Tom Becka: Well, we meet again. Another edition of TomBecka.com where everyone has a story to tell. This story here is a perfect one for summer time.
If you’re going on that family vacation, maybe you’ve got the kids in the back seat and they’re fighting and yelling, “Are we there yet?” Someone has to go to the bathroom. You know what I’m talking about, right?
You’re driving and you stop and you see historical markers and landmine, [sarcastically] landmines landmarks [laughs] . Maybe landmines too, I don’t know where you’re going on vacation. You see these historical markers, and places of interest.
In the Midwest, we’ve got a lot of them all involving the Wild West pioneer days. You know in the Midwest here, we had characters like “Buffalo Bill Cody” and “Wild Bill Hickok” and “Annie Oakley.” All of them were all part of the Great Midwest, and they left their mark.
Not only did they leave their mark, but people like General Custer, and the old pioneers of the forts that were in the Midwest back in the day. Jeff Barnes documents all of this.
He’s the guy that if you’re going to be going on a road trip through the Midwest and you want to have one of his books in the car with you, because he documents all of the old historical forts and what their importance was to the development of this country.
He documents some of the famous show-people who came out of the Wild West back in the day, and some of the stories that make life a little more interesting knowing what went on back in the old days of the wild, Wild West.
Jeff is an interesting guy. A man that has lived a couple of different lives and is really enjoying the one that he’s living now. Hope you enjoy it. Jeff Barnes here, on TomBecka.com.
Jeff Barnes: I kind of wear a lot of hats. I’m a, I guess you’d call an independent historian, but also a writer and speaker. I go out and give presentations for humanities in Nebraska, so I’m trying to make a living off of history. That’s pretty much what I’m trying to do here.
Tom: Now, trying to make a living out of history, what did you do before this, because you haven’t always been doing this, have you?
Jeff: No, background, I started out in broadcasting coming out of UNL, started out at KFRX in Lincoln as a radio DJ there. From that, after a little bit of hitch hiking came back and started at a daily newspaper down in Nebraska City.
Then came to Omaha, was editor of Midland’s Business Journal here in town. From that went into politics a little bit and then into advertising and marketing. Was once the Marketing Director at the Durham’s museum.
I always had a love of history and that’s how I ended up here. I always wrote for other people but when the economic situation changed and I found myself on my own, I said, well I will go out and promote myself for a while and see how that pans out.
Tom: You started off by writing a book about all the Forts in Nebraska.
Jeff: The military forts on the Northern Plains.
Tom: Do people even know about these things?
Jeff: They really don’t. I didn’t know them when I started up [laughs] . I thought I’d catch maybe about 25 of these places but I ended up featuring 51 different sites.
I limit it to, if there is something physical there that showed, OK, this was where the fort was. It could be historical marker or could be the ruins of the building or something like that.
If there is something physical that you say OK, this is where Fort McPherson stood or this is where Fort Abercrombie was, then it went into the book. I kept finding more and more about these places.
There was a couple in Council Bluffs that I had no idea existed.
Tom: Now these Forts, these were like military outposts?
Jeff: These were military posts with troops, cavalry, infantry, [laughs] all that kind of stuff.
Tom: What were they there for?
Jeff: The purpose has changed over the years. In the early day’s Fort Atkinson, North of Omaha, that was built to promote trade with the Indians.
Then as time went on, it would be built to act as a buffer between the Indian tribes such as Fort Croghan in Council Bluffs. That was kind of a buffer between the Sioux and the Potawatomi Indians. That was what that was there for.
Future years that went on to protect the trails and then to protect the railroad construction as it came through. Then it’s kind of went in to protect the settlers.
Then finally Fort Crook here at Omaha which is today’s off, that was, I kind of call it political Fort. It was built for political reasons because there was so much business to be done with the military and Omaha business had a pretty good one.
Fort Omaha was open and then Fort Crook came, it came time to close Fort Omaha. They said that we still want to have a Fort [laughs] here.
Fort Crook was built in 1894 as an Indian wars fort but the Indian wars were long done by that time. It is just too much good business to be done with the military.
Tom: These Forts here, they were basically to fight the Indians, right?
Jeff: Well sometimes they were built to protect the Indians. Such as Fort Hartsuff in the middle of the State, that was built to protect the settlers but also the Pawnee reservation which was nearby at that time.
The Sioux were still in the sand hills. The Sioux and the Pawnee hated each other, so it was to keep the both of them apart.
Tom: They were here for various reasons. On one hand, they were there to take over the land from the Indians. On the other hand, they were there to protect the Indian’s land.
Jeff: Yeah, and sometimes to preserve the land. Fort Niobrara, up on the Niobrara River outside of Valentine, that was to keep the White encroachment off of the Sioux Reservation and the Dakota territory, as much as it was to keep the Indians from coming into Nebraska.
