They Stole Buffalo Bill’s House Tracking the showman and his home from LeClaire, Iowa, to Golden, Colorado.

Tracking the showman and his home from LeClaire, Iowa, to Golden, Colorado.
Tracking the showman and his home from LeClaire, Iowa, to Golden, Colorado.

For the people of LeClaire, Iowa, it was the crime of the century. “Back in ’33,” said the retired  Mississippi River men (customers on my childhood Des Moines Register paper route), “those railroad people came in the middle of the night, quiet as you please. Yes, sir, loaded that big, old house on a railroad flatcar and they were halfway across Nebraska before any of us were the wiser.”

They were describing the “theft” of the boyhood home of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was born just outside of town in rural Scott County in 1846. “Young Will” spent the first decade of his life there, living in, among other places, a two-story, frame house that sat on a small bluff overlooking the Mighty Muddy.  Today, it is an empty lot with a sign to mark the “crime scene.”

Those river guys are long since dead now, but their unforgiving grudge has intrigued me ever since.  The facts are that in 1933, the Union Pacific Railroad purchased that empty two-story house.  They then hauled it out to Cody, Wyoming, where the house became one of the initial exhibits at the then-new Buffalo Bill Historical Center. For some Depression-era LeClaire residents, it was their only link to their favorite son who, they recalled, occasionally visited the area with his famous Wild West show when they were kids.  They never forgave the railroad for “stealing” the house.

I decided to seek out that house, while covering some of the same territory that Buffalo Bill, both the boy and the man, traveled during his long, complex life.

My two college-age nieces, Melissa and Elizabeth Kidder, were game to go along, so I packed up the old truck with coolers, camping and hiking gear, maps, plenty of camera film and books about Buffalo Bill.

Scene of the Crime

We start our journey across the Mississippi River in Iowa off Interstate 80 at LeClaire, the scene of the 1933 “crime.” The marker notes the original location of the Cody home, while Buffalo Bill memorabilia can be found at the Buffalo Bill Museum, which also exhibits historic photographs depicting life in this river town when the steamboat was king.

While there, pick up the museum’s free map of the “Cody Trail,” a 25-mile car tour that loops around Scott County to sites related to the Cody family and other points of interest depicting early Iowa pioneer life.

Bill’s father Isaac was never one to stay in one place very long, so the family lived in several homes around the area. The only Cody house still standing on its original site is a limestone structure that Isaac built himself in 1847.  Today, the restored home is filled with artifacts from the period when the Cody family lived in it, shortly after young William was born. (The William Cody “birthplace” cabin site has long since been reclaimed by  Iowa cornfields.)

In 1849, Isaac got gold fever and moved the family to the “stolen home” in LeClaire, while he prepared to travel by wagon train with a party of men to California, a trip he never actually made.

Young William recalled those early LeClaire days, when he had fun on the river with his boyhood friends: “I went sailing with two other boys; in a few minutes we found ourselves in the middle of the Mississippi; becoming frightened at the situation, we lost our presence of mind, as well as our oars.  We at once set up a chorus of pitiful yells, when a man, who fortunately heard us, came to our rescue with a canoe and towed us ashore.  We had stolen the boat, and our trouble did not end until we had each received a merited whipping, which impressed the incident vividly upon my mind.”

Isaac soon moved the family to Walnut Grove, northwest of LeClaire, where, in 1853, Bill’s older brother Samuel was killed when a horse he’d been warned not to ride threw him off.

Cody’s Nebraska Home

Continue along Interstate 80 to cross Nebraska. One of Cody’s most special places was North Platte, just outside his Scout’s Rest Ranch, which is found along U.S. Route 30. As an army scout, working out of Fort McPherson, Bill ranched about 4,000 acres northwest of the fort. He enjoyed the life of hunting and scouting, both for the Army and for the railroad, and he often guided foreign dignitaries and shared these open plains with men such as George Custer and Wild Bill Hickok.

During the winter months, Cody starred on Chicago and New York stages in Western melodramas. The shows were terribly produced, but the public loved them, hungry for adventurous stories of the “Wild West.”  This was before the large-scale live shows Cody would soon organize himself.

Cody’s long absences with his scouting trips early in his marriage and with the stage shows later on, his recklessness with money and his adulterous relationships all took a terrible toll on the relationship with his wife Louisa (Lulu). In the mid-1880s, while Bill was getting his Wild West show on its feet, the Cody marriage hit a low point; he discovered Lulu had put much of the North Platte ranch in her name only (which she had done to protect their investment). A devastated Bill wrote to his sister: “Ain’t that a nice way for a wife to act? I have been sending money to her for the last five years to buy property, not dreaming but what she was buying it in my name but instead she had put it up in her name and now claims it. My beautiful house. I have none to go to.  Al and I will have to build another.”

Build a new one he did. He commissioned his sister’s husband, Al Goodman, to build a new house in North Platte. Today, the two-story structure of Second Empire Style with Italianate and Eastlake features is open for tours, along with the rest of what is left of the original ranch, about 16 acres. Operated by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the house has been faithfully restored and exhibits many original Cody artifacts.

The cast of characters living at Scout’s Rest Ranch changed more often, it seemed, than one of Cody’s Wild West shows. By the turn of the 20th century, Cody was ready, sadly, to rid himself of the headaches, writing:  “I think I am entitled to be at peace in my old age. And surely I can’t have it with Lulu. And she will be happier too. I will give her everything at North Platte and a yearly allowance besides.” He had, by then, turned his interests westward to the Bighorn Basin country.

Cody in Yellowstone Country

We head straight for Yellowstone country. If ever there was a city completely given over to the memory of one man, it is Cody, Wyoming.  Located on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, Cody is less than an hour’s drive from Yellowstone and Teton National Parks.

