They have Ernest Hemingway’s shotgun, and William Cody’s Medal of Honor. And, there's a custom rifle built for Abraham Lincoln with the president’s head for a hammer.
All that can be seen daily at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
But some of the most interesting and bizarre items at the Center rarely make a public appearance.
The Center of the West is home to five world-class museums devoted to chronicling the history of the Western United States. The Buffalo Bill Museum opened in 1927 and over the last 90 years the Center has grown to include the Whitney Western Art Museum, Plains Indian Museum, Cody Firearms Museum and the Draper Natural History Museum. Each of the museums have collections with thousands of items, but space constraints, delicate materials and sometimes cultural sensitivities force the museums to keep a majority of their treasures hidden from visitors in climate-controlled vaults.
Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show toured in 47 states and throughout Europe over the course of three decades. Cody, the Wyoming city’s namesake, hosted hundreds of exhibitions every year and hobnobbed with royalty and the day’s newsmakers across the globe.
“The cowboy back in 1883, when Buffalo Bill started the Wild West show, was seen as a thug, basically a Hells Angel on horseback. By the time (Cody) was done, the cowboy was an American hero,” said Jeremy Johnston, executive curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum.
When Cody died in 1917 he left behind an outsized legend and thousands of historically significant items related to his life as a frontiersman and performer. Thanks to the efforts of Mary Jester Allen, Bill Cody’s niece, the Buffalo Bill Memorial Association was formed to connect Cody’s descendants in the name of preserving the man’s legacy.
According to Johnston, the Buffalo Bill museum now claims more than 10,000 items. But, only about 10 percent of the artifacts are on display at any given time. Key items in the collection are always on display, while many others are rotated between exhibits, several vaults beneath the museum and off-site storage facilities.
Some of the items like a carriage used in the Wild West show are kept off-site because they’re too large to keep on the main campus. Others are loaned to museums across the country and some items, like a collection of 200 promotional posters from performances as far away as Ukraine, are stored in controlled environments to facilitate preservation. The posters were meant to be temporary objects, so keeping them in tact takes calculated handling.
“You can imagine these were used once and then scraped off the wall or painted over,” Johnston said while pulling out a blood red poster promoting a tour through France.
He said museum curators have two main duties, to share history and artifacts with the public but also to ensure the items are around for thousands of years in the future.
The museum displays 20 of the promotional posters at any given time and circulate them every six months. If the museum displayed the posters full time, UV rays would damage the materials and rob the images of their brilliant color.
Other items reside in the museum vault because similar items are already on display in exhibits like a few examples of Cody’s over-the-top buckskins or the dozens of saddles kept by the museum. Some artifacts are just too bizarre to fit into an exhibition.
The Buffalo Bill Museum vault contains a wig worn by Annie Oakley in her later years with the Wild West show. Johnston said Oakley went gray prematurely. The official story blamed her loss of color on stress created by a train crash she experienced but in reality she went gray after soaking too long in a spa containing potent chemicals. Her vanity prompted her to wear a wig during remaining performances.
The odd objects aren’t limited to the vaults of the Buffalo Bill Museum. The Cody Firearms Museum has about 35,000 items in its collection but only 7,000 of those are guns. Many of the objects are tools, gun parts, ammunition, or items otherwise connected to firearms. At any time, about three fourths of the collection is in storage.
Since 1998 the firearms museum vault has contained large milk chocolate plates bearing depictions of bison, geese and other western imagery. While edible at one time, the chocolate is actually an artifact telling a piece of American firearms history.
Danny Michael, Cody Firearms Museum curatorial assistant, said the chocolate moldings were created by an engraving company and depict images etched into the firearms the firm worked on. The museum maintains few records concerning the candy so little else is known about them.
Other items in the vault are as unusual though their connection to the museum’s mission is easier to see. The museum is home to a prototype shotgun known as the “liberator.” This unusual firearm was designed in 1964 at the height of tensions with the Soviet Union as a cheap gun that could be dropped to resistance fighters in enemy territory.
Michael said the four-barrel 12 gauge has a single firing pin that rotated to fire a shell in one barrel at a time. The shotgun was designed to be cheap with mostly cast parts and a folding wire stock. The idea was for a fighter to use the gun to obtain better weapons from their enemies. Not all the items in the vault are so utilitarian.
A gold-plated revolver once belonging to Cody madam Cassie Waters is often on display, but not currently. The .32-caliber Hopkins and Allen has mother of pearl grips with a personal inlaid message: “To My Friend Cassie, Every Inch a Lady.”
“Its gold plating is kind of ironic because Hopkins and Allen are kind of known for their inexpensive handguns,” Michael said with a smile. “Notice there’s no description who it’s from, only who’s getting it.”
Almost all the vaults and behind-the-scenes areas are inaccessible to Center of the West visitors, but there is a notable exception. The Draper Natural History Museum encourages guests to gaze through large windows into the lab where their wildlife specimens are processed by researchers and volunteers.
The Natural History Museum opened in 2002 and is the newest of the five institutions at the Center. Charles Preston, Draper’s Willis McDonald IV Senior Curator of Natural Science, said the museum operates a little differently than the others in Cody.
Much of the museum’s mission lies in research. Biological specimens are constantly brought into the lab where they are processed for scientific study. Folks walking through the public sections of the museum will enjoy taxidermied wolves, bears and other animals native to the area, although Preston said this type of preservation has little value for researchers because the dimensions change during the taxidermy process.
Instead, volunteers in the lab routinely preserve specimens by carefully skinning the animal and collecting the bones. The skins are pressed flat and the bones cleaned and organized into a representative skeleton. The method has an added benefit with smaller species in the ability to be stored flat in file cabinets.
That’s not to say the only specimens chronicled in the museum’s vaults are small birds or mammals. The Draper has about 1,000 specimens including the complete skeleton of a bison that once lived and died in the Big Horn Basin.
The collection grows every day and sometimes in surprising ways. Preston said a volunteer once chanced upon a young male mountain lion that died in Yellowstone National Park. The level of decomposition prevented easy identification of the cause of death so the cat was taken to the lab in Cody for investigation. Researchers discovered punctures in the animal’s skull from the canine teeth of adult mountain lion. The deceased lion’s skull is now part of the Draper collection.
It’s in good company. The museum is a repository for skulls belonging to wolves killed in Yellowstone National Park since their reintroduction in 1995. There are now about 150 wolf skulls in the collection.
“You get a series as big as this you can tell how the wolves are getting injured, if they were kicked in the head while hunting or something,” Preston said.
Researchers are also finishing a comparison between the skeletal records of the reintroduced wolves and wolf specimens that lived in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem 100 years ago. Preston said some of the people opposed to the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone have claimed the gray wolves brought in from Canada are larger than the original population. The study has not yet been completed but preliminary results indicate the reintroduced packs do not differ in size to the animals that preceded them.
The skulls and other specimens are kept away from public view like the vaults of the other four museums at the Center. But visitors with an appetite for a look behind the scenes can catch a glimpse of frontline research at the Draper.