The name of Buffalo Bill conjures up images of the long-haired marksman gunning down buffalo on the plains. Or the silver-haired showman who operate his Wild West Show in the East and in Europe. Few, if any, think of an aging and financially ruined circus performer stepping off the train at the Modesto Southern Pacific depot.
Yet it is an overlooked fact that the legendary William F. Cody (1846-1917) performed with the Sells-Floto Circus twice in Stanislaus County. Buffalo Bill camped out across the river from Ceres for a show on May 2, 1914 and again a year later, on April 29, 1915.
The visits created excitement for the Modesto-Ceres area, generated by the hype of the Modesto Morning Herald, a forerunner to the Modesto Bee. Until now Cody missed the area. Records supplied by the Buffalo Bill Museum indicate that Cody's first tour in the San Joaquin Valley was in 1877 when he performed his show in Stockton June 18 and 19 and Sacramento June 20-23, 1877. He was again in the Valley in 1902, skipping Modesto but performing in Merced on Sept. 18, 1902 and in Fresno the next day.
Cody had previously visited Stockton in October 1910, which advertised his final goodbye tour. However, he continued to perform up until his death.
Cody first gained fame as an Army scout and Pony Express rider. He earned the nickname Buffalo Bill in 1867 and 1868 after killing 4,280 buffalo in 18 months to supply meat to the workers of the Kansas Pacific Railway. Cody also served as a scout in the Sioux Indian Wars but from 1883 toured with his Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill used real cowboys and cowgirls, recruited from ranches in the west, to demonstrate bronco riding, roping, and other skills that would later become part of public rodeos.
Newspaper ads appeared in late April announcing the Modesto show on Saturday, May 2, 1914. The circus promoted a free two-mile parade led by Cody himself in his prairie outfit, including a "menagerie of trained but untamed beast of the jungle," and "120 world champion riders." Three herds of elephants, 24 lions, tigers and leopards were included under the "11 acres of canvas" all for 25 cents admission. Reserve tickets were sold at Player's Drugstore.
The Herald published more articles on the arrival of Cody than of his actual performance. The April 26, 1914 edition noted that Major John M. Burke, a "plains partner," and "advance scout" for Cody was in Modesto on April 25. He told the paper that an enthusiastic group of Modesto boosters attended the San Francisco show and convinced circus officials to bring the show to the valley.
Burke plugged the show as worthy of a 70- to 100-mile trip.
The papers of the day give a glimpse at what was going on in the neighboring communities of Ceres and Hughson. The May 1 edition noted that the Hughson RFD (rural free delivery) was to begin that day. Homer Newberry was the temporary mail carrier, pending appointment by the Civil Service Commission. His route was 20 miles long and served just 180 families.
Further down the page on which the April 22 Sells-Floto advertisement appeared, was an article about a flyover in Hughson. A pilot named Blakely had barnstormed Hughson, mistaking it for Modesto in a 325-mile air race from San Francisco to Bakersfield.
The Sells-Floto Circus made its way to Modesto by way of shows in San Francisco, April 22-26, 1914; San Jose, April 27; Vallejo, April 28; Petaluma, April 29, and Santa Rosa, April 31; before coming to Berkeley on May 1.
At 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 2, Cody led a two-mile parade through downtown Modesto. It was customary for circuses to pique interest of the town folk with gaudy vehicles and circus animals. When circuses began to travel by railroad they carried their handsome wagons on flatcars and it unloaded them to give their traditional free street parades.
Buffalo Bill's parade route is unknown but it's likely that the parade went down I Street, then the main street. I Street sported the new steel archway - erected in 1912 - announcing that Modesto was a place of "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health." I Street was the place where the County Courthouse was located, as well as the library built in 1912. It is known that the parade passed through 10th and I streets (where the current Gallo Center is located ) because the May 3 Modesto newspaper reported that severe traffic congestion at that corner resulted in a car hitting a 10-year-old Maybelle Harbaugh.
The parade no doubt attracted residents of Ceres and Hughson. After all, the circus was just less than four miles from downtown Ceres and some could walk that distance.
Cody put onto the shows in Modesto on May 2, a matinee show at 2 p.m. which attracted a lot of kids; and the evening show at 8 p.m.
Throngs flocked to the circus tents set up at 13th and D streets on what is now Gallo Winery warehouse property, a short distance from the northern buff of the Tuolumne River. A newspaper article bragged that the tents covered 11 acres and could seat 14,000 people, which would have just about sucked the county dry of its residents for one night. "A man with the voice of the steamship siren could talk to an assemblage like that," the article editorialized.
There was scant coverage of the 1914 show itself. The Modesto paper noted that the circus "attracted the largest crowd that has been in Modesto with the exception of the Fourth of July."
If Modesto reporters interviewed Cody, it didn't reflect in their account: "The Sells-Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill himself gave two performances here yesterday to immense audiences," the paper reported. "This is a first class circus and all who attended felt they received their money's worth. There are plenty of acts, ranging from the old-time circus stuff to the Wild West riders and Sioux Indians and all were first class. The costumes and trappings are new and clean and in innovation was the uniforming of the roustabouts, who generally appear attired in dirty overalls."