Tom: First of all, why do you have this love of this sort of thing? This seems to be a rather obscure hobby, to be looking at old Army forts in the Midwest.
Jeff: It is kind of nutty and kind of nutty how I got started. I’ve always had an interest in history of the Plains. I’m a descendant of a Civil War soldier. I visited all of the battlefields he had fought at.
Then when I ran out of Civil War battlefields, I started looking at what happened in my own backyard. A lot of those Civil War commanders came out here. I thought, “Well, I’ll start taking those in.”
I just started visiting the State Parks and National Parks, the battlefields and the forts, and just started putting together a checklist. It’s kind of like peanuts in a bowl. You just keep going until they’re gone.
I went to see the Fort Sidney Museum, which was part of the original fort that was there. Every time I went there, the place was closed. It would be the middle of the week, the middle of the day, and it was still closed. They’re only open for two hours in the morning, and two hours in the afternoon.
I said, “I wish there was a book that told you when these places were open, and how to get there, and what you’d see.If it was worth the trip.” Got home, and said, “No. There’s no book like that.”
I had always threatened to write a book, so I’ll just write a book and see what happens. It caught on. The “Forts of the Northern Plains” came out in 2008. It’s in its fourth printing now. There’s a lot of guys that have…
Tom: Who do you sell these books to? Who cares about these…?
Jeff: Well, my publisher is out of Pennsylvania, Stackpole Books. They send them everywhere. You can get it at Amazon. You can get it at Barnes and Noble, like Scotts Bluff National Monument, local bookstores, gift shops. They go out everywhere.
I’ve got orders from Spain. I do have a small thing myself, but for the most part they’re distributed through the regular distributors and dealers.
Tom: I get the question though. The question is more like, who wants these? Who buys these? Who likes these?
Jeff: There’s a lot of people that still love their American History, and Nebraska History, Great Plains History. One of the things I do with Humanities in Nebraska, I write these books, and then I go out and talk about the subjects that I covered.
Being a Humanities Nebraska presenter, they come to see my talks at libraries, and museums, and other places. I give them about a 45 minute talk about the forts of Nebraska. A lot of times they want to buy a book afterwards, and so I’ve got that to sell them.
I also do maps. I take these historic maps from like the 1860’s. I update them, and put the locations of the forts and the battlefields, and just have a historical overlay. The people buy those as well. I get into other areas.
Tom: I find it fascinating sometimes, to find that there are people out there, these subcultures of people that just love things. Then there’s people, like I imagine, my dad. My dad would have bought one of your books.
What my dad would have done, my dad was one of these guys if we went on a family vacation with all the kids in the car, one of those, “Are we there yet?” One of those vacations. My dad was the guy that stops at every historical marker.
Jeff: That’s me. I’ll slow down to about 20 miles an hour, and see if it’s a subject that interests me. If it’s the first log cabin in Nebraska, I probably won’t stop. If it’s a battle took place there, I’m definitely getting out of the car for this.
Tom: Were there a lot of battles that took place in Nebraska?
Jeff: Surprisingly, there were. You don’t hear a lot about them, but there’s a lot of smaller skirmishes.
Tom: These were not Civil War skirmishes?
Jeff: Well, some of them actually did take place during the Civil War. A lot of the regular troops and commanders that were here got sent back East. They had to be replaced by volunteer troops.
That’s when the Indian tribes at the time, they saw an opportunity. They saw a lot of the concessions that they were making. The treaties that they made were being broken. They saw the civil war as kind of an opportunity to try to reclaim what had been theirs.
There were a number of battles that did take place here in Nebraska, but all throughout the Great Plains as well.
The very first battle of the Sioux War took place in Nebraska. A little battle called the Blue Water. That was in 1854. From that point on, United States was at war with the Sioux through 1890 and wounded Maine.
Tom: Was it a grand scheme of the history of the world, wasn’t that long ago?
Jeff: It wasn’t really that long ago, just about 125 years ago. I think they’re coming up on an anniversary there.
Tom: You start writing these books about the forts or ILS. Was there any real famous generals at forts. Did Custer have an outpost here? Were there any famous generals?
They’re stationed out here or Nebraska was the place they took, the second year, or not Nebraska?
Jeff: No. Actually, they were fairly prominent. Robert E. Lee was at Fort Kearny. People don’t think about that. This is before he was a general. He’s a major, and he’s clean shaven, and dark-haired [laughs] .
Robert E. Lee was here, chaired and came out here. Sherman, George Custer was here. He went to camp with Sherman at Fort McPherson.
Just a couple of weeks after that, he had his very first engagement with the Indians, very first fight with the Indians on the Republican river down by Benkelman, Nebraska. Everybody knows about…
Tom: He won that one.
