Britain who had gone to Africa and hunted all the dangerous game there. He was a personal friend of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt regarded this guy as a hero and kind of modeled himself after him. But he wrote a letter to Roosevelt and said, I really want to, I have this dream of going to the US, I want to hunt the West. I want to see the US. I want to be out in the end, I want to hunt elk. He wanted to get out here and see this country even though he’d been an African guy. Roosevelt told him to come here and so he went to the Bighorn Mountains, which is the mountain range that borders the East side of the Bighorn Basin, and did not see much. Then they hit it in off the South Fork for a month or so, and did not see much either. And he just said, geez, I’m too late, the game had largely been shot out by market hunters and people were telling him, look, he should have got here 15 years ago. It’s just not what it was. And he wrote this letter to Roosevelt saying what had happened, and his relative disappointment is basically a negative review of the book. You can read this and it’s called Sport and Travel, East and West. And so this motivated the town fathers who were besides Cody, George Beck and Nate Salisbury. One thing is that Buffalo Bill, like most celebrities, had a sort of a team of handlers and he got his team of handlers. He had a press agent named John Burke who helped publicize the town. But so that was kind of the root when Buffalo Bill got a window that he was like, look, these guys really wanted to enact game laws because they saw that in addition to Yellowstone tourism and farming. Now, Wyoming is a very dry state. But if you go to the Eastern part of the Bighorn Basin, there’s farms mainly sugar beets because they built these canals off the Shoshone River. Do you know what the original name of the Shoshone River was Ramsey?
Ramsey Russell: No.
Eric Rossborough: The Stinking Water River.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Eric Rossborough: Yes, because there’s sulfur springs. There were sulfur springs in town called Damaris Hot Springs. The first white person to see these, as far as we know, the first two white people would have been John Colter and George Drew of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But anyway, so they came here and these guys saw that if they irrigate and built canals and stuff, they could put a town here. But they changed the name obviously from the Stinking Water River to something. The Shoshone sounds better, but for many decades it —
Ramsey Russell: It sounds a lot better than who wants to build, who wants to move to a town on the Stinking Water River?
Eric Rossborough: What you got to realize, Ramsay, in terms of promoting the town, is Buffalo Bill. I made the connection to rock music. Buffalo Bill is on the road every year. Like his whole thing was, he was on the road from every year, all year, and then they do shows like 6-7 days a week, we have the schedule and it’s pretty grueling. But at every show, and they went just about every place, how you go to a sporting event of baseball or football game, and you buy a program, or if you go to the circus, they would sell a program with the names of the players. So they’d sell a program with the schedule and there would always be an article there about how great Cody was, the town of Cody and how you should move there immediately. And so John Burke, Cody’s press agent, wrote this stuff about how the rain awaits the plow, and if you plow here there’s going to be more, they made it sound like there was more water. There’s plenty of water here, you don’t have to worry about that, people. There actually isn’t that much water here. There’s that one river and there’s no groundwater here at all. All our water comes from Yellowstone snowpack.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s scary, isn’t it?
Eric Rossborough: Yeah. And it’s been a dry year. I’ll tell you that the water is very low right now, people are concerned, but this has always been a drought area.
A Town Built from Reservoirs
He saw the potential for agriculture and commerce if we could get these reservoirs built.
Ramsey Russell: I drove down to Cody from Billings. Beautiful ride. Looks like the American West. You just expect to see covered wagons or John Wayne cattle trails going out through there, stopped by bridge or read the sign. Heard about the trail he built that ran for a little bit because it wasn’t much water, but it wasn’t any Indian shooting at you either, like on the Bozeman Trail. But one of the first historical markers I saw as I was coming into Cody, as I was coming in, there was a historical marker and it’s a reservoir. And the second historical marker I saw was a reservoir. I’m like, I didn’t understand that. But now I kind of do, everybody I talked to said, well, Buffalo Bill brought in the Mormons to get these reservoirs built. He saw the potential for agriculture and commerce if we could get these reservoirs built. Is there any truth to that? Is that kind of how the area built up was because of the reservoirs, they were able to capture this water?
Eric Rossborough: That’s pretty much how it happened just as you described it. There was actually a town where the reservoir was called Marquette. And the town is now underwater. And in those days, how you drive through the canyon, and those days you would go around cedar mountain.
