The Day Buffalo Bill Rode Into Town
A tongue-twisting tale of Buffalo Bill's buffalo, breaking barriers in Brantford (to the bemusement of Brantfordian bystanders).
Tim Ford, November 16, 2022 // Brantford, OntarioA poster of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Stock photo.
It was a sticky summer morning on July 15, 1897, and a cloud of dust had begun to balloon over the horizon of Woodstock, Ontario. Moseying east along the old highway (what we now know as the #2 through Paris), was one of the most mythical and fascinating characters to come out of the Wild West. The wheels barely kept on the coach as they thudded over the potholes and felled trees that blocked the path. Clinging to the walls of his carriage was no other than “Buffalo” Bill Cody, the internationally renowned American showman, who not only had a football team named after him, but also a creepy lotion obsessed serial killer from the movies. Following him up and over, trying to endure the underkept road nicknamed “The Corduroy Stretch” was a cavalry of cowboys, clowns, buffalo herds and handlers, all making their way down the Burford plains and into Brantford. They were hours behind schedule and needed to push through the unforgiving Brant wilderness, to make it to the fairgrounds where they were to perform in the “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” stage show that evening.
It had been a long and arduous day and a half’s journey from their last performance in St. Thomas and the 51-year-old entertainer was praying for an easy show. He and his team would have less than 24 hours after curtains to pack up and head east into Hamilton to perform the very next evening. They arrived in West Brant in the early afternoon with creaky wheels and creaky bones and were greeted by a dishevelled promoter clutching his pocket watch. With no time to lose the crew immediately prepared the fairgrounds for the day’s festivities. After constructing a shabbily made pen for the herds of animals, the handlers felt it was appropriate to award their hard labour with a drink at the Lorne Bridge and took a five-to-15-minute break. Thirty minutes, tops.
Buffalo Bill’s herd of buffalo must have had the same scheme in mind and broke free from their stalls, rushing into the river for an overdue quench. Before long, they crossed the waters and occupied Kerby Island, joining a herd of Kerby’s own resident cattle. Both Bill’s handlers and Brantford’s bemused bystanders all scrambled into the Grand River and onto Kerby Island to make buffalo heads and tails of the fiasco. One by one, they separated Bill’s buffalo’s from Kerby’s lazy island cows, and forded them back across the river.
Portrait of the famous Buffalo Bill Cody in 1909. Stock photo.
During the embarrassing ordeal, Bill veiled his ten-gallon hat over his eyes and kept his dustless boots up in his stagecoach, leaving the real cowboy-ing to the younger cowboys. After taking another hour to coral the remaining herd flirting with the local cattle, disaster was calmed and to the shock of the audience, not only did the show go on, but it began promptly on time. Buffalo Bill performed grand spectacles of gunplay and paraded around his cavalry of animals, to the delight of thousands of Brantfordians that evening.
Moments after they bowed and tipped their hats, they packed up and kicked dust down Colborne Street, onto to the old highway, and into Hamilton. Despite the blunders and misgivings of that hot July day, Buffalo Bill dazzled and captivated this town, like he did with so many others along the ol’ dusty trail. After years of requests, Buffalo Bill accepted another invitation to perform in Brantford and returned on June 30, 1909, with Pawnee Bill. No rogue buffalo were reported schmoozing with Kerby’s island cows.
Buffalo Bill’s ties to Brant County don’t end there. Bill’s grandparents settled in Toronto in 1807 and his father was born in Mississauga in 1811. The entire family emigrated to Ohio before Bill was born, leaving a lone family member behind in Ontario, Bill’s aunt Nancy. In the 1860s Nancy moved to Burford where she settled with her husband, Amos Merigold, baring 10 children. Many of these descendants live in Brant County today. So next time you’re at the Foodland in Burford or getting a slice at Robbie’s Pizza, you may be bumping shoulders with a relative of a true legend of the wild west!
*Journalist’s note: Some “facts” of this story were taken from quotes in a 1946 “The Brant Review” newspaper clipping where it states Sitting Bull was also in attendance, who had actually died seven years prior. So, grain of salt.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario…so…yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.