Editor's Note: This article is part of a regular monthly series on the history of Webster City, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser.
The August 1912 issues of the Webster City newspapers proclaimed that the Sept. 3, 1912 appearance of the "Buffalo Bill Pawnee Bill" show would be the famous scout's last visit to the city as he prepared to retire from touring.
William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody and Gordon William "Pawnee Bill" Lillie had established their entertainment shows in 1883 and 1888 respectively to travel the United States and the world giving their patrons realistic re-enactments of western life along with demonstrations of unusual equestrian activities. At the turn to the Twentieth century both shows added unique performers from around the world with "Pawnee Bill" changing the name of his show to the Great Far East show.
- Submitted photo
This is the front cover of the program sold at the 'Two Bills' show performances from about 1910 until it closed in 1913. The program featured drawing sof Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill. It was printed by I. M. Southern & Co of N. Y. & Cin. Historians say that this program was not as big and well done as those previous to 1910 and probably indicated that the show was trying to cut costs
An advertisement for the show.
Both companies were popular as they traveled about the country by railroad. In 1908, Cody's Wild West show and Lillie's Far East show joined forces to present one of the greatest entertainment venues of the time.
Both shows had previously performed in Webster City. "Buffalo Bill's" show was here in 1899 with a huge pre-show parade down Second Street. Annie Oakley was advertised as one of the performers but her presence at the September 20th performance cannot be verified. The Webster City Tribune reported that there were 600 people with the show and 600 horses. The show required 52 large cars making up three trains to get from place to place. Cody historians relate that in 1899, the show was in 132 cities for 341 performances and traveled more than 11,000 miles by rail that year.
"Pawnee Bill" exhibited in Webster City in 1901 and 1905 with his 400-man troop. The Webster City Tribune, in promoting the 1905 show, remembered the 1901 appearance "At that time the Cossacks carried by the show management were not the best sort of people to turn loose in a peace-loving community and considerable difficulty was experiencedhowever, these shows have grown and it is said are carrying a more peaceable crowd with them."
As was usual for that era, the "Two Bills" show employed a large advance promotional team which traveled in its own private railroad car to visit the cities booked for the performances. The team would post brightly colored lithograph posters about the town. They would make arrangements for show locations and local permits along with supplying news releases to local newspapers. At the same time, they booked advertising in the newspapers. The large show ads appearing in the August 1912 editions of the Daily Freeman-Tribune, the weekly Webster City Journal and Webster City Tribune were all different designs. Additional photographs of the two "Bills" appeared frequently in the Freeman-Tribune paper leading up to the performance.
The advertising team also arranged with the railroads for a special promotional ticket rate to entice show goers to attend from outlying towns.
The "Two Bills" show did not operate under a large tent, but utilized painted backdrops for each event. Large waterproof canvas canopies protected the seating arrangements as the performers worked in the large uncovered arena before them. The outfit gave two performances a day at 2 and 8 p.m. General admission was fifty cents with grand stand chair admission costing $1. Children under nine years of age were admitted at half-price.
The Two-Bills show arrived in Webster City at 6 a.m. from Iowa Falls on the Illinois Central railroad and was greeted at the station by a throng of youngsters according to the afternoon edition of the Daily Freeman-Tribune of September 3, 1912. Six-horse teams pulled the equipment to the Driving Park Grounds (now the high school baseball diamond), but there was no formal parade. By noon, the show's cooking and eating tents were erected as well as the Indian village drawing large crowds of on-lookers.
The newspaper reported that "cowboys, Cossacks, Servians, Syrians, Cretans, Crotians, Roumanians, Egyptians, Rosnicks, Tartars, Kurds, Armenians and Persians, hailing from the Adriatic and Far East" were part of the show's 800 performers, each demonstrating unique activities from their homelands.
There were re-enactments of an attack on the overland stage, the pony express along with western ranching exercises, sharpshooting and other frontier activities. Also performing were Harry Wilson's wild animal acts along with Gruber's elephant act and 500 horses. Thrilling the crowd was "Buffalo Bill" and "Pawnee Bill" in person - each said to be at the show directing the performances astride their horses.
Major show events such as the "Two-Bills" show were of great financial benefit to the host community. As visitors from surrounding areas came to town, they shopped, ate and stayed overnight. The Webster City Journal reported two days after the show that "Webster City restaurants were practically eaten out Tuesday. The crowd in the city to see the Two Bills show was larger than expected and the restaurants profited immensely by it." In another article in the same Journal, they editorialized that shows like this were good for the town and retail merchants know that a circus helps their business. The paper also intimated that Webster City often gave free show space, licensing and water to bring shows to town.
The show pulled out of Webster City after the last performance heading for their next stop in Cherokee, Iowa. As it turned out, it was indeed the last performance here for both the veteran showmen.
The Two Bills show continued on from Webster City with their fall Midwest schedule before going into winter quarters. They emerged in the spring of 1913 to hit the show trail again. But in July of 1913 the cost of putting a large show on the road became too much and at their Denver, Colorado performance they were shut down by creditors. All of their assets were sold off to pay their bills and the show ceased to exist.
Gordon William "Pawnee Bill" Lillie returned to his Pawnee, Oklahoma ranch where he developed a motion picture company as well as being involved in oil, real estate and banking. He died there in 1942.
Because he had never been much of a businessman, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody couldn't retire to his ranch near Cody, Wyoming, but toured with other wild west shows as the featured attraction for several years. He died at his sister's home in Denver, Colorado in 1917.