Ramsey Russell: I drove by that reservoir.
Stories About Cassie’s
So Cassie’s is a landmark.
Eric Rossborough: Did you eat at Cassie’s?
Ramsey Russell: I drove by it, we didn’t have a chance to eat at Cassie’s. But talk about that because I heard a lot about Cassie’s Steakhouse.
Eric Rossborough: So Cassie’s is a landmark. It’s now a steakhouse with live music on the weekend. They have bands and they also have like line dancing classes there and stuff like that. But it’s a really old place and it was owned originally by a woman named Cassie Waters. So the reason I thought of her is because you mentioned the dam, when the dam was being built, a lot of guys, there was a lot of men came here and Cassie came here with – the story goes that Cassie came here with her husband, and her husband was working on the dam, and her husband died. So there wasn’t a lot of job opportunities for women in this area, with an exception. So Cassie did what she had to do. And so she started her own brothel. And so basically this brothel was there for decades and Cassie was like one of the wealthiest women in town. So this story was told to me by former Senator, Alan Simpson who has lived in Cody his whole life. He was a Republican senator from, I think, 1977 to 1997. But his dad was like this political dynasty, his dad, Millward, realized in the depression that the town had no money. And they needed some really basic service, like the street lights to get fixed or something. And so Millward called Cassie, and said listen Cassie, we need $5,000. And she said you got it. And so we had some college kids come in and they wanted to make a documentary movie about Cassie, we were just like, they just don’t record a lot of stuff on brothels. So if you look in the news, if you look in the newspapers, what would happen is that the police would engage in this really sort of low level harassment. Like if someone was drunk they’d come and arrest them, that was it. And so anyway, so when Al and Pete Simpson were kids, they told me this story. Al and Pete Simpson are the two brothers who sort of represent, they’re sort of the defacto town elders. So when they were kids, and they were both, one of them became a senator, one of them became the Chancellor of the University of Wyoming. But when they were kids, they were pretty wild. And one thing they like to do when they were about 12 was climb the hill behind Cassie’s and roll stones down into the outbuildings. Like you have these little buildings with separate doors so people can do their thing. So they roll stones down into these buildings and these guys would come out holding their pants up with around their waist with one hand, flipping them the bird with the other, and screaming expletives, and they’d laugh and run away. And I thought that’s just too good of a story, it’s just too good. And then later that day I drove by Cassie’s, and sure enough there’s a cut bank right next to Cassie’s that a 12-year-old could climb and roll stones into it. I’ll tell you another story about Cassie. So my landlord told me a story. My landlord’s name is Gerry Kincaid and his dad name was Harley Kincaid. Harley Kincaid is a legend in Cody. He was the sheriff for a long time. And when Jerry was in high school, he and his buddies decided to sneak down to Cassie’s. And the reason was there was this other kid that they knew was hanging out at Cassie’s. This guy’s name was also named Jerry and he was a bad kid. He was like one of these kids, it was like, remember when you were a kid that always be like a kid, that was the first kid in your neighborhood to have fireworks, the first kid to drink beer? The first kid to do anything wrong, or the most aggressive kid. And this was this kind of kid. So Jerry and his buddies came in the back door of Cassie’s and they looked through the swinging doors at the bar, and this guy, other kid, is sitting there drinking a beer. They’re like teenagers just like, oh my God, what the hell is this kid doing? And all of a sudden Jerry hears a noise behind him and he turns around and it’s Cassie. And so Cassie says to him, hi Jerry, and he says nervously hi, and she says to him, have you seen your dad lately? His dad was the sheriff. Of course, he’d seen him like two hours ago at dinner and he said, yeah. And she just said, tell him I said hi, and she turned around and walked out of the room, and Jerry just ran. Anyway, so after her passing, it’s now a restaurant and I got a lot of that information just from reading the stuff they have about her on the walls of the restaurant and local people.
Ramsey Russell: It’s a little bit out of town too. That’s what surprised me. It’s not down around the Irma Hotel, it’s a little bit out of town.
Eric Rossborough: Well, yeah, No. Yeah. Well at the time that would have been out. I mean it still is on the edge of town, but at that time it would have been out of town, yeah. But you can go in there and it’s just, you can order dinner and I said they have a band on Saturday night, pretty cool.
