(eTN) – When Bess Edwards was a little girl, she would sit on Annie Oakley’s lap and snuggle closely.
“I didn’t realize how famous Annie Oakley was,” said Edwards, “to me, she was just Aunt Annie.”
Bess Edwards is the grand-niece of wild-west legend Annie Oakley (born Phoebe Ann Mosey near Greenville, Ohio). Today, August 13, marks the sesquicentennial (150-year celebration) of the birth of Annie Oakley, America’s first female super star.
The actress Annie Oakley was the 19th century equivalent of Angelina Jolie, except there was no television, radio, cinema or e-files; there was only live stage performance in that era. Oakley toured with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, a choreographed spectacular comprised of 1200 performers. Annie Oakley had never laid eyes on the Wild West, much less ever been a cowgirl, just like most actresses in the show. But that was fine, because the audiences were just as naïve. This allowed Cody the latitude to portray cowboy culture in a romanticized version that celebrated the “fun” side of living in Frontier Land, as if some sort of Disney-On-Wheels theme park.
The persona of Annie Oakley was featured in the Broadway musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” but the essence of the play did not correspond to the real-life Phoebe Ann Mosey.
“My father was shocked over how they portrayed Annie,” said Edwards “Aunt Annie came from a squeaky-clean family where the children and the house were scrubbed spotless.”
The notion that Annie was backward, or dirty, or a tough drunken lesbian like Calamity Jane is pure bunk. Although billed as “Miss Annie Oakley,” Annie was actually a happily married woman who loved to sew and wear dresses, spoil children, and dote on pets. The musical admonishes Annie “You can’t get a man with a gun,” but the truth was she literally had to fight off men’s advances.
It’s always been on my bucket list to visit the lands depicted in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and finally I made the determination this must be the year. Being our fifth wedding anniversary, and whereas the traditional fifth anniversary present is wood, we planned an exciting visit to the national forests and parks of the Western Frontiers.
Our tour began in Jackson, Wyoming, where the vast valley is known as Jackson Hole. The Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Jackson section was awarded the honor to provide the nation’s 2010 Capitol Christmas Tree, which will grace the front lawn of the Capitol in Washington DC during the holidays. This is the first time a tree from Wyoming will be the country’s Capitol Christmas Tree; the Superintendent of the US Capitol grounds has selected a 67-foot Engelmann Spruce from the forest.
Jackson is completely surrounded by protected forests and parkland, meaning there is always a breathtaking view no matter which direction one faces. The town has a Disney look and feel to it, with cowboy bars, stage coaches, antler arches, and even a daily shoot-out.
The old-time locals in Jackson recommend The Virginian Lodge Restaurant for breakfasts and Bubba’s Bar-B-Q for dinners. These were easy to get to, since all public busses inside Jackson city limits are free. Both restaurants turned out to be heavenly. Locals advised us not to go to any of the dinner shows, warning the food was pretty bad at all of them.
There was one dinner show we still wanted to see, The Jackson Hole Playhouse, because they are playing “Annie Get Your Gun” for summer 2010. I made numerous attempts to reach their public relations representative to get at least some orientation to the historic 1916 building which houses the theatre. Emails and faxes were ignored. When I tried telephoning to find out who handled journalist inquiries, the box office “manager” was pretty nasty to me. He claimed he would call back with the information, but blew me off.
Having been denied contact with PR at The Jackson Hole Playhouse, I looked to other reviewers of their summer production. The local paper had an article by Matthew Irwin, who wrote “In the opening number (“There’s No Business Like Show Business”), a cast of more than 10 dances right against the walls, and the ceiling practically obstructs the stage. The sound has a tin-can hollowness that seemed delayed at times, and I could hardly hear some actors unless they stood next to others who were miked. Not to mention, the curtains are getting a little worn. Without renovations in sound and stage, Annie Get Your Gun is just too big for the playhouse’s britches. It makes a cast of skilled young actors look like they’re performing for their parents in a suburban basement.”
Ouch! I guess I didn’t miss much.
During our week in Jackson, we made numerous excursions to the Grand Teton National Park. Marco was in love with the Tetons long before he ever knew where they were. As a little boy, he watched the western film “Shane” over and over, and was mesmerized by the landscape. The first thing he said when he saw the majestic Tetons was “I know this place from my childhood.” Then tears came to his eyes.
