Cody, Wyoming, the community founded by Buffalo Bill, is home to five world-class museums dubbed “Smithsonians of the West”
BY TODD WILKINSON
In his time, he was the equivalent of an international rock star. Sporting long wavy locks, a goatish chin beard, handlebar mustache and a hustling, dandy-like persona, “Buffalo Bill” Cody created myths about our region that still persevere in the imaginations of millions near and far.
Say what you will about the self-described “Indian fighter,” ironic friend of Sitting Bull, pal of Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane; the bison hunter who boasted of shooting thousands of the iconic native beasts to feed railroad workers, and who became legendary as a showman for his choreographed buckskin- Vaudeville and Battle of the Little Bighorn reenactments. But William F. Cody (1846-1917) accomplished one feat beyond dispute: he demonstrated remarkable vision by staking out the town site that today bears his name.
Travel down Sheridan Avenue in Cody, Wyoming — the street honoring Civil-War-turned-Indian-War General Philip Sheridan — past the art galleries and historic Irma Hotel, named after Cody’s daughter, down this tree-lined boulevard, and eventually you arrive at a landmark curve in the road. There, en route to Yellowstone National Park, quite unexpectedly awaits a quintet of museums dubbed “Smithsonians of the West.”
It’s a high-bar comparison repeated by the likes of novelist James Michener, actor Clint Eastwood and even the globally acclaimed African paleoanthropologist-conservationist Richard Leakey.
How could this be here, you wonder, in the middle of nowhere, an outpost of fewer than 10,000 permanent residents?
“Nancy knew that natural history is a powerful educator that can be a tool for finding common ground.” -Dr. Charles Preston
No other community its size in America, set in a large state of just 500,000 inhabitants, can claim similar status, boasts former U.S. Sen. Alan K. Simpson, one of Cody’s proudest denizens. During his tenure in Washington, D.C., Simpson and his wife, Ann, got involved with the real Smithsonian Institution, with which the Cody museums are affiliated and share exhibitions.
Even Buffalo Bill, Simpson says, would be left awestruck by the five museums today encompassed under the umbrella of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Even if Yellowstone did not exist, he suggests, a pilgrimage to Cody would be warranted.
At the Whitney Museum of Western Art, you’ll find a trove of priceless paintings and sculptures depicting the West by masters ranging from Frederic Remington to Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt.
The Western Plains Indian Museum is home to thousands of Native American cultural objects, costumes and artifacts. The Buffalo Bill Museum houses a collection chock-full of life effects and memorabilia related to Cody’s flamboyant and sometimes controversial life. And inside the Cody Firearms Museum is the coveted Winchester Arms Collection along with over 7,000 firearms (the largest collection of American guns in the country) and 30,000 firearms-related artifacts.
Then there’s the Draper Museum of Natural History, celebrating the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, anchored by Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and several national forests, the oldest in the country being the Shoshone, which begins in the town of Cody’s backyard.
None of these cultural meccas would exist save for two facts: the fine topographical and entrepreneurial eye of Cody himself, and an overachieving sense of community pride leveraged by the magnanimity of some powerful families who have adopted Cody as their home in the West.
After visiting Yellowstone in the 1890s, Bill Cody followed the North Fork of the Shoshone River eastward until the mountains opened up to the rugged plains encompassed by the Big Horn Basin. He predicted that the riverside location, soon reachable by a spur line of the transcontinental railroad, could become an inspiring gateway to America’s first national park.
Early skeptics claimed that the Draper,which opened in 2002,could never be pulled off. What they underestimated is the power of civic synergy that exists in Cody, a blend of local pride and affluent people whose families came west to stay at historic dude ranches in the area and remain transgenerationally smitten, according to Simpson.
“Here, nobody gives a rip what pedigree you might have. It was evident in the early days of this town and it’s still true today. Bill and Melinda Gates might come to town on vacation, joined by Warren Buffett who makes a trip to the local Dairy Queen because Berkshire-Hathaway has investments in Dairy Queen. There have been Ford Motor Company heirs and Rockefellers and DuPonts and many others,” Simpson said. “There’s a lack of pretentiousness and yet one of the ways people express their gratitude to this place for having given their families so many fond memories is by supporting these fine museums. Individually, each one is marvelous, but taken together it’s something you’d only other wise find in a major city. And I’ll tell you that a lot of cities envy what we’ve been able to do.”
Just as Cody was in its early days, the town is filled with characters whose eccentricities are not only abided but cherished, notes Simpson (and one could count him among them).