Jeff: I don’t know if he really won that one [laughs] . They were encamped and the Sioux came up and tried to drive off their horses. Custer tried to negotiate with them to say, “Why are driving off my horses? I’m just trying to get you to move someplace else other than here.” During this negotiation, more and more warriors kept showing up [laughs].
Custer said, “If this doesn’t stop, I’m gonna have to bugle or sound the charge.” The negotiation pretty much broke up after that point. Everybody knows about Custer’s last stand, but if he had a last stand, you have to have a first stand. Custer’s first stand was in Nebraska. It’s nine years and one day before his last stand…
Jeff: …which is kind of cool. These little ironic things from history. They just show up in these things.
Tom: What was it about these forts? How important were they with the brand history of America? We know what happened with…put the Indians on the reservation. We know how the West was won, but you don’t think about Nebraska being on the frontline of how the West was won, was it?
Jeff: No, you don’t think about that. I tell people during my talks, Fort Kearny is probably one of the 10 most important forts in American history. From when they had opened up in 1848, people were starting to make the migration out West.
The Mormon’s coming through, the people headed to Oregon, people headed to California. If Fort Kearny had not been where it was located, there’s a good chance the settlement of the West would not have taken place.
We were still kind of jacking with England or the United Kingdom for the West Coast. Russia still had Alaska. They were still kind of exploring the West.
If Fort Kearny had not been there to make the repairs for the wagons, to resupply the wagons, to offer medical attention when people broke a leg or collar.
If it had not been there, a lot of people would have just given up the ghost or died. Positioned where it was, it provided the sustenance for the people to keep on going, to keep moving on.
If the fort had not been there, the settlement of the West would have taken much, much longer time to happen. You needed to have those forts there for the communication, the guidance, for protection, the resupply, to make the settlement of the West happen.
Tom: Now, you do the fort thing and that’s selling some copies. People are buying the books. They’re selling them in the gift shops and all that along the way. You got that out there, doing some talks. What’s the next book? What’s the next step?
Jeff: Since I have “Forts of Northern Plains,” I was going to do “Forts of the Southern Plains” just to finish the set [laughs] . Originally, I was going to have book called “Forts and Battlefields of the Great Plains,” and I found out the Great Plains is huge [laughs]. I can’t cover it all. I was going to divide it up like that.
I was down in Texas doing a research for that book, and attending an Indian Wars Conference, and Robert Utley was there. If you watch the “History Channel,” you’ll see Robert Utley because he’s a former Chief Historian for the National Park Service.
He’s written…I don’t know how many books, edited how many books about the Indian Wars. One thing about his key note speeches, “If you want success as a writer, write books about people who people know.”
He had given an example of a book he had written about the “Lincoln County Wars of New Mexico.” That was going to be a big seller…didn’t go. His publisher said, “Well, let’s go on to the next one.” He said, “Well, wait a minute. I think I can rework this a little bit and do something else.”
He changed it to…the title was “Billy the Kid, A Short and Violent Life.” That was a best seller. I started thinking about that. I said, “You know, I visited a lot of these forts, a lot of these battlefields, I’m not gonna be able to down to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, and do these talks [laughs] like I can in Nebraska.”
What if I make this a travel guide instead about the forts, but make it a travel guide about George Custer. Cover his battles on the Great Plains, the forts that he visited, the other sites that he was at. No one had ever done a travel guide to George Custer before.
I don’t know how many thousands of books there are about Custer, but this would be my angle. People are going to walk on the footsteps. Here’s where you go to do all that. I changed the focus of the book from the Forts to “George Custer.” That went pretty well.
That’s in its second printing now. That came out in 2012. It didn’t sell as well as the Forts. I blame a lot of that on two things. There’s half the people. If you divide people into thirds, a third like Custer, a third hate Custer, and a third don’t care about Custer [laughs] .
Everybody like the Forts. I lived in those lots of forts. It’s nearby where I grew up. There’s also a thing with all the Borders closing all their stores. That’s one thing my editor said. He says, “Yeah, the Borders is hurting everybody.” I think back to when I did the Forts book…
Tom: When Obama said that he would close the Borders…
Tom: …I assumed he meant the Southern one and not the bookstores. Would that set on?
Jeff: Yeah, that’s the one he was talking about [laughs] .
Tom: A small joke anyway. To be in the book, this in itself is a challenging time right now, isn’t it?
Jeff: Yeah. I don’t think it’s so much with the readers, like the Kindle and the Nooks. I think the kind of people that I’m writing for, they don’t really get into that. My peeps tend to be older than me. I’m 55…
Tom: My peeps. That’s an old frontiersman saying.
Jeff: Yeah [laughs] .
