At the Buffalo Bill Museum, a Showdown Between History and Myth





If you want to make sense of the impressive immensity of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center here, or even take the full measure of its reconceived $3 million Buffalo Bill Museum, which opened in June, it might help first to turn away from this $75 million, seven-acre building with its 50,000 artifacts, five distinct “museums” and research library.

Just down the road, you will find the decidedly more humble Cody Dug Up Gun Museum, where more than 800 rusted, jammed and half-ruined pistols, revolvers and other weapons are displayed in the kind of dirt in which they were originally discovered. It’s an eccentric archaeological collection that includes a still-loaded Colt found in a Nevada ghost town — a gun, we learn, that was probably used as part of a 19th-century jailbreak.

Or, if your taste runs to gunslinger kitsch, sample the nightly shootout in front of the Irma Hotel (built by Buffalo Bill himself). The street-theater plot is a hokey variation on “True Grit,” with plenty of winks and elbowing jests. The sounds of the explosive blanks ricochet through this one-horse town (population under 10,000), luring standing-room-only crowds.

Or for more authentic fare, take a 10-minute drive out of town for the “Cody Nite Rodeo,” and watch cowboys rope cattle or ride bareback on bucking bulls.

It is difficult, at times, to determine which events are staged for tourists and which are reflections of a deeply ingrained local culture. Eating at the Irma Hotel buffet, you wonder if you are underdressed without a Stetson. It is not for mere effect that the entrance to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center specifies “Firearms Prohibited.”

Cody, you see, is cowboy country. For real. And cowboy country, too, for show. The town is surrounded by landscapes that could have been used as movie backdrops by John Ford. A stunning drive of just over 50 miles takes you to the eastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park...




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