Buffalo Bill's 'Little Town in the Rockies'

Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on April 1, 2001

More than a century ago, when Buffalo Bill Cody founded his little town in the Rockies, he predicted it would become the hub of the Big Horn Basinand today Cody, Wyo., is all of that and more.

Codys history is so closely linked with one of Americas most famous frontiersmen that its difficult to separate Cody the town (pop. 8,721) from Col. William F. Buffalo Bill Cody the man.

For 30 years during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Buffalo Bills Wild West Show performed for royalty and commoners throughout the United States and Europe. Nearly 100 years since his last show, Buffalo Bill is still a definitive icon of the American West.

More than a showman, Cody selected the site for a town in the early 1890s and saw the need for an infrastructure to support the town he marketed to Easterners.

Hes credited with starting an irrigation system, a newspaper, church, livery stable and railroad, and securing capital from wealthy businessmen to build and promote Cody, establishing a boosterism that continues today. He also lobbied for the road from Cody to Yellowstone Park and conveniently placed his own hunting lodge near its east entrance.

His whole goal was to give a sense of permanency and stability to Cody, says Paul Fees, curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum.

The towns cornerstone was the Irma Hotel, which Cody built in 1903 and named for his daughter. The Irma projected an image of grandeur with its gold buffalo doorknobs and cherry-wood bar given by Queen Victoria, says area tour guide and lifelong Cody resident Bob Richard.

The Irma became the center for Buffalo Bill to share his success stories and became a place for him to share with all his guests, Richard says.

A local landmark, the Irma remains a physical reminder of Buffalo Bill and the center of social activity.

The Irma is the soul of the towngeographically, historically, and culturally, Fees acknowledges. You can see it every morning when the tables are pushed together for the old-timers who gather one-by-one for coffee.

Cody struggles today to balance history with demands for growth.

Part of what defines Cody as a vibrant community is the mix of downtown businesses, Fees says. These include most everything from art galleries and antique shops to banks, restaurants, and a hardware store. Discount stores, including a new Big Kmart, draw shoppers from around the Big Horn Basin, says Paul Hoffman, director of the Cody Chamber of Commerce.

To help small businesses, the Cody Economic Development Council arranged seminars to teach merchants how they can survive and thrive with new competition, says Curtis Jenkins, for the chamber.

Buffalo Bill was drawn to the region locals know as Cody Country largely by the commanding scenery. Between Yellowstone Park and the Big Horn Mountains, Cody catches the eyes of artists, and its artistic community has grown to more than 100.

Cody supports half a dozen art galleries, many western furniture designers, and a world-class art museum, the Whitney Gallery of Western Art. The Whitney and the Buffalo Bill Museum make up two of the four wings of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, dubbed the Smithsonian of the West by author James Michener.

The Plains Indian Museum and Cody Firearms Museum comprise the centers other wings. A new wing, the Draper Museum of Natural History, is under construction and scheduled to open in the spring of 2002.

The center, which began in 1917 as a small museum in a log building, now draws 250,000 visitors each year to Buffalo Bills little town in the Rockies.