Ramsey Russell: Who are some of the other colorful characters back in this era around Cody Wyoming?
Tales of the Colorful Characters of Cody
Eric Rossborough: Okay, there’s so many colorful characters here. There’s men and there’s women. For example, there’s so many colorful women characters that lived here that they do a play called the “Cody Monologues” and this is put on by a local community theater. And so it’s just different local actresses get up and impersonate different women who are in notable or wild who lived in Cody, mainly in the 20th century. There’s enough of them that they’ve done this for a number of years and they don’t do the same people, they just do people every year. Antonetti was a local mountain man of the old school and I kind of identify with him because like me, he came from the East. And he was one of these guys that he’d always tell these stories and no one would believe him. It was like when he was telling these stories, in fact, in World War II, Al and Pete Simpson were working on the TE Ranch baling hay – they were in high school and this was their summer job, baling hay. Everyone worked, they told me, in those days. And so the TE Ranch now was the ranch that was owned by Buffalo Bill and was later owned by Robert Woodruff, CEO of Coca-Cola. But they ran into Antonetti, and he was walking around, and they’re like, what the hell are you doing? He said I’m part of a special government project, and they were just like, yeah, okay, we’ll see. And it turned out to be true. The government had hired Antonetti to look for land mines in the Shoshone National Forest. At that time during World War II, the Japanese government developed this idea that they were going to send these mines or bombs into the US Western National Forest, and that they would land on the ground and detonate and start fires. And so that this was a way for them to weaken the U.S. And so you can read about this program. They said we thought this is one of Antonetti’s stories, but it just turned out to be true that they were actually doing this. I think he did find a couple, but he used to go in, he would trap in the wilderness. He would go in from the end of the Southwark, hiking with horses, with his equipment, and then turned the horses loose, and the horses would just go back to Valley Ranch on their own, and someone would pick him up, and he would stay in there all winter. And so the Game Warden – the local game warden, I was over his house and he showed me, he found like a stash of Antonetti’s traps out under like a fir tree in the woods, and he took one and kept the rest, and he showed me this Antonetti trap. So Antonetti lived in a cabin down on the end of the South Fork and his house kept burning down because he was sort of an unrepentant bachelor. So I guess you went into his house and it was a log cabin and there was a big stack of newspapers, and his news pages were leaning at an angle like the Tower of Pisa right next to the wood stove. So you go into this house and you have all these cats, and so someone said what are the cats for? He said, bait. Someone went into his house once and there was a baby bobcat sitting on the stove drinking a bowl of canned milk. So the same guy, Harley Kincaid went down there to get Antonetti’s vote with his deputy, like to press the flesh, and so they’re like hey what’s up, we just want your vote in the next election. And so he says hey boys how about some coffee? And they’re like, if I come into your house and you want to give me something, I want to be your friend, and take it right. So he poured him coffee, is like, I made it yesterday. And so they’re both sitting there with this coffee with like mold on the top. The deputy spilled his and he’s like, I’m sorry. He’s like, no I don’t need another cup, and then after they left, Harley, the sheriff, was like damn it, I wish I’d have thought of that! I had to drink that coffee. But Antonetti was actually — I did a bunch of research on him and he actually, early in his life he lived in Hartford, Connecticut. He was in business school, so I looked this up on ancestry.com and I found an Antonetti about the same age who lived in Hartford, Connecticut who worked as an elevator operation in an office building, was going to business school, and I thought well this is pretty weird. There’s another Antonetti from Connecticut who lived in Connecticut was the same as my Antonetti, it’s the same guy. So this guy Antonetti was slated to become an executive and then he decided to take a year off and he spent a year in Ontario working as a Forest Ranger. He came back to New England and after he’d been there for like a year, he just split and came out here. When Antonetti passed away, this guy showed up who was a retired professor of engineering or something. It was Antonetti’s brother who lived in like Phoenix or someplace. And he said to Al Simpson, our folks were just too tough on him. And Al said, what do you mean? He said, they just put a lot of pressure on him to become a professional person and he just flaked out and came out here. There’s another story that they tell about how one time in Millwood, Al and Pete went fishing, and they came back and Antonetti was sitting with their mom, and they were like, jeez, they felt kind of like, are you okay? Are you okay with Antonetti? He’s like, she said to them, there’s no problem with him. And they said, well, he doesn’t bathe and stuff. And she said, no, no, there’s no problem with him, something really bad happened to that guy. Something happened to him that he caused him to take off and just go out in the woods. But he was a gregarious guy and well known around town. He belonged to, I think the Elks, and he would hitch a ride with the postman. He would show up in town periodically.
