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Column: Wild West rode into southern Indiana

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Terry Clark makes a living by portraying Buffalo Bill. The Columbus native even gave up his job as IT director at The Republic to devote all of his energies to bringing the Wild West hero to life before audiences.

A lot of that time has been spent in countless hours of research looking for details on the frontiersman/showman who ranked right at the top of celebrity lists from the 19th century. Ironically, some of that recent research brought Terry full circle back to Columbus.

It turns out that William F. Cody, aka the real Buffalo Bill, was a familiar figure in southern Indiana in the late 19th century. His traveling troupe of Native American fighters, Mexican vaqueros and assorted rodeo performers made regular stops on the rail line between Madison and Columbus in the 1890s.

“Actually, Buffalo Bill put on more performances in Vernon than he did in Columbus,” Terry said recently. “Vernon was a lot bigger in those days, and from what I can tell he put on at least four shows in the Jennings County area.”

Terry could find mention of only one stop in Columbus for the circus-like show in which performers staged re-creations of battles between American Indians and frontiersmen, roping exhibitions by Mexican vaqueros and riding performances by Russian Cossacks.

The show went by a variety of names. At the turn of the century the group was called the Congress of Rough Riders of the World.

For its time, the shows were pretty spectacular. Horse riding was always a staple, as were the staged attacks, but the highlight of each performance was a shooting exhibition by none other than Buffalo Bill himself.

The show was a for-profit business. Put together a crowd, and Buffalo Bill would show up. Through the late 19th and early 20th century, he staged hundreds of exhibitions around the country.

Terry had heard that one of those exhibitions was in Columbus around 1896, a fact he confirmed through the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave in Golden, Colo. But he was interested in more than the spectacle itself. He was trying to confirm a quote attributed to a Buffalo Bill historian.

“In the book ‘Wild West Shows,’ author Paul Reddin cites a story from the Columbus Evening Republican of May 12, 1896, as the source of a quote where Cody says, ‘I am so busy with these long runs and many thousand of old Western timers who bore me to death.’”

The Evening Republican did, indeed, cover the visit of the Wild West show to Columbus, but in abbreviated fashion. Mention of the event was limited to a couple of short stories on inside pages of the issues of May 12 and 13. Buffalo Bill’s quote in the book was not mentioned in either of the stories.

The coverage was not necessarily a reflection of the show’s importance. Newspapers in the 1890s were put together in a fashion far different from today. Pages weren’t planned so much as they were thrown together. Local stories were seldom accorded front-page status and often wound up in the middle of columns, sometimes without headlines.

If the estimates of the reporter are correct, it was one of the biggest events in Columbus. The report of May 13 noted under a bold-faced heading “The Rough Riders” that “Buffalo Bill’s show, the great and only wild west show, has come and gone, but while here they found time to give two performances that pleased the five or six thousand people who were able to attend.”

The show was so important that classes were dismissed in Columbus schools at 9:30 a.m. so that children could watch the parade of performers and animals from the railroad depot up Washington Street to Crump’s Driving Park, which today would be the ball diamond across Indianapolis Road from Mill Race Center.

The parade had an international flavor, as riders from various countries put on short exhibitions of their skills at various stops. The Evening Republican reporter wrote that “the Indians, Cossacks and Turks attracted the most attention.”

The parade was headed by the man himself, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, but instead of being astride a horse he chose to ride in a carriage.

The troupe put on two shows that day, one at night under lighting provided by the electric plant, which presumably would have been the pump house that would later be used as the senior center. It was pretty good lighting, according to the reporter, because “the shooting at the glass balls proceeded as though the shooters were enjoying good sunlight.”

As far as great moments in Columbus history go, I’m not sure that Buffalo Bill’s visit would be right at the top. On the other hand, it looks like Terry Clark will have some new material to use in his portrayal of the Wild West celebrity, especially before local audiences.

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