In 2017 Steve Friesen retired after 22 years as director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave in Golden, Colo. A native Kansan, Friesen was born in Lawrence, grew up in Buhler and studied at Bethel College in North Newton before earning his master’s in American folk culture from the Cooperstown graduate program of the State University of New York and beginning his museum career in the mid-1970s. He and wife and fellow historian Monta Lee Dakin have formed Friesen-Dakin Museum Consulting, serving “small to medium-size museums anywhere.” Friesen, author of Buffalo Bill: Scout, Showman, Visionary (2010) and a forthcoming book about Buffalo Bill the gourmet, recently spoke with Wild West about his career, Cody and the future.
First, congratulations on your retirement. What next?
Before retiring, my wife and I spent a lot of time talking about what we would do. We decided to continue to do all the things we enjoyed about our careers and abandon the things we did not enjoy. So we are both continuing to do research and writing as well as consulting for museums on strategic planning and exhibits. No “administrivia,” as a friend of mine once called the paperwork of museum administration. And we are traveling a lot. It’s been great.
What was your introduction to William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody?
Like every young boy of my generation, I read about and was fascinated by Buffalo Bill. As I got older and the history of the world opened up to me in my studies, I kind of forgot about him. After nearly 20 years working in other museums, the job as director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave opened up. It grabbed my interest, and I applied—one of the best decisions I ever made.
What were some of your biggest accomplishments at the museum?
When I started at the museum, it was considered a tourist trap by many people. During my 22 years I worked hard to get rid of that label, while continuing to keep it an interesting destination. That included making the museum a destination for researchers by computerizing our records, building up the reference library and bending over backward to assist them. I am very proud the museum has been acknowledged in so many publications over the past 20 years. I am also proud of the exhibits we developed, providing accurate information while presenting interesting stories.
Back in 1995 Buffalo Bill was still getting a bad rap from people I refer to as ‘politically correct but historically confused’
Has history treated Cody fairly?
Back in 1995 Buffalo Bill was still getting a bad rap from people I refer to as “politically correct but historically confused.” Together with my colleagues at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West I worked on showing his advocacy for the environment and equal rights for women. Those are important themes in the museum’s exhibits. People think he killed all of the buffalo and exploited the Indians. The exhibits emphasize that reality was quite the opposite. The museum does exit polling of visitors, and it is really gratifying to hear them say “I didn’t realize Buffalo Bill was such a good guy.”
What would you like to see accomplished at the museum in the years to come?
The museum building badly needs to be remodeled or replaced. The Buffalo Bill story and the outstanding collection supporting it deserve better. More than 75,000 people already visit the museum each year, despite its rather uninviting appearance. Imagine how many people would visit a more attractive structure.
What inspired you to write Buffalo Bill: Scout, Showman, Visionary?
On a vacation I picked up a book from the Smithsonian highlighting historic relics in their collection. I had just spent several years authenticating the artifacts in the museum’s collection and realized it was full of relics associated with Buffalo Bill. So I decided to write a book about Buffalo Bill emphasizing the objects of his life we had in the museum. With the exception of one item, every artifact in the book is from the museum’s collection. That item, incidentally, is a Rosa Bonheur portrait of Buffalo Bill, which I compare to several pieces of artwork in the museum. Fulcrum took a risk publishing a book with so many images, but I’m proud to say the book is one of their best sellers.
Your award-winning 2017 book Lakota Performers in Europe: Their Culture and the Artifacts They Left Behind centers on the collection of François Chladiuk of Belgium. How did you meet?
François arrived at the museum as a researcher in 2006 and left as a friend. Within two years I had arranged to do an exhibit of his Lakota collection (left behind by performers at a 1935 exposition in Brussels) at the Buffalo Bill Museum. When my wife and I visited his Brussels shop in 2011, we began conversations that led to the book.
Why does Buffalo Bill’s legacy endure
I’ve always felt that Cody was the right person at the right time in the right place. He wasn’t the only scout, but he was the most outgoing and likable, so he both impressed his commanding officers and got the newspaper interviews. Of course—and this is of overriding importance—he was an excellent scout and even received the Medal of Honor. When he went into show business, he already had a reputation based on newspaper articles, as well as Ned Buntline’s dime novel [Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men]. Again, his charisma added to his reputation and made him an appealing figure to the public. He was not a very good businessman, but he was smart enough to hire people who were good at what needed to be done. His employees were loyal to him because he was loyal to them. Finally, he had big visions, some of which worked, and some of which did not. He was ahead of his time on issues like women’s rights, Indian rights and concern for the environment.
Was it his persona that drew you to the museum?
I must confess I was most strongly attracted by the pay and benefits, but I quickly grew to enjoy the museum’s subject matter, Buffalo Bill. The charisma he projected has lasted across three centuries. Now that I’m retired, I am working on a new book about Buffalo Bill, so I guess you could say I still like him.
His life appears to have been a roller-coaster ride, with great triumphs and great tragedies. But we see many lives lived like that in the West
For a man generally regarded as a success, he led a life filled with tragedy. How did he cope?
His life appears to have been a roller-coaster ride, with great triumphs and great tragedies. But we see many lives lived like that in the West. Folks just buckled down and dealt with it. In that respect, William Cody truly was a man of the West.
How close was Cody to, respectively, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, Johnny Baker and Louisa Cody?
I think Cody counted Sitting Bull as a friend and, as is often the case in friendships, both admired him and found him insufferable. I would say the same holds true of Hickok.
Annie adored Cody and considered him a perfect gentleman—because he was.
Cody’s only son died in 1876, and Baker was approximately his age when [he and Bill] first met. As far as Cody was concerned, Baker was the son he no longer had. Baker was loyal to Cody to the end—and beyond, as he founded the Buffalo Bill Museum at his grave.
Will and wife Louisa had a tangled and tormented relationship. Several times Cody considered divorce, until finally filing in 1904. The divorce effort was a humiliating circus for each, and it was ultimately denied. It took six years, but finally they were reconciled and grew close for the last years of his life. It’s kind of a hopeful story.
What aspect of Cody’s story has yet to be told?
That’s what I’m working on now. I am fascinated by food (who isn’t?) and its history. There are food history books about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. It’s Buffalo Bill’s turn. Based on what I’ve found about the food innovations he introduced, as well as the fascinating dining experiences he shared, I’d say he was the original galloping gourmet.
How has the Western museum scene changed over the years since you joined the museum?
The future is bright for Western history museums, due in large part to the rest of the world. International interest in both the myths and reality of the West continues to grow. Museums just need to ensure they tell the stories in an interesting way, without letting hands-on activities overwhelm those stories or boring the hell out of their visitors.
How can they foster young people’s interest in Western history?
Kids like a good story as much as anyone. Be good storytellers. WW