Ramsey Russell: Ain’t that something. Tell me this, there were also a lot of archaeological finds out in that part of the world and dinosaurs? I know when you go up the road there towards Demopolis, I mean there’s a lot of dinosaur history and stuff like that around this region.
Eric Rossborough: There is. Every geologic age is represented in the state of Wyoming. For example, if you go to other states like Wisconsin, or for that matter of Mississippi where you’re on the Delta, I mean what you have is its alluvial outflow from the Mississippi, right? Here you can see all this stuff. So do you know how when you’re standing in Cody and you can see these red bluffs just north of town? So that bluff that you can see right from town is called Red Butte. So that is from the Triassic period. Is it Triassic era or Triassic period? That was when this area was a desert, like millions of years ago, before it was a desert now. For example, it was a desert, it was a lake, it was a rainforest, and now it’s a desert again. All this stuff is represented. But because of this, paleontology is a real big thing here. And we have fossilized dinosaur tracks that you can see, and they find dinosaur bones all the time. Do you know about Natural Trap Cave?
Ramsey Russell: Uh-huh.
Eric Rossborough: So Natural Trap Cave isn’t around here. It’s in the Big Horns. So what it is, it’s a hole in the ground in the Big Horns and what they found was thousands and thousands of years ago, animals would go over this hole in the ground and periodically fall in. And that was the end of them. And so in the 20th century, this was discovered and they put a gate over it to keep vandals out. And then at a couple of times, interspersed by decades, they’ve gone in there and they found the remains of every Pleistocene mammal that was around here, because they all fell through this hole. And so they’ve been going in there again, but it’s the first time they’ve been in there in decades. So they know that, for example, the Pleistocene mammal, the Saber Tooth cat. That’s a common animal that would likely to be seen in a place like that. But there’s none in this Natural Trap Cave, there’s none there. So if you look at the pictures, they go down, they rappel down on the ropes that rock climbers use to get to the bottom. Paleontology has been a big thing here for decades and paleontologists have been coming here for generations. In fact, one of the first paleontologists to come here was named Marsh and he was guided here by Buffalo Bill.
Ramsey Russell: Which would have been when? When on the timeline might that have been just there about?
Eric Rossborough: I don’t know.
Ramsey Russell: Like 1900?
Eric Rossborough: No, it would have been when Buffalo Bill was still roaming around.
Ramsey Russell: Okay.
Eric Rossborough: But so after, this guy ended up at Yale, or maybe come from Yale in the first place. So he was travelling, I think it’s in the 1870s, Ramsey, he was traveling all around here collecting these dinosaur bones, boxing them up and shipping them East. And so after, this guy became a big man in this field, and I think it was at Yale. But every time that the show was in town, he and Buffalo Bill would always get together, they stayed friends.
Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy. And how important were the Native Americans in this part of the world? I think there were a lot of tribes that thrived. Somebody told me they over wintered in that basin.
The First Cody, Wyoming Outfitters
So they moved here and they wanted to get going with a dude ranch and a hunting outfit that they needed horses, and this and that, so they trapped.
Eric Rossborough: This is typically Crow country, but it borders the Shoshone country. And one of the first families that moved here was the Frost family. One of them they established on Stage Creek and the first winter they lived here, they lived with the Crow down in the South Fork. They like camped out with them all winter. I’ll tell you another story. So these two guys were the first outfitters in this area, I think the first substantial ones, and their names were Ned Frost and Fred Richard. So they moved here and they wanted to get going with a dude ranch and a hunting outfit that they needed horses, and this and that, so they trapped. So they took their wives up into Clark’s Fort Canyon. So today that’s known as the town of Clark, isn’t really a town, it’s more a collection of houses, but the wind in Clark blows like 160 miles an hour. A guy, a friend of mine moved out of Clark after 160 mile an hour blew the roof of his house off.