Tom: That’s what they said back in the forts, back in the day.
Jeff: My partners tend to be older than me [laughs] .
Jeff: I’m 55. That’s who I’m writing for. These are the kinds of books that you throw in the glove compartment, and take along, and say, “If I’m in that area, I wanna check this out. I wanna know how to get there.”
Tom: You’re doing that now. You’re doing the speaking and everything on Custer, and on the Forts.
Jeff: The Forts and “Buffalo Bill.” My Buffalo Bill book just came out this year too. The last two were, “The Great Plains Guide to Custer,” and the “Great Plains Guide to Buffalo Bill.”
Tom: I’ll tell you, I get Buffalo Bill…
Jeff: And Wild Bill?
Tom: …and Wild Bill, totally confused. They’re two different guys, right?
Jeff: They’re two different guys. They actually were friends with each other. They both worked on the shipping trails coming through Nebraska. Buffalo Bill Cody was a few years younger than Wild Bill Hickok.
According to the Buffalo Bill legend, they were buddies growing up. They scouted together in Kansas. They actually both performed together. When Buffalo Bill started his first stage production, he talked Wild Bill Hickok into joining him. That didn’t work out.
Wild bill, he thought what they were doing was goofy to begin with. He’d always break out of character and say, “Get those lights on me.” Then they’d put the lights onto him and “Too damn bright! Get them off me!” He’d get into fights with the audience members and the cast members.
Then when he got in a fight with Buffalo Bill, and that’s when he pretty much left the show.
Tom: Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill are both basically doing the same thing, these Wild West Shows, where they would travel around. They would have gunfights.
Jeff: Well, Buffalo Bill was much more successful at it than Wild Bill was. Wild Bill, he did things like he was the marshal for the town of Hays. He was kind of a gunslinger sorts, and did some scouting. His career ended in ’76, and Buffalo Bill’s went on to 1916.
Tom: Where does Annie Oakley fit into all of this?
Jeff: She fits into that with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Of course, she was the sharp shooting little Missy. She was America’s sweetheart. People showed up to see her, as much as for Buffalo Bill. She was probably more popular than Buffalo Bill.
She was a staple of his show. I think he performed for about 35 years all together. She was around for at least 30 years of it.
Tom: How do they build that reputation, that legend? Nowadays, you think about Twitter, and Facebook, and satellite TV, and everything out there. With a PR firm of that, you think, “OK. This is how somebody gets known.” It’s easier. You don’t ever have to go see Miley Cyrus, to know who Miley Cyrus is, right?
Tom: How did Buffalo Bill get that reputation and that star power, when there was not that type of communication?
Jeff: No, there wasn’t. In fact, Buffalo Bill was probably the world’s first superstar. At the end of the century, show a photograph, mention his name anywhere in America and Europe, and people would know who you were talking about. They’d recognize him.
He was the most famous man in the world, which is not bad starting out as a buffalo hunter in Nebraska. To go from that in 15 years, to becoming the most famous person in the world is pretty phenomenal.
With his Wild West, which started in Nebraska by the way, the world premier of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West took place here in Omaha. From that point on, he traveled the country, and then went to Europe a few times.
He had a phenomenal marketing campaign. He already had some fame with the dying novels, but his promoter… I’m scratching my head over the name right now. That’s why I write books, because I can’t remember all of this stuff.
John Burke, he would get to cities weeks ahead of time. He knew all the editors in the town. He would spend plenty of time with them, and get the exclusive interviews with Buffalo Bill ahead of time.
He’d have posters just plastered all over the city. So you had the newspaper’s stories, you had the advertisements. You had the posters up everywhere. By the time Buffalo Bill’s Wild West got to town, you had to be dead to not want to go to see it. The anticipation was just so high.
Then Buffalo Bill was becoming a larger than life character as well. This John Burke was creating stories about Buffalo Bill that just enlarged Bill even bigger than he was.
There’s all kinds of stories about him that have never been proved out, some of which were probably not true.
Tom: Like what?
Jeff: For example like whether he rode for the Pony Express. That was always part of the Buffalo Bill story. As it turns out, with the timing of where he was, and where the Pony Express was taking place, the legend had it down that he was riding the Pony Express, actually it was like a year before the Pony Express started.
The truth was he did ride a pony for the company that created the Pony Express. It was not on the Pony Express route, and it was a few years before then.
Still, he became part of the Pony Express legend. We wouldn’t even talk about the Express today if it hadn’t been for him, because that was a failed business venture. It never made money. It was done within a year and a half. It would have been forgotten to the sands of time, or whatever.
Bill introduced that in his Wild West Show. The Pony Express was running every night. That became part of the American folklore and legend with the Pony Express, and he kept it alive. He brought it back from the dead actually. That’s why we still talk about it today.
