My granddad worked for Buffalo Bill Cody. No, he didn’t travel the nation with the old scout’s famous Wild West Show. But when the shoot-’em-up extravaganza came to Austin in the fall of 1908 and again in1910, my granddad (L. A. Wilke, 1897-1984) played a role both important and minor – he helped reload the blank rifle ammunition so copiously expended during the performances.
Years later, around 1975, Granddad recalled:
“Not many men living today knew Buffalo Bill Cody, who helped to tame the west and then brought his feats to many people of the day, who admired his shooting skill with a Winchester rifle.
“It was my privilege not only to know him, but to reload his rifle cartridges with black powder and hand-cut cardboard wads for two years.”
Granddad didn’t say what caliber ammo he reloaded for Cody and his fellow showmen (and women), but more than likely it was the .44 WCF (Winchester Center Fire).
Another Texan who got to meet Buffalo Bill when his show came to the Lone Star State, Smith Moore, described Cody in his 1974 self-published book Tall Tales:
“Colonel Cody was an erect, sinewy, active man in those days, with a white goatee, a large mustache, and white hair which hung down near his shoulders. He was a little taller than average…He had fiery blue eyes that could burn a hole through you.”
After playing to a packed crowd in New York’s Madison Square Gardens on May 14, 1910 – the venue of his first big show more than 20 years earlier – Cody announced that he was beginning his final tour. (Which turned out not to be true, but that’s showbiz after all.)
That fall, the Wild West Show came to Texas and worked its way around the state.
On Nov. 10, 1910, the show’s 92 railroad cars rolled into Dallas, arriving in four waves. The cars carried 500 horses and 1,270 people ranging from the tent gang to the performers to Buffalo Bill himself.
Wagons hauled the show’s equipment and personnel from the downtown depot to the show site, a field just to the southwest of the intersection of Commerce and Exposition Boulevard in what is now Central Dallas.
The show’s press agent sent a notice to the Dallas Morning News and the rival afternoon Times-Herald that “there will be no street parade, for the reason that the parade fatigues the horses and performers.”
Evidently well-rested, Buffalo Bill’s congress of cowboys and Indians put on a good show.
“Cowboy life was faithfully portrayed,” the News reported, “and the other features of the show were as truthfully outlined.”
After more than 65 years, Granddad could not remember just when Buffalo Bill and his entourage hit Austin, but he never forgot the experience. (A list compiled by the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum and Grave at Golden, Colorado shows that Cody played Texas’ capital city on Nov. 6, 1908 and again on Nov. 6-7, 1910.)
“Because at 12 years of age I was considered too young and too light weight to drive tent stakes or to carry water I got the job of reloading blank cartridges,” Granddad wrote. “My pay was a ticket to the show!” That was worth 50 cents, no inconsiderable sum back in those days.
In seeking a job with the show, Granddad told whoever did the local hiring that he had experience in loading Robin Hood shotgun shells and by virtue of that, landed the reloading job. This was long before the government worried much about child labor or workplace safety, of course.
Though the youngster’s only experience in recycling ammunition (not that the word “recycling” had its present usage back then) involved shotgun shells, the show needed brass rifle cartridges reloaded.
“The hulls had been emptied in shooting exhibitions at his last show before coming to my home town,” Granddad continued. “I was too young to wonder if he had an extra supply on hand. I knew only that here a great shooter was honoring me with a ticket to see his exhibition for services rendered…”
Granddad told me that in addition to a pass to the show, he got to shake the affable colonel’s hand. Cody also complimented him on his work.
Still sitting tall in the saddle in what would be the final decade of his life, Cody choreographed his shows and put on a performance of his own.
“Though Col. Cody has grown older, he bears well the burden of his years, and in appearance and action is about the same man who was the hero of boyhood days,” the Dallas newspaper observed.
Staying in present tense, the newspaper went on to describe how the famous showman expended some of the shells my granddad would reload for him:
“Mounted on his famous gray cow pony, the veteran plainsman gives an extraordinary exhibition of marksmanship which denotes he has also retained the keen eyesight that at one time made him a terror to Indian marauders and evil doers. Going at full speed he breaks glass balls tossed into the air in rapid succession, and very infrequently did his bullets fail to find and smash the target.”
Sam Baker, another marksman in the show, doubtless emptied many of the cartridges my granddad reloaded.
“In his exhibition of expert shooting,” the Morning News continued, “[Baker] displayed extraordinary skill. Holding his weapon in various and uncommon positions he broke in succession a score or more of targets without a single miss.”
Clearly, thanks in part of my granddad, Baker and Buffalo Bill had good ammunition at their disposal. Knowing my granddad, a second-generation German-Texan, he hadn’t loaded any duds.