Ramsey Russell: I don’t blame them for moving.
Eric Rossborough: It’s not as windy here, but anyway, so these guys Ned Frost and Fred Richard went up there and camped out in this place with their wives all winter in a wall tent, and they trapped coyotes, I guess mainly coyotes, and pronghorn and stuff. But at the end of the winter, the wives, these two women are sisters, they said that is not, that is not happening again. You can forget it, we’re done with Clark, and so you can see that there’s pictures of them. They lived in this wall tent in this place where it blows. Here, the weather here is quite good, it’s sunny most of the time and so forth. But it blows, it’s quite windy and it’s a lot windier in Clark than it is here.
Ramsey Russell: But I’ll tell you what, I was there, I was leaving town on a windy day and there were tumbleweeds running all up and down downtown Cody. I mean it the wind does blow there, it took both hands kind of, and I had to kind of lean to the left to keep the truck in the lane.
Eric Rossborough: That’s true. I had have a tag for a hunting district, deer hunting zone east of town in a town Burlington. These are farm towns east of town. So I’ve been going out there to hunt my whitetail tag. It’s a whitetail tag. But anyway, if you go out there, y’all get up. I was getting up here, early in the morning and going out there to hunt. So it’s 40 minutes away, there’s no wind at all. It’s like three miles an hour from the southeast and it’s blowing, 15-20-25 miles from the northwest here and out there, totally different.
Does Cody Have a Duck Hunting History?
It was probably one of the most scenic places I’ve ever hunted.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I’ll tell you what, one last question, we got to wrap up. But I had this conversation some of the boys I hunted with out there, we know the buffalo, the pronghorn, and mule deer, the Rocky Mountain sheep, a lot of sheep up in those mountains, big game always kind of stole the show, even today in North America. But it’s just hard for me to imagine that with that river dry, though it may have been around the landscape, it would have held a lot of waterfowl. It’s just hard to believe they didn’t hunt ducks or you don’t have any, I know of no written history or drawings or anything of them hunting ducks like they did in the deep South.
Eric Rossborough: No, this is not the Chesapeake Bay. I’ve gone duck hunting a few times here with friends that are into it who are people that moved here from elsewhere and that’s where they got into duck hunting. And so we just won’t see many. This is just not a duck hunting mecca. Now, you went duck hunting down below the Rodeo grounds, is that right?
Ramsey Russell: I went duck hunting several places along the Shoshone River.
Eric Rossborough: How’d it go?
Ramsey Russell: It was awesome. It’s not a lot of ducks but there’s ducks because there’s water, mallards, gadwall, and teals.
Eric Rossborough: Did you shot some ducks?
Ramsey Russell: Oh my gosh, yes. I had shot some ducks, shot some geese, had a wonderful time. There was one particular place with the big, high, red rock canyon walls. It was probably one of the most scenic places I’ve ever hunted. First off, we’re going down some goat trail in the pitch black dark, I can’t see anything past my light beam and I have no idea, you’d hear it. I’d knock a rock loose off the trail and you just hear it tumbling into infinity into the blackness. I’m like, Lord, don’t let me slip and fall going down this thing. But once we got down there and then the light started coming up, and the sun started rising on the sulfur springs, apparently some warm water nearby, the steam coming off the river, the current, the ripples, these changing shadows on those red rock canyons, just the multicolored rock beach. I was sitting – it was just like enchanting. It’s like, holy cow, this is just one of the most amazing places I’ve ever watched the sun come up.
Eric Rossborough: Now, people did hunt ducks around here. It’s just not a duck hunting destination, that we’re a destination.
Ramsey Russell: Did you ever run across any old photos? I mean like from back in the early 1900s? Did Native Americans, did the settlers, I mean surely they went out and got ducks?
Eric Rossborough: Well, we do. In fact, there’s a prominent hunting guide who lived around here named Max Wild and he guided a lot of Major League baseball players. This in fact, I mentioned Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, they were out here with this guy and so we have pictures of these baseball stars like Jimmy Foxx and Ty Cobb holding Canada geese. But this is not the destination, that would not have been why they were here. Now, people do hunt ducks here. I was coming back from a walk down by the Shoshone River the other day, and me and my friend ran into some high school kids, and they were in camo and we’re like, what are you guys doing? They’re like, oh, we’re just going to hunt ducks. For an hour before sunset, it goes on. But it’s not a destination for ducks. As to how many ducks that were back in the day, that is an awesome question. I just don’t know.