The Pony Express right now is rerunning the route from Sacramento to St Joe. Again, they do this every year. They wouldn’t have done it without Buffalo Bill keeping it alive.
Tom: Buffalo Bill, when he was out doing his performances… First of all, how did he become a performer? Did he always want to be a performer? Was show business always in his blood, and he just hunted buffalo’s for a while?
How did he end up becoming that guy was out on the plains in Nebraska shooting buffalo, and then end up performing for kings and queens?
Jeff: Well, as the story goes, what had happened, there was this writer of dime novels called “Ned Buntline.” He was passing through giving temperament speeches, but also looking for material for these dime novels that he wrote.
He wanted to interview Wild Bill Hickok. When he met up with Hickok and said, “I want to write some dime novels about you,” he said, “I don’t have time for that melancholy. Go talk to Bill Cody over there. He’ll give you some stories.”
So from the ride from O’Fallons Bluff in Nebraska on to Fort McPherson, he spent time with Buffalo Bill, and just talked about his adventures on the Plains. Went back to New York and wrote these dime novels, and added a little more color to it.
By the time these got published, and these are like National Enquirers. People just snapped up these dime novels. They were cheap easy entertainment.
Buffalo Bill was a legend, before he even knew he was a legend. People knew his name, but they didn’t really know anything about him.
By the time he had made his first trip to New York, he attended one of these plays. There was actually a play about him, and the character onstage playing himself.
When they found out Buffalo Bill was in the house, they turned up the lights, and “Ladies and gentlemen, Buffalo Bill Cody,” and just thunderous applause.
This Ned Buntline, who had written that first dime novel, said, “I can make some money on this.” He hired Buffalo Bill to portray himself onstage, got another scout named “Texas Jack Omohundro,” hired a few more people.
Buntline even put a wig on himself, and pretended he was a scout, and wrote this play called “Scouts of the Plains,” and went out and gave performances around the country, and made a lot of money.
The thing was, Bill and Texas Jack, they weren’t committing their lines to memory. They didn’t have time for that. They didn’t bother with that. They were just making up stuff on the stage, and actually telling their own life stories.
The people loved it. They knew that, “Hey! These guys aren’t actors. They don’t know their lines, but they’re telling us these great stories.”
Tom: So the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, did it play in places like Nebraska or Texas, or did it only play in New York City and Washington DC and Baltimore, where they loved this exotic far out place?
If I was in Deadwood, South Dakota, Buffalo Bill coming out and telling me stories that I was living on my own, it might not be that big of a deal, right?
Jeff: Yeah. The Buffalo Bill’s Wild West actually came about when he was in North Platte. The city wasn’t planning anything for the Fourth of July. He says, “Well, we’ve got to do something for the Fourth of July.” He was still doing these stage presentations.
He said, “How about if we get these cowboys that I know. They do their calf roping. They do their bronc riding, and steer wrestling, and everything like that. What if I round up some of those?”
Some guy said, “Well, I’ve got some buffalo, Bill, if you use blanks. How about if you run them around the ring, and show them how you used to hunt buffalo?” He said, “Oh, we’ll do that.”
Somebody else knew some Indians, with some Indian ponies. They had a stagecoach, and they could do some stagecoach chases around the arena.
It turned out to be just a phenomenal thing. They called it “The Old Glory Blowout.” It was just a fantastic Fourth of July celebration.
From that Bill thought, “I could maybe take this on the road.” That’s when he did the rehearsals in Columbus, Nebraska, and then brought the show for display for the first time in Omaha. It just went over huge.
He told the people, “I hope you enjoyed it. I’m going to be taking this around America,” presenting it as a thoroughbred Nebraska show. He wanted to show the world eventually what the Wild West was like from a Nebraska point of view.
That’s what he was showing, with the cowboys, and with the Indians, and the ponies.
Tom: So at the show, they would have like wild buffalo just running around?
Jeff: Oh, yeah.
Tom: The lawyers and the insurance companies must have loved that!
Jeff: [laughs] I think that’s before the lawyers and insurance companies got into the game. Every night, he had a herd of buffalo, and he’d run them around the arena and have them headed right for the grandstand, until the cowboys turned them aside at the last minute.
They had the stagecoaches running around being chased by Indians, and Buffalo Bill coming to the rescue. It was phenomenal! People just absolutely went nuts about it.
His eventual business partner was actually pretty shrewd too. They wanted to go in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The World’s Fair people there said, “We’re going to make our own money. We don’t need your help.” They said, “That’s fine.”
What they did was they took over the land outside of the World’s Fair, between it and the train station that was bringing all the passengers, all the fans to the World’s Fair.
They setup a month ahead of time. People would get off the train. They’d pay their admission, go to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, spend the day there, and think they had been to the World’s Fair, and went home.