The Modesto report also noted that "Buffalo Bill is not as active as of yore and contents himself with one ride around the big ring. He is as handsome as ever, however."
If one ride around the ring was all they got, it's because Cody was a tired old man. Desiring to retire for years prior, Cody simply had to work to pay off his indebtedness. Cody made a series of bad business transactions, led an extravagant lifestyle and was generous to a fault when it came to helping his family. Cody was in desperate financial straits.
Years of traveling took their toll on Cody. Nine months before his Modesto appearance, Cody wrote to his sister, "Years of work and worry have broken my once iron constitution... this is a killing life."
Buffalo Bill had been coerced to join the Sells-Floto Circus after signing papers to receive a loan to float the struggling Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Far East Show. In 1912 Cody needed financing for his four-year-old show and received a $20,000 loan from Harry Tammen, a Denver newspaper publisher. Cody couldn't pay the debt - due to the failure of drawing paying crowds and continual weather problems which affected attendance. Cody and Pawnee Bill were in Denver in July 1913 when the loan became due. Tammen had the show seized by the sheriff on the spot. Tammen would not extend the loan so Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Far East Show was sold at auction. Continuing to use the debt as leverage Tammen forced Buffalo Bill to appear in his circus.
Thus, during 1914 only, Cody was property of Sells-Floto. The old man only had to make an appearance and lead parades. There were no requirements to shoot glass balls or ride a horse.
In attendance at the Modesto show was Carl King (1891-1971), who in 1914 had been appointed bandmaster with Sells-Floto and Buffalo Bill combined shows, a position he held to 1916. King greatly admired "the Colonel" as he was affectionately called.
The Modesto show included the appearance of Lucia Zora, then 37, billed as the "bravest woman in the world for her elephant handling abilities." One of her stunts included perching herself on an elephant tusk as the animal walked in the ring on its hind legs.
The Herald reported that "children galore" packed the afternoon show. "One little boy, sobbing bitterly, was placed on the bally-ho stand of the side show in the hope that some would identify him. All went well until the ‘bally ho' consisting of the snake charmer, wild man and other freaks arrived on the platform and then the sobs gave way to a real cry for the lad thought he was not only lost, but doomed as well."
From Modesto, Sells-Floto packed up and went south, Buffalo Bill riding the rails south through Ceres on his way to the next show in Hanford on May 4 and in Fresno on May 5. If he had looked out the left side of his private box car, he would've seen the tiny town of Ceres, with its wooden water tower near the Odd Fellows Hall. It's likely that the tired old man may not have even seen the Ceres depot with its wide overhangs on both sides off to his right. It's unknown if anybody pointed out that it was here at the Ceres depot that two train robbers named Chris Evans and John Sontag snuck onto a southbound train on September 3, 1891 to ride it down the tracks at approximately the Mitchell Road off-ramp. Sontag and Evans were later tracked down for the Ceres job, as well as others in the southern part of the valley. Sontag was killed in a shootout and Evans was jailed for the crime.
Keyes didn't have its depot yet. Officials placed boxcars next to the rails to serve as the station that year. That summer would be so hot that the depot would go through five agents.
Cody went zipping back through Ceres headed northbound for a May 6 show in Stockton and on and Sacramento on May 7.
Cody's show was back in Modesto on April 29, 1915. The Ceres page of the Modesto Herald of April 28, 1915 noted small town tidbits, such as George W. Averill falling from a step ladder "so badly bruising his head it was necessary to call for the services of Dr. Cartwright." In that same issue, the Ceres Department Store in the Cedroco Building advertised men's blue chambray work shirts with two pockets for 35 cents apiece, and men's heavy tan barnyard shoes with full double souls for just $2.50. The George F. Wood General Merchandise Store advertised black eyed bean seeds.
The news article announcing the April 29, 1915 show in Modesto noted the appearance of Rosa Rosalind, a "rider so wonderful that she agrees by her contract to forefeit her day's salary if she does not perform without fault equestrienne feats that seem almost impossible."
Beside the 40 clowns, there was also Marguerite and Captain Dutch Recardo "who train lions and tigers and leopards with nothing more than a ten-cent buggy whip."
Returning to Modesto was Zora with "her three herds of performing elephants, including Snyder, the biggest ‘tusker' in the world."
Buffalo Bill was the final mention in the story. "And, of course, there's Buffalo Bill, the original and only Buffalo Bill, with his troupe of genuine cowboys and cowgirls, the champions of many a stampede and rodeo, with his vaqueros and Indians and his Old Deadwood stage coach, and all the other things that go to make up the features of his wild west entertainment, which he is to present and supervise personally."
The article noted a 10:30 a.m. parade led by Buffalo Bill to "traverse the principal downtown streets."
Tickets to the show were available at Maze Drug Store.
When he left Modesto Cody would never return. He would die in less than two years.
At the time of his death on Jan. 30, 1917, Cody was one of the best known celebrities on the globe. His grave on Lookout Mountain overlooking Denver remains a well-visited tourist spot.