The History of Joliet – Chapter 31

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“The life he is leading will kill him if he keeps it up much longer.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

On the Saturday morning of March 31, 1915, a big man with long hair, mustache and goatee rode a white horse through the streets of downtown Joliet leading a circus parade. He was wearing fancy fringed buckskins decorated with a pair of bone-handled Colt revolvers.

Buffalo Bill had come to Joliet.

But William Frederick CODY, the famed scout, hunter and showman, was described as “aging, feeble and hardly able to climb into the saddle.” He was 75 years old then and this was one of his last shows.

Traveling with the Sells Floto Circus, Buffalo Bill did two shows that afternoon and evening at the circus grounds located at Wilcox and Granite streets. That afternoon, he led a charge of cowboys after Indians.

In between the shows, he renewed his friendship with Joliet attorney John GARNSEY, whom had been a friend from 25 years earlier on the frontier. GARNSEY invited 20 Boy Scouts to his Raynor Avenue home to meet the showman.

Buffalo Bill entertained the scouts with tales of his frontier days and his thrilling adventures in battles with Native Americans. He told the scouts that he was one of the originators of the Boy Scout movement in 1887 and had helped to draw up its plans.

But the old hero was ill. He declined a dinner offered by the Joliet Rotary Club. After the morning parade, he was taken back to his personal car to rest. After the afternoon show, he was treated by a Joliet doctor.

“The life he is leading will kill him if he keeps it up much longer,” GARNSEY said.

“I’m too old for this business,” Buffalo Bill told a reporter for the Joliet Evening Herald News. “It tires me very rapidly and I can’t stand it much longer.”

He said he could sit in a saddle, which had once been his second home, for only a few minutes at a time.

But thousands of people showed up to see him. One little 10-year-old boy had been a hero earlier that afternoon while walking to the circus grounds. The boy had spotted an accident and responded quickly.

In that incident, a girl was holding a live electrical wire and couldn’t let go. A man, who had been attempting to help the child, was also grabbed by the power in the live wire. The quick-thinking boy, who happened to be just passing by, had picked up a stick and knocked the wire out of their hands.

A news story noted the boy, who said he was on his way to see Buffalo Bill, had left without anyone getting his name. He was in a rush to see his hero, the news article said.

“The old scout shows every bit of his age,” the newspaper reported. “Tall and gaunt, the hardships of the road have told on him and he is ready to settle down for the remaining years of his life…

“Buffalo Bill is rapidly nearing the end of the trail.”

He wasn’t the man he had been three years earlier when he brought Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Pawnee Bill’s Far East Show to Joliet. The date was July 22, 1912.

A newspaper advertisement for that show — the price of a ticket 50 cents, half price if under age 9 — said it included 500 horses, all kinds of animals and 800 rugged, action-loving characters.

“The show is exceeding in scope and intensity anything heretofore devised by mankind,” the ad stated. “Mr. CODY has found he struck the keynote in amusement enterprise.”

The story of Buffalo Bill’s 1912 appearance in Joliet was overshadowed by the formation of a Will County Bull Moose political party. This was the third party that formed nationally to support Theodore ROOSEVELT in another attempt at the president’s office.

The party held a conference and elected delegates while Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill were entertaining a crowd at the circus grounds.

Reportedly during the 1912 visit, Buffalo Bill introduced himself to Annie Oakley’s family who lived in Joliet. Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler, both who had been sharpshooters in the Wild West Show, often came to Joliet.

Butler’s brother lived here and managed a large department store. His granddaughter, Billie Butler Serene, was Annie Oakley’s favorite niece.

When the aging Buffalo Bill left Joliet after the two performances in 1915, he retired from show business. The old scout died two years later in 1917 as World War I was beginning.

He was buried on Lookout Mountain near Denver.

Next Saturday: The beginning of World War I

Published October 27, 2001