One such character, Nancy Carroll Draper, who grew up a scion in a wealthy Eastern business family, fell in love with the South Fork of the Shoshone River as a young girl on family vacation. Eventually, she purchased the Slide Mountain Ranch, nicknamed by townsfolk as “Fort Draper.”
Draper authored stories and books, served as a legislator, raised cows, and bred and judged Great Danes. From her place up the South Fork, she became a fearsome wildlife advocate and a champion in proclaiming Greater Yellowstone was special.
Her lawyer at the time, Senator Simpson speaks of Draper’s tenacity and outspokenness with fondness. “As her attorney, I often get calls from her on various matters,” he says. “One time she told me that a bunch of guys were up there in the valley stressing the mountain sheep. She wanted me to take my gun up there and drive them away. Although she posted ‘No Trespassing’ signs on her property, hunters would sneak on and if she heard a shot, she’d fire one back. It was never done with an intent on killing, just scaring.”
“Here, nobody gives a rip what pedigree you might have. It was evident in the early days of this town and it’s still true today.”
Draper adored the four museums at the Buffalo Bill Center but believed a natural history museum in the region was lacking, and if one was to join the pantheon of the other four it couldn’t be rinky-dink, undercapitalized or just filled with stuffed dead animals.
To jumpstart her dream and pushing back against initial detractors, she put up $1 million to explore the idea. To sweeten the incentives after it was shown such a museum could command a global presence, she contributed another $10 million to cover much of the 55,000-square-foot museum’s $17 million construction budget. Upon the Draper’s groundbreaking, she gave $2 million more.
Draper realized that a magnificent campus alone wasn’t enough. She wanted an expert to lead the planning, Dr. Charles Preston, a renowned naturalist and expert on birds of prey to serve as chief curator. Preston retired in early 2019, but together with the Draper’s board of advisors and trustees overseeing the Buffalo Bill Center, they made innovation its hallmark.
“People said that in this digital age of gadgets, museums were on their way out,” said Preston, who today is the Buffalo Bill Center’s senior scientist and curator emeritus. “Nancy didn’t believe that. To stimulate visitors’ senses, the center borrowed ideas from successful museums around the world, and aimed to take a bold approach.”
“When Nancy approached me, she said her dream was to create a different kind of museum,” Preston added, “one that didn’t shy away from issues shaping the environment, and God knows we’ve got a lot of them in Greater Yellowstone, be it wolves, grizzlies or the role of public lands. While those topics can be controversial, Nancy knew that natural history is a powerful educator that can be a tool for finding common ground.”
Draper passed away in 2008, but was able to be present for the museum’s opening six years prior. Her legacy lives on through the Draper’s myriad exhibits, an extension of her vision.
The Draper features interactive displays that allow visitors to have sensual experiences via the sight, sound, smell and touch of natural phenomena. One permanent offering, “The Raptor Experience,” allows visitors to view live birds of prey, including eagles, hawks, falcons and owls. The Draper has several ongoing research projects assessing the biological health of birds of prey in the Northern Rockies and on the high plains.
Beyond that, it has provocative exhibits, public theater presentations and a massive floor- map centerpiece of the Greater Yellowstone region that one can stroll across, speaking to the shared sense of place and identity growing stronger every year among residents of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
“The Draper, as far as I’m concerned, is the best museum of western American natural history that exists in the world,” said geoscientist Leighton Steward, who has served on the Draper advisory board and as a Buffalo Bill Center trustee. “Chuck [Preston] has been a marvel and a visionary. At a time when some museums in the country are struggling for attendance, he insisted on having interpretive exhibits that were fun and interactive.”
Preston has a dynamic personality and mousetrap mind for relaying fascinating facts of natural history. Under his leadership, the Draper amassed a collection of 170 wolf skulls being used in studies of how lobos hunt, what they eat and how the wolves that inhabited Greater Yellowstone before they were exterminated compare to wolves transplanted in the 1990s. In addition, the museum has upwards of 1,300 bird and mammal specimens. And the Draper is ambitious, massing a natural-sound library that chronicles the amazing acoustics of the wild.
“What’s so important to me is the number of children that come through …They come alive at the Draper and are exposed to the natural sciences in a way that leaves a lasting impression.”
Further, the museum is affiliated with the prestigious $100,000 Camp Monaco Prize awarded by Prince Albert II of Monaco, whose great-great- grandfather hunted with Buffalo Bill near the site known as Pahaska Tepee located between Cody and Yellowstone’s east entrance.
