Buffalo Bill Cody grew up in nearby Leavenworth, Kansas, so he is a part of the legacy of our neighborhood.
Cody was generous to a fault, especially when it came to members of the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He was known to buy them gifts and sometimes had to borrow money to do so. When engagements were scarce or they had extended down time with the show, he would send his troupe west to the Santa Catalina Mountains, 40 miles north of Tucson, Arizona. Between 1909 and 1916, Cody and one of his business partners, Colonel D.B. Dyer, owned no less than a hundred mining claims lying along the rim of the mountains near the snow-covered Apache Girl Peak. The performers stayed in twenty or more cabins at Cody's Camp Bonito Mining Camp and the men, unsuited as they were, would work the mines, while the women and the many children enjoyed a summer camp (or winter camp as the case may be).
Back in New York where Cody usually headquartered when the season ended and winter set in, he gathered a number of his influential friends around him with the intention of heading for Arizona. He told them he had promised the children at the camp that they would have a Christmas that year and even mentioned that Santa Claus would arrive. He also announced that he would play the part of Santa Claus.
Sure enough, Christmas Day 1912 arrived crisp and clear in all of its glory at the camp. By mid-morning the families began gathering toward the mess hall where a tall beautiful Christmas tree had been set up. The tree had been dragged down from the mountains and decorated by Cody's New York friends with all the finery available to them. The decorations were simple by our standards, consisting of colorful fruits, candies, and nuts. The show business people and their families, nearby neighbors and miners all came from over the mountain trails in wagons, on horse back, riding little burros, or on foot. By noon the little mess hall was crowded with happy excited people of all ages awaiting Santa Claus.
Now Buffalo Bill was not a big man, he actually possessed a slight-built frame, always sported a goatee, and his signature mustache, so his friends had their job cut out for them, padding the Santa suit to resemble Jolly Ol' St. Nick. He refused to put that phony looking false beard on, so Santa Claus arrived before the children that year with a goatee and mustache. However, all went well, Cody indeed looked and acted the part of Santa Claus.
The entire afternoon was well planned with events, games, foot races, burro racing, fat man races, and shooting matches for the children, followed by a dance. Lots of food, fruit punch, presents galore, and candies and nuts for the children.
According to historical accounts, Buffalo Bill returned to the camp for an encore the following years every Christmas up until his untimely departure from this earth. There is a story that has circulated, though not supported in documents anywhere, of a woman at the camp who told of the Christmas party of 1916. Cody wore his heavy Santa suit and got overheated in the crowded mess hall. Perspiring heavily, he went outside and sat on a big rock near the building. The weather was rather cold and windy that year, cloudy and overcast, with intermittent rain. The woman followed him outdoors and warned him of the dangers of cooling off too quickly in the rain. Cody brushed her off in his usual good-natured manner. However, on January 10, 1917, sixteen days after Christmas, Cody died, apparently from pneumonia.
Reference: “Buffalo Bill Cody's Christmas Visit” by Juanita Zachry, American History Magazine December 1983.
-- To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.