Indeed, Shane was filmed here, and loyal fans make pilgrimages to these formidable peaks to regain the sense of awe experienced in childhood. I got a kick out of the national park’s postal service, where the postmark reads “Moose, Wyoming.” A very friendly British lady gave us rubber stamps and a red ink pad to imprint cute Moose images on all our postcards, and sold us colorful stamps which depicted Teton National Park.
After six days in beautiful Jackson, we joined up with a Trafalgar Tour passing through on their Western Frontiers itinerary. For the entire next week, we traversed vast expanses of protected lands, getting a portrait of what Buffalo Bill’s Wild West would have looked like.
Our knowledgeable tour guide, Tom Williams, is a 30-year tour veteran; he started in 1980 at a mountaineer school in Wyoming where he guided overland camping tours. When he lived in New Mexico he was an actor with Santa Fe Gunfighters, and was one of the “cowboys” chosen to promote ABC network sports’ “Shootout at Sherwood” commercials, where Tiger Woods became famous. “We dressed in western attire and staged gun fights and whip tricks,” said Williams. “We also performed comedy and fast-draw.”
On our Trafalgar tour, Williams’ comedy flowed constantly. Every morning he began our day with a hilarious joke.
“Annie Oakley is a fascinating character, and she traveled with Buffalo Bill for 17 years,” said Williams. “Some of the best stops on this tour that offer a flavor of the old west are in Cody Wyoming at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Deadwood, SD, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot, and certainly Jackson, Wyoming. The whole town retains a western feel, an authentic one at that – about half of the people living in Jackson in the 40s were outlaws themselves.”
“The whole idea of creating the national parks was to preserve the way it looked in the 1860s,” said Wilson. “And there is a lot of history in Yellowstone in addition to the natural features. In the early days they chased the Indians across Yellowstone Park.”
“One of our stops is Mt. Rushmore, where President Teddy Roosevelt is featured alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln,” said Wilson. “Teddy Roosevelt probably had more to do with preserving the old west than any other president.”
“As a baby boomer, I grew up watching the old westerns on TV, and being able to work here is like having a childhood fantasy become reality,” said Wilson. “We’re seeing a lot of people who have wanted to come see the old west since their childhood, and after they’ve been to Europe ten or twelve times, they’ve decided to see the beautiful places in their own country’s back yard. Not only do we have western history, we have national parks and geology, wildlife photography, and a whole variety of great things to see on the Western Frontiers tour.”
Most of the areas we traversed were protected lands – national forests, national parks, and Indian reservations. Greatly unsettled, miles of wilderness is home to eagles, moose, goats, and grizzly bears.
In 1872, Buffalo Bill Cody and George Armstrong Custer escorted Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich Romanov of Russia in a highly-publicized royal hunting trip. Cody arranged a staged Indian spectacle as entertainment. With unlimited champagne, royal spirits, and caviar, hundreds of revelers partied for days, since the hunt was actually the duke’s 22nd birthday party. The Wild West became a touristic gem, even with fake Indian fights. In the same year, Yellowstone became the nation’s first national park, and Cody was awarded a Medal of Honor for “gallantry in action” while serving as a civilian scout for the 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
One of our stops was at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. This area “memorializes the US Army’s 7th Cavalry and the Sioux and Cheyenne in one of the Indian’s last armed efforts to preserve their way of life. Here on June 25 and 26 of 1876, 263 soldiers, including Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and attached personnel of the US Army, died fighting several thousand Lakota, and Cheyenne warriors,” said the National Park Service.
On our Trafalgar tour, we saw many excellent documentaries, which explained the importance of the places we were about to experience. This greatly enriched the tour.
Our stop in Cody, Wyoming, at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center was one of the best stops to catch a glimpse of Annie Oakley’s life.
Dr. John Rumm is the curator of the Buffalo Bill exhibit, and an expert on Annie Oakley: “Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley had a highly-professional respect for one another, and there is no evidence of any romantic involvement between the two. He admired her for her abilities, and she thought Buffalo Bill was a gentleman. He thought of her as the daughter he had always wanted to go into business with, and there was a lot of mutual admiration between the two of them.”
“When she came to the wild west show, she was already married to her manager, Frank Butler,” said Rumm. “People didn’t realize she was married, and she often told of the many offers of marriage she received while touring with the show.”
“Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill’s show traveled all the continental United States and into Canada, as well as four trips to Europe where she impressed many royal families,” said Rumm. “I’ve been conducting a lot of research, using contemporary sources, primarily newspapers written during her life, and I have favorite stories about her.”
“In 1892, the last year that the Wild West Show was in England, Annie Oakley and Buffalo went head-to-head to determine who was the better marksman. Each was challenged to shoot at a target, signing their names in bullet holes. Annie was at the top of her game that day; her signature came out beautifully that day, right down to the dot over the “I” in Annie. Buffalo Bill didn’t do so well that day, and about half-way through claimed he had another appointment he had to get to and ducked out.”
“Annie was very fond of using a shooting powder called Schultze, which was widely available while she was in England. When the show went to France, she discovered that French Customs had a restriction on foreign powders. Annie knew that everyone was counting on her to wow the audiences, and that massive publicity has gone out about her, but she was very concerned about her ability using any powder other than Schultze. She got the idea to take four cowgirls from the show, and together they donned bustle skirts with large hoops. They found five hot water bottles and filled them with Schultze powder and smuggled them into France under their skirts. There was another time she smuggled in powder as cushioning for a crate of eggs.”
“One of my favorite artifacts we have of Annie’s is a pillow cover having the signatures of 42 members of the cast of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show on it. Annie was previously a seamstress and loved embroidery and needle work – in fact, she loved that as much as shooting. She was very much a domestic at heart, and when she became old with arthritis, she said she regretted being unable to sew more than anything else.”
“My favorite photograph of her is with her dog,” said Rumm. “She loved dogs, and she always had a dog with her at the Wild West Shows in her tent. She looks so young and so innocent in her photo; it’s hard to believe this girl who looks like she’s kind of an ingénue would be a world-acclaimed marksman.”
“Here at the Buffalo Bill Museum we’re very fortunate to have a nice collection of artifacts of Annie Oakley’s. We have several of her firearms, including one that is engraved with her initials, we have her traveling trunk, her skirt and jacket that she wore during performances, her tiny gloves which gives a sense of how small her hands were, and, of course, the pillow cover with the cast signatures from the Wild West Show. We have 40 or so items of hers, many photos, and her scrapbooks,” said Rumm.
Buffalo Bill’s show included a re-enactment of Custer’s last stand, where hundreds of savages attacked the white men. Actually, it was pretty much the other way around; the white men were the savages. After Sitting Bull joined the show, there was often a love-hate relationship between the chief and the colonel. But no one ever had an ill-feeling toward Annie Oakley.
Annie never just walked into the arena. She would always make a spectacular entry, like riding a horse backwards, or hopping in on one leg, or doing whatever crazy scheme that would entertain the audience. She loved to entertain children and was always generous in helping the poor. She babied her dogs and doted on her husband, Frank Butler.
When Annie died, Frank felt his world had come to an end. He stopped eating, drinking water, and essentially starved himself to death just 18 days after Annie’s demise.
Annie’s weeklong birthday party is celebrated in her birth town, Greenville Ohio, this week. There are special events, tours of the Annie Oakley Center, an Annie birthday cake, and many surprises scheduled.
The Annie Oakley sesquicentennial finishes the year with a bang, when the Garst Museum will pull out all the stops with a Victorian-styled Christmas celebration featuring an all-Annie theme. Garst Museum and the Annie Oakley Center is located at 205 N. Broadway in Greenville, Ohio. For information call 937-548-5250 or visit http://www.garstmuseum.org .
Annie’s grand niece, Bess Edwards, is looking forward to her 90th birthday, and has started designing a line of Annie Oakley rag dolls to keep her busy in her golden years. She also visits schools and historic societies telling the story of her famous grand-aunt. Her website is at http://annieoakleyfoundation.org/ .
Custer’s flag, which flew during the Battle of Little Big Horn, is owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts, and is currently offered for sale. Unless someone presents an offer the DIA cannot refuse, the flag will go to Sotheby’s auction later this year. See http://bit.ly/custer for photos and info.
For those close enough to buzz by, both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park are offering fee-free entry this weekend, August 14 and 15.
For those who need a little more time to plan, kindly visit the many wonderful tours offered by Trafalgar at http://tinyurl.com/trafalgartours .