Among the first to come on the Draper’s advisory board is Kathryn Heminway of Bozeman. “I had always grown up with a great appreciation for the Buffalo Bill Center and Whitney Gallery and Plains Indian Museum,” says Heminway who is married to acclaimed author and filmmaker John Heminway. “There was so much energy and promotion of the firearms and fine art components of the complex, it required some effort to get people excited about the Draper. Chuck addressed that by really focusing on children’s education. When you hook kids, you’re also going to command the attention of their parents and extended family.”
Heminway says the Draper, more than any other, has played a catalytic role in helping people in the region understand the larger landscape-level concepts that hold Greater Yellowstone together. It has been a fulcrum for exhibits and conversations centered around the astonishing wildlife migrations involving elk, pronghorn and mule deer.
Recent Camp Monaco prize winners include a team putting together a traveling museum exhibit, along with help from the Wyoming Migration Initiative. “People were stunned
when they looked at the movies and photographs and maps of migrations prepared by researchers,” said Simpson, adding that the list includes Arthur Middleton, now at UC-Berkeley, and Matthew Kaufmann from the University of Wyoming, artist naturalists like James Prosek, videographergeo Jennie Nichols, and photographer Joe Riis. “[Riis] has worked for National Geographic, which loves the Draper,” Simpson said.
Growing out of that relationship was an exhibit called “Invisible Boundaries: Exploring Yellowstone’s Great Wildlife Migrations,” which showed how the massive seasonal wildlife movementsinGreaterYellowstone rank among the greatest on earth — the Draper was center stage for unveiling groundbreaking research.
“The Draper has really earned a place on the world map of fine museums,” says Anne Young, another board member and a conservationist. “What’s so important to me is the number of children that come through. I’ve seen it with my own grandchildren taking part in the education programs. They come alive at the Draper and are exposed to the natural sciences in a way that leaves a lasting impression.
“People talk about this thing called nature deficit disorder,” Young added. “Well, going to a place like the Draper can be a cure for that.”
BEYOND THE DRAPER
The BUFFALO BILL MUSEUM traces its roots to 1917, and is the flagship of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The museum first opened its doors to the public in 1927 in a log cabin in downtown Cody, modeled after Bill Cody’s house at his “TE Ranch.” The collection contains more than three dozen firearms that Cody owned, used, or presented as gifts, including the remnants of “Lucretia Borgia,” the U.S. Springfield Model 1866 .50-caliber, trap-door-type rifle that Cody used in hunting bison during the late 1860s and 1870s, earning for himself the nickname of “Buffalo Bill.”
The WESTERN PLAINS INDIAN MUSEUM, in the words of the late Plains Indian Museum Advisory Board member and Crow tribal historian Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow, is “a living, breathing place where more than just Indian objects are on display.” Since 1979 the museum has been a leader in promoting public recognition of the importance of Plains Indian art due to its nationally significant collection. The museum sponsors the spectacular Plains Indian Museum Powwow held each June in the Robbie Powwow Garden at the Center of the West. Dancers from all over North America come to Cody to compete and share this event with visitors.
The WHITNEY WESTERN ART MUSEUM began with one work of art dedicated in 1924: the monumental sculpture of Buffalo Bill known as “The Scout,” by artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Among the priceless works by artists who made Romantic portrayals of the West and the intersection of wildlife, native peoples and cowboys is Edgar Paxson’s famous depiction of Custer’s Last Stand. The Whitney Collection includes original paintings, sculptures, and prints that trace artistic interpretations of the West from the early 19th century to today.
The CODY FIREARMS MUSEUM houses the most comprehensive collection of American firearms in the world, including the Winchester Arms Collection. “We seek to provide every visitor — from gun aficionados, to firearms novices, to those without previous firearms experience — with a unique educational opportunity,” a museum spokesperson writes. “This museum is more than just guns; firearms help inform the story of the West, the story of gun cultures, and the story of people.”
Note: Exhibitions at the Buffalo Bill Center in 2019 include a look at the 100th anniversary of the Cody Stampede this summer, and “Women in Wyoming: Portraits and Interviews of Women Who Shape the West,” coming in the fall. The Cody Firearms Museum is having a grand reopening in early July following a renovation. One of the grandest Western art events on this side of the Mississippi, the 38th annual Buffalo Bill Art Sale and Show, attracts collectors and artists from around the world September 20-21. If you missed it in Cody, “Invisible Boundaries” is on display at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole from July through mid-September 2019. -TW
Todd Wilkinson, who lives in Bozeman, is a western correspondent for National Geographic and The Guardian, and is founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), a nonprofit, public-interest journalism site devoted to exploring the intersection of people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His column, The New West, also appears weekly in the Explore Big Sky newspaper.