Cody is one of seven iconic Western towns featured in our 2017 Best of the West issue.
It takes some doing for a little mountain town to live up to a name as big as Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Founded in the 1890s by a small group of developers including the Wild West icon himself, Cody (current population 9,830) has steadily risen to the challenge with characteristic grace, grit, and, most important, good attitude.
“Cody people are real, friendly, and very patriotic — a great combination,” observes two-term Cody mayor and local gallery owner Nancy Tia Brown. “Visitors comment continually on the beauty, hospitality, and, of course, authentic Western history here.”
Brown, a former Denver teacher, moved to Cody with her husband in the early 1980s to open their Big Horn Gallery, which now represents numerous Western artists in a town long known for its prized crop of homegrown creatives as diverse as Jackson Pollock, Harry Jackson, and Western furniture innovator Thomas Molesworth. “Art is part of the fabric of Cody,” Brown says. “And because of the famous Buffalo Bill Center of the West, there is a great deal of culture and sophistication here.”
Also here: one of the most beloved nightly summer rodeo seasons on the circuit, a Wyoming-worthy adventure industry, and a spectacular 50-mile drive to the eastern gates of neighboring Yellowstone National Park along the Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway.
Perhaps most important, Cody instills a comforting sense that the West has a firm grasp of its roots. That’s evidenced by landmarks like the 1902 Irma Hotel (built by Buffalo Bill and named for his daughter), Old Trail Town (a frontier town re-creation celebrating its 50th anniversary this year), and the nation’s finest collective of Western museums housed under a single mythical name.
Back in 1895, Cody the man (1846 – 1917) — not yet 50 years old but already having worn several lifetimes’ worth of hats — was standing right here. Climbing to a perch, staring down at a
mountain-ringed landscape, the indefatigable soldier, cowboy, dime novel hero, dude ranch pioneer, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show impresario was moved enough to add “town founder” to his portfolio.
Cody would persuade President Teddy Roosevelt to establish the Bureau of Reclamation and to construct the Shoshone Dam and Reservoir (later renamed after Buffalo Bill). Cody’s development team would insist that their nascent town (incorporated in 1901) could only be named after one guy — who’d be proud of what he started here.
The breadth of Western art, history, Native American exhibits, weaponry, and William Cody memorabilia housed under five separate museums at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West means you’ll want to book an extra day or two in Cody just to do the town’s flagship attraction justice. Highlights include a reconstructed studio of Frederic Remington at the Whitney Western Art Museum, more than 7,000 guns at the comprehensive Cody Firearms Museum, one of the nation’s finest collections of Native art and artifacts at the Plains Indian Museum, and the Buffalo Bill Museum filled with relics and multimedia exhibits dedicated to the man himself and his enduring legacy.
Flowing right through town, the Shoshone River is one of Yellowstone country’s favorite rafting roads. Veteran float-trip outfitter Wyoming River Trips (founded by a pair of brothers who originally came to Cody to ride bulls) has been leading some of the wildest and prettiest closeups since the 1970s — including at exclusive sections in aptly named Red Rock Canyon and the Shoshone’s North Fork near Yellowstone National Park.
Housing enough fine galleries along Sheridan Avenue to give all those souvenir and ranchwear shops a run for their audience, Cody is known for famous painters as well as a Western-style furniture tradition pioneered by Thomas Molesworth here in the mid-20th century. “There’s a recent movement to elevate the profile of furniture and honor its unique history in the Cody area by a group called By Western Hands,” says Nancy Tia Brown of Cody’s Big Horn Gallery. “An exhibit by members of this organization has been held in conjunction with the Buffalo Bill Art Show [September 22 – 24, 2017] for the last several years.”
No, that’s not a mirage or movie set hiding at the west end of town on the way to Yellowstone. Old Trail Town’s collection of historical buildings, artifacts, and period furnishings were gathered from remote locations throughout Wyoming and Montana and impeccably reassembled here by a local Western historian. Adding to the haunting authenticity of the place are real cabins used by Butch Cassidy and Sundance and the gravesites of local notables, including notorious mountain man John “Jeremiah” Johnson.
There are summer rodeo towns and then there’s Cody — which designates itself (OK, like a few other places) “the Rodeo Capital of the World.” Supporting that claim: Stampede Park’s Cody Nite Rodeo, a tradition since 1938, happens every evening at Stampede Park between June 1 and August 31, capped by the PRCA Cody Stampede Rodeo, a July Fourth weekend tradition since 1919.
More info: yellowstonecountry.org