What’s better than a circus coming to town? How about TWO circuses in the same month, with one headed by Buffalo Bill, himself?

Envy anyone who was a kid in 1910 Santa Rosa. There were plenty of things to do downtown, if you had at least a dime and a nickel; there were four movie theaters that screened about two dozen short films every week (sometimes with vaudeville acts as part of the show) and the Pavilion roller skating rink on A street with a bowling alley around the corner on B street – bowling being quite the national fad that year. Adults and children alike were crazy over everything related to aviation in 1910, and we had Fred J. Wiseman as our hometown bird-man; you could bicycle up to Windsor and watch him practice flying over the pastures. And even if smaller girls and boys didn’t understand all the particulars in the indictment and trial of Dr. Burke, they must have known from all the grown-ups whispering that something really important was happening at the court house (teens continuing their studies in behind-the-barn sex education must have been stupefied when the testimony turned to the possibilities of astral or immaculate conception).

The Barnum & Bailey circus was first to arrive that September. (Yet another smaller circus had visited Santa Rosa in May: The Campbell Brothers Circus, with twenty “happy jolly funny clowns”, a lady in a cage with a bunch of snakes, and The Marvelous Renello, who could flip a complete somersault on a bicycle.) As typically happened, Sonoma County virtually closed down for the two days Barnum & Bailey were here; the County Clerk said not a single marriage license was issued the day of the first performances, which was unprecedented. The papers reported celebrity sightings of a boxing champion and Jack London, and even the Barlow boys marched into town from their Sebastopol work camp. But even though it was a cracking good show, it was only a warmup to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East shows later that month – after all, it would be the last opportunity ever to see the legendary Buffalo Bill.

Col. William F. Cody – AKA Buffalo Bill – was America’s first superstar, as Larry McMurtry points out in his enjoyable bio, “The Colonel and Little Missie.” Probably every boy and young man (older ones, too) in late 19th century America dreamed of living his rootin’ tootin’ life in the Wild West, at least as it was portrayed in lurid dime novels. Gordon Lillie – AKA Pawnee Bill – was one of those young men, a schoolteacher with a yen for western adventure. Lillie found work teaching English at the Pawnee Indian Reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and learned to speak their language fluently. He was hired by Cody’s Wild West show in 1883, when an interpreter was needed for the Pawnees performing in his show. (Much of the rest of the frontier exploits claimed in Lillie’s backstory – including that he was named “White Chief of the Pawnees” at age 19 – should be viewed as suspect.) Lillie started his own traveling Wild West show in 1888, the same year publication began of a new series of dime novels about the fantastic adventures of a hero named Pawnee Bill.

The “Two Bills'” show was an awkward marriage of necessity. These traveling shows were enormous operations and enormously expensive; Cody employed as many as 500 people who had to work together like cogs in a high-precision machine. With a performance in a different town every night, there was no room in their schedule for even the slightest glitch. At the same time, audiences were declining after 1906 because of competition from motion pictures and vaudeville. A merger of rivals made good business sense, and they unveiled the combined show at Madison Square Garden in 1909 (don’t miss the the New York Times review).

When the show arrived in Santa Rosa on September 29, 1910, apparently every child in the vicinity was on hand to greet them: “At least 1000 youngsters volunteered their services as assistants to the men engaged in erecting the twenty-two tents that house the Wild West-Far East,” reported the Santa Rosa Republican. As that was a Thursday and thus a school day, a new record for en masse truancy was surely set.

…the sight of Colonel Wm. F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) walking about the grounds, exercising a general supervision over things, and moving at that with a democracy befitting ordinary folks, was too much for them. No strength of will yet developed in adolescent man is sufficient to resist the temptation to drop all other concerns, however grave to gorge vision with such rare intimacy with the living heroes of your best beloved, if contraband literature.

Buffalo Bill bade Santa Rosa farewell that autumn evening, but he continued bidding farewells elsewhere in 1911, 1912 and 1913. The Two Bills show finally came to an end in July 1913, when a sheriff in Denver seized the company’s assets for a printing debt. Cody was notoriously bad at handling money and had already mortgaged his ranch and interests in Cody, Wyoming to Gordon Lillie. To cover the costs of launching the 1913 tour he had obtained a loan from a man he considered a friend, but who also co-owned the rival Sells-Floto Circus. When the Two Bills show had to declare bankruptcy, Cody defaulted on the loan. He lost the use of the “Buffalo Bill” name and had to perform with the Sells-Floto tour for 1914-1915. The following year Cody agreed to star in a World War I recruitment show, the “Military Pageant ‘Preparedness'” which was part of a new Wild West touring company started by friends of Pawnee Bill. Sick with kidney problems and more than a little addled, Cody only made a few appearances.

