Among the exhibitions worth visiting in our area this summer is one I’m especially interested in seeing: the Shelburne Museum’s “Playing Cowboy: America’s Wild West Shows,” an exploration of the manifold ways in which William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and other Wild West characters influenced American popular culture well into the 20th century.
And not because I’m particularly or even remotely interested in the American west, wild or otherwise.
Rather, it’s because of the story’s links to the Adirondacks.
The popular taste for things western that films, radio, comics and television continued to capitalize upon long after Cody’s death appears to have originated with a man with Adirondack connections – Ned Buntline.
According to one of the rarer books in my Adirondack library, Buntline – his real name was Edward Judson – was a magazine publisher, lecturer and author of more than seventy paperback thrillers who purchased property in the Adirondacks in 1857.
In 1861 he left the Adirondacks to fight in the Civil War. After the war, he traveled through the west lecturing, oddly enough, on temperance (in his Adirondack days he was known as a formidable drinker). There he became acquainted with Wyatt Earp, Bill Hickok and in 1869, at Fort McPherson, Nebraska, a cowboy and buffalo hunter named William Frederick Cody
At the time, Cody was an employee of the Kansas Pacific Railroad and a scout for the U.S. cavalry. Buntline saw within him other possibilities. He christened him Buffalo Bill and wrote a bestselling account of his exploits – Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men. He then put him on stage, writing and producing Scouts of the Prairie, which played in Chicago and New York. By 1873, Cody was generating thousands of dollars in revenues – most of which went to Buntline. Not surprisingly, Cody severed the connection as soon as possible. Buntline died, affluent and happy, in 1886.
The rare book I mentioned above – Life and Adventures of Ned Buntline by Fred E. Pond (AKA Will Wildwood, editor of Frank Forester’s Fugitive Sporting Sketches) — was given to my father by Harold K. Hochshild, whom he came to know when both served on Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks.
Hochshild was among the most prominent industrialists of his generation, with interests spanning the globe.
His “place of permanence,” however, was Blue Mountain Lake, where he had a home called Eagle’s Nest on land once occupied by none other than Ned Buntline.
William West Durant purchased the property from Buntline’s heirs and turned it into a golf club and resort. It later became the summer home of the Hochshilds, and Harold Hochshild enjoyed showing visitors the remains of Buntline’s log house.
In fact, a friend of Hochshild’s once told me, it was Hochshild’s interest in Buntline that inspired his interest in Adirondack history, which produced not only his authoritative history of the region, Township 34, but the Adirondack Museum. (As president of the Adirondack Historical Association, Hochshild established the Museum with members of his family and generously subsidized it until his death in 1981).
By the late 1950s, people like Hochshild and folklorist Marjorie Lansing Porter, who helped establish the Adirondack Center Museum in Elizabethtown, were coming to fear that roadside attractions endangered both the character and the landscape of the Adirondacks. They created their museums of regional and local history in part so that visitors could learn something about the true Adirondacks.
Ned Buntline’s legacy can be credited with those museums also because they were, at least to some extent, antidotes to the type of commercial entertainment that he was among the first to promote.
Here in the Adirondacks, the popularity of this brand of entertainment could be found not only in the Frontier Town, Indian Village and Ghost Town theme parks but in western-style dude ranches, all-inclusive resorts where newly mobile workers and their families could play at – and with – cowboys.
Earl Woodward, a school teacher from Ohio who began logging and building in Warren County in the late teens or early 20s, decided that our area was just the place to situate these western-style dude ranches.
At the height of their popularity, there were five dude ranches on the road between Lake Luzerne and Lake George – at least three of which were created by Woodward – not to mention a rodeo and at least ten western-themed bars.
The Shelburne Museum, which is located in Shelburne, Vermont, just south of Burlington, has not released enough information about “Playing Cowboy” for us to know if it will trace the influence of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows down through the decades to Frontier Town, the Rustic Inn, the Sun Canyon Ranch in Thurman or the rubber tomahawks for sale at Lake George Village’s Indian Tepee.
The museum does, however, promise to show us through this exhibition how popular culture shaped our understanding of the historical west.
Purely by accident, perhaps – but no less instructively for that – “Playing Cowboy” may also teach us something about the origins of one of the more peculiar aspects of Adirondack history.
And if it traces those origins to their source in one Ned Buntline, all the better.
“Playing Cowboy: America’s Wild West Shows” will be on display at the Shelburne Museum’s Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education from June 23 through October 21, 2018. Founded in 1947 by pioneering folk art collector Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888–1960), the Shelburne Museum is open every day from May 1 through October 31 from 10 am to 5 pm. For information, call (802) 985-3346.
A version of this article first appeared on the Lake George Mirror.
Photos from above: Ned Buntline’s 1897 thriller, “Buffalo Bill’s Best Shot’; Ned Buntline, circa 1885; Buffalo Bill, circa 1892; Ghost Town’s Sheriff Wild Windy Bill McKay, circa 1961; Frontier Town, North Hudson, circa 1956; and Roaring Brook Ranch.