First we stop in Sheridan though, to imbibe a drink at the Sheridan Inn bar, where Buffalo Bill helped lay out his plans for the town of Cody in the late 1890s. “It’s lovely country,” he wrote to his sister Julia. “The finest climate in the world, it’s to be my home now.” Cody loved the blue sky and towering mountains. He could relax hunting in the hills and fishing in the streams, smelling the aroma of the pines.

He financed the construction of large irrigation canals and purchased large tracts of land nearby, as well as lots in town. On one of them he built the Irma Hotel, named for his daughter, which his widowed daughter and sisters operated.

Excited about relocating to Cody, he wrote to Julia: “The new dining room will be a big café and will be run on the European plan. I am going to buy the very best furniture and bedsteads and mattresses, have fine oil paintings for office, parlors and dining room. I have got a mountain picked out big enough for us all to be buried on.”  (This last statement would cause quite a controversy years later.)  The grand opening of the hotel took place on November 18, 1902.

I drive into Cody, with my nieces, who are anxious to find the “stolen house” that is now part of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the town’s main attraction. The Buffalo Bill Museum itself is only one of the many galleries that make up this impressive learning and research center. The center also offers museums devoted to natural history, Plains Indians, art and firearms.

At the Buffalo Bill wing, you’ll find items of his youth, mixed in with the usual Wild West show posters.

At one point during our tour, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Uncle Scott, here’s the key to the house!” as she pointed to a glass display case. Sure enough, there, on a shelf, was a wrought iron key that stated it unlocked the front door of the “Boyhood Home of Buffalo Bill in LeClaire, Iowa.” Surely the house itself couldn’t be far away.

Melissa took a closer look at our Historical Center Visitor’s Guide and pointed out a line drawing in the upper left-hand corner, far removed from the main segment of the center, that stated:  “Buffalo Bill Boyhood Home.” We walked outside and to the back of the center, and, sure enough, next to the rear parking lot was a two-story house, rather plain looking.

Once inside the house, we heard a recording explaining what was in the home. Several placards pointed out the architecture and furnishings. Perhaps such a house could have been loaded onto a railroad flatcar in the dark of night after all?

The house was moved in 2004 to Greever Garden where the landscape will soon resemble Iowa—minus the Mississippi River, of course. Carpenters restored the exterior of the home in 2005, using 19th-century siding. Restoration work on the home continues.

The next day, we head back up the highway to Bridger-Teton National Forest.  It was heaven. We walk through meadows of clover, up across muddy stream beds, into forested areas and down to the shore of the lake that reflected the surrounding mountains as clearly as any mirror.  It’s no wonder that Cody retreated to this area in his later years, trying to toss off his rocky marriage, his often shattered finances and his failed investments.

By the time Cody launched his “farewell tour” in New York in 1910, he was nearing the end of his energy, and his funds. He formally announced his retirement in 1913 at the age of 67.

When Cody’s beloved show went bankrupt, he was forced to work for others. His “iron constitution” was failing him and in a birthday speech to a group of friends, he admitted:  “While I am a rover, and traveled over lots of country, Cody, Wyoming, is my home and shall always be my home as long as I live. And I want so to live that when I have gone from this world, my spirit shall still be with you here in the country of my choice.”

Yet that is not where his body lies today.

Cody’s Golden Grave

Our southeasterly course across Wyoming takes us to the Colorado border and on to Golden, near the foot of Lookout Mountain, our final Cody site. Cody’s grave site is marked at the very peak of a place that was a popular tourist spot even when he was alive.

It’s a long, switchback-filled drive up the mountain. Several buildings are perched on the summit, one of which is an old trading post named “Pahaska Teepee” after Cody’s ranch house in Wyoming.  This was opened and run by Johnny Baker, a lifelong Cody friend and Wild West show star, primarily as a place for him to display his vast collection of Western memorabilia to the public. As the collection grew and grew, eventually a separate museum building was built.  Don’t miss the little theater and its interesting video about the development of the site in Cody’s honor. (Pahaska Teepee also has great homemade fudge.)

While Cody visited his sister in Denver, the end came for him on January 10, 1917.  The city had never seen the likes of the funeral ceremony that was put on for the old scout. His body, lying in state in the state capitol rotunda, was visited by a line of thousands, with bands playing.

Cody historians know well the controversy surrounding Cody’s funeral and ultimate burial on Lookout Mountain.  On Memorial Day (then called “Decoration Day”) 1917, the funeral procession wound its way up the road of Lookout Mountain to the spot where Cody’s daughter, sister and Johnny Baker insisted that the old scout had indicated he wished to spend eternity.

Citizens of both North Platte, Nebraska, and Cody, Wyoming, each claimed that it was their site where Bill wanted to be buried, no doubt thinking of the revenue generated by the annual visitors to his grave.  Citizens of Denver took the threats of “body stealing” so seriously that a tank and armed troops from the Colorado National Guard were dispatched to guard the mountaintop grave.  After Cody’s wife passed away and was laid to rest next to him several years later, many tons of concrete were poured on top of the crypt, effectively ending any threat to stealing the body and establishing Lookout Mountain as the “Grave site of Buffalo Bill.”

It’s a short hike along a tree-lined trail from the trading post up to the grave.  Here, surrounded by an iron fence and overlooking three states, lies the venerable Western hero.  As luck would have it, the day we were there on Lookout Mountain, we witnessed a trick-shooting display, complete with a “kidnapping the fair maiden” scenario which Cody would have enjoyed—a fitting finale to our Cody odyssey.

When we finally pulled back into my sister’s driveway in Ohio, she asked if we had, indeed, found the “stolen house.”  We all came to the conclusion that the house is in good hands. If Cody himself can’t be in Cody, Wyoming, at least a real part of his legacy and early life is found there.

What do you think?