Jeff: Bill and his partner, the six months that they were there for that, they made about $1 million, which is in 1893 dollars. Today’s dollars, that was about $30 million that they made just from that location.
Originally, they did setup camp outside of large cities, and would draw people in for about three weeks, a month, or whatever, and then go onto the next major city.
As time went by, and there got to be more and more of these kind of shows like that, with the traveling circuses and that sort of thing, Bill started going to the smaller towns.
That’s when he started paying visits to all the places in Nebraska. I think there are about 16 towns all together that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performed. Here in Omaha, he had done at least 13 performances with that.
There is a count out there. You can go online. Go to BuffaloBill.org, and you can see if Buffalo Bill was in your town. It will give the location of all the states, towns, countries, that he performed with dates.
Tom: In hearing about this, and you’re talking about the Nebraska history, with the forts, and the battles, and Buffalo Bill, and everything about it. Yet, I’ve lived in Nebraska most of my life, and I don’t even really think about that.
Jeff: That’s because you’re in Omaha. [laughs]
Tom: .Well, that’s true. I also think that when you talk to people in the rest of the world, they don’t think about it either.
Again, when you think about this sort of thing, you think about cowboys and Indians, you don’t think about Nebraska. You’d think about Texas, or think about Arizona. You don’t think about Nebraska.
Jeff: Yeah. You’d be surprised. There’s actually quite a few people that still think about the Wild West today in Europe.
I belong to a group here in town called “The Westerners, The Omaha Westerners.” We get together once-a-month for dinner, in and Old West kind of talking. There’s Chapters in Europe, throughout the country, as well that do this.
I don’t know why that is. I hate to say it, but that’s kind of the way Omaha is. We kind of downplay our cow town past. A lot of the old buildings that were constructed have been torn down. I think there’s always just this emphasis for Omaha to keep renewing itself.
We don’t call it the River City Roundup anymore. Now, it’s the River City Rodeo. Used to be a dozen days of fun for all. Now, it’s just into that rodeo event. We don’t have the covered wagons coming into town to celebrate it anymore. I think there’s an insecurity in Omaha about that, to celebrate our Wild West history.
We’re the birthplace of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. That is a mark, today. It’s up in northeast Omaha, about 16th and Ames, actually. It’s not marked.
You go on to think about the impact that “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” had on the country. People, like I said, think about the Pony Express now because of Buffalo Bill.
The impression that people have of cowboys is in large part because Buffalo Bill turned them into heroes, American heroes, rather than the filthy, dirty scumbags [laughs] most people thought of them in the 1880s.
American impression of the world. This is like a cowboy nation, cowboy culture. That’s because of Buffalo Bill, what he brought on.
You think about all the boys and girls that went and saw Buffalo Bill as kids and grew up. They started writing those western novels. They were directing those western pictures. A lot of your and I childhood, from our past. We grew up with western TV shows and things like that.
Tom: Roy Rogers and stuff like that.
Jeff: Roy Rogers, exactly. Those arose from “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.” The impact that he had is just phenomenal through those Wild West shows that he put on.
Tom: Was Buffalo Bill a carouser, a drinker, a womanizer? Or was he a shrewd businessman who just said, “Hey, I got a nice little gig here. I can make $30 million playing the part of this cowboy.”
In other words, was he just some wild man that got lucky? Was he a shrewd businessman? What was his personality like?
Jeff: I think he would have been a really fun guy to be around. He probably did carouse. He was a heavy drinker. Business partner finally got him to swear off at least drinking in his presence. He would not drink around him.
He was a very, very generous guy. I think his wealth came to him very, very easily. People kept giving him things. He would give it back just as freely.
I found this really neat story in the “Omaha Herald” from 1889. He was at the old Paxton Hotel. Had been there for a couple weeks. That’s where he’d stay when he was in town. Omaha was his playground, by the way. He knew all the bars in town. He knew all the personalities in town.
Tom: The hookers.
Jeff: Yeah. I don’t know. Maybe. [laughs] The story was about him at the Paxton Hotel. He was giving out gifts to people that he knew in town. One of them was the town sheriff at the time. There was a couple military colonels that were getting gifts. That’s when the Department of the Plat was located here.
The story had the names of these people, what they had received, like if it was a diamond ring or diamond stud, and the value of the item that they had received.
Jeff: It’s incredible. You had lists of about nine people here, well-known people in town. Here’s what they got from Buffalo Bill. Here’s how much it was worth. There was a ring worth $1500. Again, take that times 20 to 30 to get the value today.
The story concluded with he was going to be there through Sunday. If there’s anybody in town that he had missed, stop on by. [laughs]
Tom: Like Elvis buying Cadillacs, right?
