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Falling bricks reveal secret: 124-year-old billboard promoting “Buffalo Bill” Cody

The Associated Press
Tuesday July 09, 2002

Ad is among earliest  

graphic representations of the Wild West legend 


JAMESTOWN, N.Y. — The crumbling brick facade of a downtown building revealed a long-forgotten secret: a 124-year-old billboard promoting a dramatic appearance by “Buffalo Bill” Cody. 

Experts say the 26-by-10-foot billboard, uncovered when workers began removing the wall last month to prevent its collapse, is among the earliest graphic representation of the Wild West legend. 

Pasted to wood sheathing behind the bricks was the paper poster of Cody waving his hat to a crowd, announcing “Buffalo Bill in his new theatrical drama ... May Cody” on March 14, 1878. 

“We knew we had to act quickly,” said Keith Schmitt, acting director of the Chautauqua County Arts Council, which quickly began preservation work on the fragile paper. “Some of the pieces were already coming away from the wall and blowing away.” 

Schmitt and volunteers photographed the pieces and collected those that were removable as historians began researching the performance at the Allen Opera House in this city 60 miles south of Buffalo. 

Historian Karen Livsey found that the show was part of a sixth-anniversary tour of “The Buffalo Bill Combination,” an early theater troupe organized by and starring Cody. “May Cody” depicted the Mormons’ early settlement in Utah. 

Experts believe the wall was built over the poster the year of the performance, hiding it ever since. 

William F. Cody, who died in 1917, was a prospector-turned-Pony Express rider and Civil War veteran who later hunted buffalo to feed railroad construction crews. Legend has it he earned the name “Buffalo Bill” in a daylong shooting match with a hunter named William Comstock, presumably to determine who deserved the title. 

Cody became a national folk hero in the pages of the “Buffalo Bill” dime novels of Ned Buntline, who in 1872 persuaded Cody to take to the stage to tell stories of the Wild West. The Buffalo Bill Combination toured the country for 10 years until 1883, when Cody began the Wild West Show.