Nov 4, 2015

Nearly a century after his death, Buffalo Bill inducted into Wyoming Business Hall of Fame

Buffalo Bill Cody was the most famous man in the world at one time, and his larger-than-life legend is forever tied to the town, dam and rodeo that bears his name. But he was first and foremost a cagey and highly effective businessman.

And that's why the Wyoming Business Alliance will be inducting Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody into the Wyoming Business Hall of Fame in November.

Buffalo Bill Cody, circa 1875. Photos via Wikimedia Commons
The announcement was recently made jointly by the Wyoming Business Alliance, Wyoming Business Council and University of Wyoming, the three entities that oversee the two-year-old Hall of Fame.

Cody will be inducted under the “pioneer” category, joining James Cash Penney, founder of J.C. Penny department stores as well as contemporary heroes of the business community.

“Buffalo Bill Cody was many things — a showman, a storyteller and a civic leader — but he was also a businessman extraordinaire, with a long list of successes in a variety of industries, from tourism to newspapers,” said Claudia Wade, director of the Park County Travel Council, the marketing arm for Buffalo Bill’s Cody/Yellowstone Country. “Today’s town of Cody owes its prominence and prosperity to its namesake, Buffalo Bill Cody, who had the guts to think about the future, and to think big.”

Buffalo Bill Cody died in 1917, but the folks inducting him into the hall of fame say many solid lessons that can still be learned from his business history.

Wade offered the following examples of Buffalo Bill’s business accomplishments and contemporary takeaways:


Go big or get out

Cody’s brainchild, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,” was so oddly fanciful, so unbelievably elaborate and so incredibly successful that few could have pulled it off. Try providing temporary housing, feeding and tending to the medical and other needs of hundreds of people and animals. The logistics of the show were daunting. Then add the marketing, scheduling and other operational needs of the massive traveling show and you have a truly formidable daily undertaking. Yet because of Buffalo Bill’s innate business acumen and leadership, the show survived and thrived for years.

Notice and capitalize on trends

In the late 1800s, the world was having a love affair with the American West as well as horse-centric performances. Wild Bill Hickok, for example, staged a buffalo hunt with American Indians and cowboys performing, and American Indian life was often theatrically showcased in circuses in the U.S. and Europe. Buffalo Bill noticed. He first dipped his toes in the world of theatrics with small, local performances he called “border dramas” and applied what he learned from those small-scale productions to the “Wild West Show.”

• Treat employees well

Buffalo Bill was known for fair treatment and good pay for all of his performers, including women, Indians and performers of various races and nationalities. All performers received fair wages. They received decent housing and three hot meals a day. And they were permitted to travel with their families. Performers repaid Buffalo Bill in loyalty and a high level of commitment with great performances time after time.


• Make lots of friends and few enemies

Buffalo Bill made very important friends, and they helped him become successful. Among them were politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt and royalty including the Prince of Monaco, as well as generals, writers and civic leaders.

• Employ creative problem-solving

The region that would eventually become Cody was perfect in all ways but one. It lacked a reliable water source. Instead of looking elsewhere, Cody and his team of investors created the Shoshone Land and Irrigation Company and built the Cody dam on the Shoshone River. Construction on the massive project began in 1905, and the dam was completed in January 1910 at a cost of $929,658 (more than $22 million in 2015 currency). At 325 feet, it was the highest concrete dam in the world.


• Be an expert communicator

In 1896, the primary way to communicate with masses of people was through a newspaper, so Cody started one. Still in operation today, the Cody Enterprise was the vehicle Cody used to tell the growing population of the town about his vision, update them on developments and gain their support.


• Be pragmatic

Buffalo Bill wanted travelers to visit Cody, and in order to accomplish that goal, he knew he needed a hotel. So he built the Irma Hotel (and named it after his daughter). The hotel is still in operation today, and every summer it is the gathering place for visitors to watch the nightly Wild West Gunfighters show.

Know your audience

The “Wild West Show” was relatively tame, with family-friendly performances depicting cowboy and Indian conflicts and other frontier scenes. When his show arrived in Spain, however, he added a rougher edge to the performance because the audience there — where the often-bloody running of the bulls was a cherished tradition — expected more perceived brutality.