Jeff: Yeah. He became a very, very wealthy man. It came to him very easily, I’m sure he thought. He gave it back just as easily. If he had a mission statement, I think it was to make people happy.
People like these kinds of things. He had more than he needed, so he’d give them to them. They made him happy.
Tom: What did he have to do as far as the initial growth of Omaha? In other words, look, Warren Buffett lives here. He helps bring people here. He brings business here. All the name recognition, that sort of thing.
I’m thinking about Elvis and Memphis. What Elvis did for Memphis, both with tourism and also created a music scene there, which was big in their economy.
Big on the growth of Memphis would have been Elvis’s living there. Things like that. Did Buffalo Bill do the same sort of thing for Omaha?
Jeff: Not really. Other than his shows being performed here. That would bring people to town, of course. But he didn’t live here. He socialized here quite a bit.
This was where he came as his tour was getting started. This is where he’d come to get geared up for it. This was where he’d come to unwind from it.
Like I said, he was really well-known in town. Sadly, that all got forgotten after he’d died.
There was an effort in 1927. The Cody family was going to build two museums. They wanted to have one museum for his Wild West days, and another museum that would cover his scouting and pioneer days. Ultimately, they decided on Omaha for that.
We were going to get a Buffalo Bill museum. It was going to be built at Elmwood Park, right on Dodge Street there, where the walk-over on Dodge Street is. Where those stone donuts are today.
That was going to be the site of the Cody Memorial Museum. Elmwood Park was going to be renamed as Cody Park. This was right on the edge of town there, too.
It was going to be a major tourist attraction for the city. Then, it all fell apart. [laughs] The city had already decided. They had already made up their mind we’re going to do all this. Then, they got to talking about the artifacts that they were going to display.
What the Cody family wanted to do was to have those artifacts in Omaha during the fall and winter months, and have them back to Cody, Wyoming in the spring and summer.
Of course, our tourist season’s the same time as Cody, Wyoming’s. People are going to come here to see a museum in the spring and summer. Probably not so much in the wintertime.
The city council said, “Well, if that’s how we’re going to do it, it’d make more sense for us just to buy our own artifacts.” Which, of course, they never did. The museum never came about.
Everything’s in Cody, Wyoming now. It is a major tourist attraction. There’s actually five museums in one. It takes two days to see the whole thing.
Tom: People still care about Buffalo Bill?
Jeff: They still do. You see magazines like “The American Cowboy.” They’ll still put out a special issue of just relating to Buffalo Bill.
I write for “True West” magazine. I just recently did a story with them on Buffalo Bill. They love anything relating to Buffalo Bill, about relating to Custer. These are American legends.
Buffalo Bill. If you think about, pull five people out of American history and heritage that you’d want to represent America. You’d probably have George Washington, probably have Abraham Lincoln. But you got to think Buffalo Bill would be in there, too.
Jeff: I think because he was such a legendary character. He was such a colorful character. There’s probably alliteration going on there with Buffalo Bill. It’s just Buffalo Bill and the west.
You immediately think of the west, and the mountains, and the plains, and buffalo, and cowboys. He just encapsulates everything with that. It’s the kind of thing that you think of for America.
They still do that in the Olympics. When we send the athletes out to march in the parade, they’re oftentimes wearing cowboy hats. They still embrace the whole American west with that. That was Buffalo Bill that really did that. That really brought it all around.
Tom: Now, you’re just making a living, going around the country, lecturing on this. Selling books, and talking about not only Buffalo Bill, but also the forts and the history and Custer and all that.
Jeff: Custer and the Oregon Trail and that kind of thing, too. I also do freelancing. Again, getting back to my trying to make a living off of history.
I do freelance work for the “Omaha World Herald.” I do stories for, sometimes, on the Saturday paper. Guys in their collector cars. I love the old cars. I love the history. The color and design about that. That’s a fun thing to do, too.
I also do freelance writing for magazines like “True West” and the kind of stuff that their readers like to get. Anything else that will tie into history, too. But [laughs] I’ll write about other things, as well.
Tom: It’s nice. You’re doing what you love.
Jeff: Yeah. Going back to my public relations days. Salary-wise, I’m not making nearly what I was back then.
I tell you, I’ve never been happier in my life for what I do professionally. I’m doing what I wanted to do when I retired, and I just got a head start on it. We’ll see how long it goes, but for now, I’m loving it.
Tom: You’ve been doing it for a number of years.
Jeff: Yeah, I started I guess in 2007. That’s when I got laid off from the last PR job that I had. It was about the same time that the first book came out.
I was doing some freelancing at the time, and that’s what got me onto speaking. I said, “You don’t make money by writing books. You can only make money by selling books.” That’s when I said, “I got to get over this shyness of speaking before groups.”