Colonel William F. Cody died in 1917, over six years after he said his goodbye in Santa Rosa. The essence of him was captured by Gene Fowler in his book, “Timber Line”: “Indiscreet, prodigal, as temperamental as a diva, pompous yet somehow naive, vain but generous, bigger than big today and littler than little tomorrow, Cody lived with the world at his feet and died with it on his shoulders.”

Barnum & Bailey Enterprise Pays Regular Visit to Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa gave a royal welcome today to an old-time friend–the Barnum & Bailey greatest show on earth–here in its biennial pilgrimage through this section of the country and both city and country reveled in the delights of the gorgeous parade, the great tented city erected on Santa Rosa avenue, and the charm of the regal performance beneath the acres of gaily-bedecked canvas that never loses its power to lure…

…It is to the Barnum show that one looks for all that is latest and best in the arenic world [sic] and there were no disappointments this afternoon for while it would seem that all the sensational acts and thrillers had been exhausted long ere this, the Barnum show came across with two new heart action quickeners and creep-massagers. The first of these was Jupiter, the balloon horse. The intelligent equine stood on a narrow platform attached to a yellow balloon and ascended to the top of the tent. When the top was reached a pyrotechnic display broke out on all sides of “Jupe.” Did he plunge out to the hard earth beneath and dash out not only his own brains, but those of his fair rider? Certainly not. He gave a fine exhibition of a splendidly trained equine, immune to all noises and distractions.

Desperado supplied thrill No. 2. Concerning Desperado: Waiting until the band stopped playing a funeral dirge, Desperado took a header, and those who weren’t looking at that exact instant saw him standing on the sod the next. Desperado lit squarely on his indestructible wish-bone and slid to earth. These two acts were the headliners of the bill.

Everything else on the bill was in great profusion. There were three rings and two stages with a quarter mile track. Droves of performers filtered into the big tent from the dressing rooms and circulated about the rings and stages until one got cross-eyed trying to follow the mystic maze of the immense affair.

The management was lavish in its treatment of the guests of the day. With a program of such excellence it might seem unfair to particularize, but mention should be made of the aerial displays. A word as to the menagerie. Nothing more complete, if as much so, has ever been seen here before, and if the Barnum show offered nothing more than its animal display, a visit beneath its canvases would be worth while. The display was varied and exhibited under fine conditions as regards clean and roomy cages. The herd of four giraffes was an especially fine thing and the entire zoo made an especial appeal to the thoughtful.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 2, 1910

No Marriage Licenses Issed Late Friday

The clerks in the office of County Clerk Fred L. Wright declare that circus day, Friday, has broken a record in their office. Up to a late hour Friday afternoon, not a single marriage license had been issued and therein lies the broken record.

Each circus day heretofore has brought with it its quota of brides and grooms. Some circus days six and eight couples have come here and launched on the joys of the matrimonial sea. The lack of applicants for the joy permits on Friday cause consternation in the office of the clerk.

Other than in the matter of issuing these permits, it was a dull day in the clerk’s domain. “Cupid” Casey Feldmeyer wore an elaborate smile all day long in anticipation of the matrimonial onslaught Dan Cupid would cause to be made on the office, but it never came, and toward late afternoon the smile began to vanish.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 2, 1910


Bob Fitzsimmons, erstwhile champion heavyweight of the world, and Jack London, one of the foremost literary lights of his time, drove in to this city shortly before noon Friday. They were accompanied by Mrs. Fitzsimmons and Mrs. London, and came to attend the circus performance given here by Barnum & Bailey’s aggregation. Fitz and London are friends of many years’ standing, and the former and his wife are making a visit with the Londons at their bungalow, situated near Glen Ellen, in a picturesque nook. The party took dinner at the Campi restaurant, and then attended the afternoon performance at the big tent.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 2, 1910


More than one hundred of the boys who are gathering the crop of berries at the Barlow berry fields came over on an electric train Friday morning to enjoy the circus. They were accompanied by Superintendent Frank C. Turner, and enjoyed a splendid day’s outing. The lads marched up Sebastopol avenue behind their drum corps and attracted much attention by their manly bearing and military precision.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 2, 1910

Great Sport of the “Wild West” Exhibition That Soon Comes to Santa Rosa

Football on horseback bids fair to rival polo as a game for horseback riders in this country. The Buffalo Bill and Wild West and Pawnee Bill Far East is demonstrating the sport this year as one of the features of that popular exhibition. It is played by a group of horsemen, trained to expertness in the new “fad” mounted on the lively Western ponies which are features with the Wild West.

A large ball standing half as high as an ordinary horse is used as the “football.” The knees of the ponies are padded and by running into it the ball is thus propelled from goal to goal. Aside from the interest which the game creates, there is a strong element of grotesque comedy in the exhibition. The horses are rigged out after the fashion of the regulation football player, with guards and leads of all sorts, presenting a grotesque appearance. In every way the football horses are interesting, and the diversion is proving a great hit with patrons of the Wild West exhibition. The show comes to Santa Rosa on Thursday, September 29th.