• Be kind to animals

Although he was an accomplished and dedicated hunter, he was also committed to the health and well-being of the animals in his show.

• Always be on the lookout for talent

Annie “Little Sure Shot” Oakley learned to shoot a gun in order to feed her family, and once her skills were on Buffalo Bill’s radar, he made her one of the stars of his show. She performed in the Wild West Show for 17 years, and she had admirers around the world.

A portrait of Cody, done by artist Rosa Bonheur in 1889
• Look for beauty

Buffalo Bill Cody loved to hunt, and he found a way to feed that passion in an especially beautiful area of the Shoshone Forest. So crazy about the region, with its mountains, rock formations and river, he built a hunting lodge he called Pahaska Tepee. There, he was able to share the beauty of the region with friends such as Theodore Roosevelt and the Prince of Monaco.

• Think globally

When the Wild West Show traveled to Europe, the show had perhaps more impact on positive diplomatic relationships than any traditional politician. His friendship was sincere, as illustrated by the room-long Cherrywood bar in the Irma Hotel that was a gift from one of his biggest fans, Queen Victoria.

• Live locally

Buffalo Bill’s years-long mission to build the town of Cody was marked by a keen understanding of the importance of local buy-in. He formed the Cody Club, an early version of the Cody Chamber of Commerce which provided the town’s first formal governmental body. The club and its leaders eventually focused on the town’s needs like mail service, roads, telephone service, water works and sewers, ultimately resulting in the thriving, healthy, business-friendly town that visitors experience today.

1 comment:

  1. Buffalo Bill had nothing to do with the creation of the so-called Buffalo Bill Dam . Matter of fact, he despised it and tried to stop it. Bill Cody hated the federal government , especially when they started doing big projects with public money , even though he was friend to the progressive Teddy Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt's new Reclamation Service ( a division of the Geologic Survey) , the guidance of Elwood Mead the engineer, and the Burlington Railroad that spurred the Shoshone Dam to fruition, NOT Buffalo Bill. Cody's own dismal Shoshone Irrigation system and its Cody Canal could be reckoned somewhere between a money losing failure and a marginally productive success. It was Cody's intention to bring water to " his" fledgling towns of Ralston and Garland , but the Cody Canal couldn't even get ample reliable water into Cody. We all know how garland and Ralston turned out---NOT!. In the meantime, the railroad and federal reclamation people created a railhead and entirely new agri-community called Powell. In a little known sidebar, Powell was as much the progeny of Severt Nelson , a card carrying Prohibitionist who happened to be the Editor of the Cody Enterprise at the time, the paper that Buffalo Bill bankrolled ( but had little management thereof). Nelson go so disgusted with Cody the Man and Cody the Town and both of their drinking problems that he abdicated and went downriver to create Powell as a dry community. he also had quite a bit to say about all the soiled doves and such in Cody , so Powell got its start as a dry and chaste village. Which WAS successful.

    Buffalo Bill does not deserve this award as an entrepreneur , if you remove the Wild West Show from the equation. Yes, he was famous around the globe, but so much are the Kardashians these days. Buffalo Bill's Wild West show went broke a few times, and at the end he sold it and was just a performer in it , used up The money he made from it was squandered on many Many MANY bad investments and dysfunctional projects, which he did not involve himself in much beyond name dropping and gladhanding.. He ended up fireselling the Irma and his beloved TE Ranch and other local holdings to avoid losing them all in bankruptcy . In his last years he spent very little time in the town of Cody and came to dislike the place. All in all, his non-Wild West business dealings were almost all failures or unprofitable.

    The Shoshone Dam was renamed to Buffalo Bill Dam in 1946 on the occasion of William F. Cody's 100th birthday, as an honorific without any substance behind it. Matter of fact, Buffalo Bill would have declined the honor , vehemently so.

    Any allusion that William F. Cody was a successful businessman and golden entrepreneur is delusional. Great propaganda and a tad too much hero worship , but the facts say otherwise. And for writing this and posting it here , I will myself be branded a Heretic in my own home town... so be it.

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