I gave a performance before a friendly audience, up at Fort Omaha. It was mostly family and friends there. Like a book roll-out. Found out I really liked it. Got the adrenaline rush from it.
Somebody came up and asked, “How much would you charge to come speak to my group?” I never even thought about charging somebody.
Tom: Now you do.
Jeff: I said, “I don’t know. 50 bucks? I don’t know.” Then, I started doing more of that, and then knew that Humanities Nebraska was a possibility of presenting. I spoke to them. They came and heard one of my presentations and said, “Yeah, we’ll get you on as one of our speakers.”
I’m, I guess, fairly aggressive about my marketing. That’s my PR background. I make sure people know that I am available as a speaker, whether it’s…
Tom: Although you charge more than 50 bucks now.
Jeff: Yeah. Through Humanities Nebraska now. They took me on as a speaker, and I’ve since gone on to become one of their top five most requested presenters. Which is not bad. I was pretty happy.
Tom: Nice. Sounds like this is your busy time now, the summertime. Is this a busy time, where people are on vacation and so you’ll go out to some of these small towns and give the speeches to the people on vacation?
Jeff: Yeah. It would be otherwise, but I actually find quite a bit going on in back-to-school time.
But summer’s hit-and-miss. This summer actually became a miss, because I’ve got this other writing project going on that I got hired for. I cut back on doing the promoting myself to try to get on as a speaker in favor of this.
It’s nice to get paid for a book, know you’re going to get paid for a book, rather than write one and hope somebody…
Tom: That it sells well? People want to buy your books on Amazon.com. Give the name of the book and how they can find it.
Jeff: They can go to Amazon.com or BN.com. The three books are “Forts of the Northern Plains,” “The Great Plains Guide to Custer,” and “The Great Plains Guide to Buffalo Bill.” You can also order it directly from me and get it signed, personalized, whatever at northernforts.com.
Tom: Northern forts?
Jeff: Northernforts.com. That covers everything. You got a little bio about me there. You can hear some of the radio interviews I’ve had. I’ll add this one to that. Add your podcast to that.
You’ve got my schedule, so if you want to hear me speak, it’s got my calendar of upcoming appearances. I don’t know if I’ve got what the next one, planned at Omaha, but I’m around the state quite a bit.
If you’re in the area, stop on by. I’d love to talk about this stuff. I got a 45-minute presentation. It’s PowerPoint, so there’s lots of images. I like to get things that people haven’t seen before.
I find that in writing books, there’s a lot images that get used over and over and over again. I made the specialty of a book on finding things that people haven’t seen before and telling stories that they haven’t heard before.
Tom: What is the biggest misconception about that way of life? About that time in our history? The biggest misconception versus what the reality was.
Jeff: That’s a good question. I don’t know. [laughs] That’s a good question. I don’t know. That people were dirty. [laughs]
Tom: So history might be pretty accurate, then?
Jeff: It’s funny because there’s a two-dimensional view of people from back then. You see the black-and-white photographs, and you don’t think about them being colorful people with personalities and their own little idiosyncrasies.
George Custer, for example. People come up to me, and they say, “I hate Custer.” Or that Custer was a loser, or he was a wuss, or a wimp, or bloodthirsty or whatever.
They say that, and I know these people. They haven’t cracked a history book in 15 years. They don’t really understand the folks. They don’t see them as being three-dimensional characters that did have lives, that did have fears and did have dreams of success and wanting to make a living the best way that they knew how.
George Custer, a lot of people think that he was just out to kill Indians and that was it. Got over his head at Little Big Horn.
Custer was actually a pacifist when he first came out to the plains. He was always trying to negotiate with the Indians. Always advising to not attack this village to his commanding generals.
He wasn’t going on a patrol for Indians when he should have been, or what they thought he should have been. It wasn’t until the army really started pushing him. “You need to start doing this or you’re going to lose your job.” Then, he became more aggressive.
Tom: What you’re saying is that the biggest misconception is that these are real people. These are not just cartoon characters in history books, or some sort of caricature. These were real people.
Jeff: Yeah. Custer, he wanted to make a living with the army, but it was really, really difficult to do this.
This wasn’t the Civil War, where he went from a second lieutenant to a major general in three years. He got stuck with a lieutenant colonelcy and there was really no opportunity to move up. The only way you could hope to move up was to find success on the battlefield.
He found that to some extent, but then, of course, didn’t at Little Big Horn, which of course ended his career [laughs] rather famously. On the other hand, if he’d won that battle, people wouldn’t even think about him today. In that way, he does live on long after his expectancy.
Tom: If you’re planning a road trip through the Midwest, now you’ve got some stories to tell. Talk about a little bit of the history, a little bit of the knowledge that you’ve gained today on just what this area was like way back in the day.
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