Ramsey Russell: I just can’t imagine. I’ve seen some headdresses with the sage grouse.
Eric Rossborough: That’s a desert bird.
Ramsey Russell: I just can’t believe that they didn’t go out, I just can’t believe that somebody didn’t go out and shoot a few ducks and geese back in the day. Even Native Americans, I just can’t believe it.
Eric Rossborough: They did hunt ducks around here, Ramsey. But it’s not – what people used to do was, when the town was smaller, they’d go down and they’d hunt ducks, they go down that draw, I think it’s called Sulfur Creek, and behind the center there’s some nature trails that the Buffalo Bill Center owns. And they would go hunt ducks down there and you can go hunt ducks along the Shoshone River. But when you were guys were going, did you have decoys in the blind and all that? How did you do it?
Ramsey Russell: We set up a natural cover some places. Some places we did have some blind built out of natural cover. And right along the river bank we put out decoys.
Eric Rossborough: Did you guys just go on your own or did you-
Ramsey Russell: Do it yourself. I was hunting with some locals that knew what’s what, and they were duck hunters, and had some hunting holes. And one thing about that part of the world, nobody talks about your hunting hole. Nobody puts you on the mouth.
Eric Rossborough: No, they don’t.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a universal truth throughout duck hunting, but out there especially. Out there nobody even mentions it.
Eric Rossborough: One thing about this place is that Cody tends to weed people out because there’s not much to do in the winter. You better like outdoor activities because there’s nothing, that’s kind of what there is to do. So there’s a lot of strong outdoor enthusiasts here. And what I’ve noticed is they always have their area. I mean, because you could go in four directions from town, or three directions from town pretty much, and just go into wild country. But all of them will be like, they always have their area what they go. But in terms of like – in fact there’s a story about a guy at work who told me about how he was talking to this contractor he hired, who’s a really strong outdoorsman. And he was like, where are you hunting deer this year? And he’s like, well, I’m not telling you. He’s like, I just got you a job. I just got you a contracting job, can you throw me a bone? So later on this guy that my friend is out driving along this dirt road in a place called McCullough Peaks, and he runs into this guy and the guy was busted at that point. He’s like, yeah, well, I guess you found me, but people don’t like to talk about where they go, they do not.
Ramsey Russell: Here’s the deal, Eric, real quick tell everybody how they can – you do have a very interesting blog. We’ll give everybody the URL of that blog. They can plug in and how they can reach and get in touch with you or connect with you.
Eric Rossborough: My name is Eric Rossborough. Wait, I got to call it up on the computer because I don’t remember that URL. So my name is Eric Rossborough and you can read my blog at centerofthewest.org/author/ericr. And my blog will come up and we’re the McCracken Research Library. We’re open 8:00 to 5:00 Monday through Friday. We do not follow the hours of the museum and anyone that wants help with researching something to do with the Wild West should give us a call, drop one of us a line and we’d love to help you out. There’s a lot more we can talk about, Ramsey. We barely scratched the surface.
Ramsey Russell: We barely scratched the surface but we’ve run out of time today. Next time I come through there we’re going to get a duck blind together somewhere on the Shoshone River or nearby and we’ll record again. And I’m going to expect you to give me a good tour. I don’t have five days but I do want to get a real good tour of the Center of the West Museum.
Eric Rossborough: Hey, I saw you in the Safari Club magazine.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely.
Eric Rossborough: That was awesome. We get all those magazines and all those outdoor magazines come here for free. And I said, have you heard what I said, do you have to heard Getducks.com? And the guy was like, isn’t this guy here? And I was like, yeah. So that’s pretty awesome. But anyway, I would love to get together with you, we should go – I’ll give you a tour of the museum. I want to go duck hunting with you and afterwards we’ll go get a beer, we’ll go to Cassie’s, or maybe one of the other places. You mentioned food. Not a lot, not the variety of food here is in the South, but we can hook you up with a nice steak, how does that sound?
Ramsey Russell: Sounds good Eric. Deal. You got a deal. Thank you for being here today. And folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere. We’ll see you next time.