The horses play a star part throughout Buffalo Bill’s entire program. Ray Thompson’s trained Western range horses are a special feature, and their graceful evolutions are supplemented by the marvelous high school exhibitive feats of Rhoda Royal’s twenty thoroughbreds, Bucking horses, Indian ponies and Arabian steeds are numbered among the equine stars of the Wild West, contributing vastly to a program of lively events.

The big Indian battles, the Wild West scenes, and the reproductions of historic events and materially to the distinctive entertainment of which Col. Wm. F. Cody, the original and only Buffalo Bill, is the originator and founder. In all that is presented during the Wild West performance, realism and truth prevails. Everything is real and authentic. There is no sham or subterfuge, and riding at the head of his galaxy of horsemen, directing the entertainment and appearing at every performance, the real, genuine and only Buffalo Bill appears at every performance, rain of shine, for the last time in our city.

– Press Democrat, September 9, 1910

Sheriff Jack Smith has requested that attention be called to the fact that there are some suspicious characters in town at the present time, who came in the wake of the circus. These people follow the circuses despite the efforts of the management to prevent them and at Sacramento on Wednesday there were three bicycles and two horses and buggies stolen. In this city things will also be missing if care is not taken to guard their property by the individuals. When going out tonight care should be taken that houses are securely locked, and pocketbooks should be stowed away in safe places. In crowds is where the light fingered gentry delight to do their nefarious work.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 29, 1910

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East shows are here. Wholly superfluous information for the small boy, to be sure. There were about 500 of him on hand this morning to superintend the unloading of the special train of 78 cars, which transports the big organization. He was active and enthusiastic in his work, but no sooner had the cumbersome red wagons, bearing canvas, stakes and poles, reached the show grounds than the small boy rapidly multiplied himself, developed a most remarkable ubiquity, and his enthusiasm enlarged to a fever.

At least 1000 youngsters volunteered their services as assistants to the men engaged in erecting the twenty-two tents that house the Wild West-Far East, its twenty-seven nationalities, its 700 horses and other animals. They even offered the best of their muscular works to the “roughnecks”–men employed on the most arduous tasks upon the grounds. In many ways the lads were an interference and hinderance to the progress of the canvas city’s growth, but everywhere they met with good-humored tolerance, for it is a jolly lot of workmen employed by the Buffalo Bill-Pawnee Bill combination and having ample time in which to complete their tasks, they accepted liberally of the “assistance” to the rapturous delight of the juvenile laborers.

There were constant desertions from their elected posts of industry, though. Not that the boys really meant to shirk what they considered solemn duty, but the sight of Colonel Wm. F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) walking about the grounds, exercising a general supervision over things, and moving at that with a democracy befitting ordinary folks, was too much for them. No strength of will yet developed in adolescent man is sufficient to resist the temptation to drop all other concerns, however grave to gorge vision with such rare intimacy with the living heroes of your best beloved, if contraband literature.

Pawnee Bill was adopted by the Pawnee tribe of Indians and that is how he gets that name. He speaks twenty-four tribal dialects and is familiar with the sign language which is universal among the tribes from one boundary to another. He and Buffalo Bill are among the most noted of the Indian scouts and fighters of the early days. The operating expenses of their show is about $6000 per day. 

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 29, 1910
Novel Advertising Method Attracted Attention

Several prominent Santa Rosans were “stung” Thursday by an elderly couple who were driving in a dilapidated vehicle, and who were advertising the Buffalo Bill shows. This was unknown to the aforesaid citizens who were “stung” until time for the denouement of the drama.

Outside John Hood’s jewelry store a woman sat up an awful shrieking, as if she were having a terrible case of hysteria. An elderly man came running to the vehicle from a refreshment parlor, grabbed the woman in his arms and kissed her, at the same time telling her everything would be all right. He took a large bandana handkerchief and with this repeatedly mopped the woman’s brow.

Henry Silvershield, Deputy Sheriff Chris Reynolds and others took hold of the horse to prevent the animal running away while the old gentleman in the vehicle gave attention to the woman with the hysterics. She kept telling the man, “I asked you not to leave me alone,” and “I just knew this would happen,” and she screamed at the top of her voice.

When Deputy Sheriff Reynolds finally made so bold as to inquire what was the matter, the old gentleman turned to him and said: “Nothing, my friend; but I’ll meet you this evening at the Buffalo Bill shows.” Then the couple drove off, while the vast crowd that had assembled gave the astonished deputy a merry round of laughter. Reynolds muttered “stung” and dropped back into the crowd. He had seen the disturbance from Judge Thomas C. Denny’s court room and hastened to the rescue.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 30, 1910

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