Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders was one of the most famous touring shows in American history. What few people today remember is that Buffalo Bill Cody brought his show to the Northwoods and thrilled the local area with feats of skill and daring.
Horse shows and wild animal menageries have been popular around the world for a long time, but when Buffalo Bill Cody combined the idea with the theme of the American West in the 1870s, the Wild West Show was born. Traveling Wild West Shows lasted from the mid-1870s until the advent of silent film entertainment in the second decade of the twentieth century. But during their heyday Wild West Shows were an extremely popular form of entertainment, and the biggest and most popular of them all was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show toured the world, and one stop on his travels included the Northwoods.
In August of 1900, Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West Show to northern Wisconsin. The show had three stops: Green Bay, Rhinelander, and Ashland, and August 9, 1900, was Buffalo Bill Day in Rhinelander. Thousands of people from all over the Northwoods flocked to Rhinelander for the event. The show traveled by rail in those days, and at 10:00 am the Show Train arrived at the old North-Western Railroad depot. The performers, including several brass bands, disembarked from the train and paraded through downtown Rhinelander in a procession that was several blocks in length. Leading the parade on his bright, white horse was none other than Buffalo Bill Cody himself.
The show was set up at the old baseball grounds in Keenan’s Park, or the area known today as Pioneer Park. Even though the main event did not begin until late afternoon the sideshows were opened immediately, and people gladly paid early admission to see the attractions. Estimates from the time said that by late afternoon some 8,000 people crowded into the big tent set up for the main event, half of which came from the surrounding communities. It is hard to imagine such a spectacle today, and in 1900 Buffalo Bill did not disappoint his audience.
Annie Oakley was on hand and demonstrated her world-renowned skill as an expert shot. The performers hauled out a live Gatling Gun and fired it off to give the astounded audience a taste of modern warfare. Next Buffalo Bill introduced his Congress of Rough Riders as they performed a reenactment of Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. Cavalry riding drills, cowboy stunt riding, a buffalo hunt, and cattle roundup were all part of the show as well.
In the evening, there were dances held at the Catholic Church, the New Grand Opera House, and at the Armory Hall. A theatrical performance of the play “The Woman in Black” also drew a crowd. Northwoods residents and performers from the Wild West Show alike enjoyed the festivities. The next morning Buffalo Bill and his troupe boarded their train and moved on to Ashland for their next show.
Buffalo Bill never returned to Rhinelander, but one of his performers fell in love with the Northwoods and returned after the Wild West Show went bankrupt. His story is next week.