When Buffalo Bill’s wild west came to Falkirk

Buffalo Bill and his Indians in his travelling show which captured the imagination of the world
Buffalo Bill and his Indians in his travelling show which captured the imagination of the world

When I was a child around 1950 BC (before computers) we spent most of our free hours outdoors. In those days there were no ‘play leaders’ to tell us what to do so we had to get on with the business of enjoying ourselves and ‘Cowboys and Indians’ was the favourite.

We would gather a few feathers which, along with home made bows and arrows and a bit of paint, turned us into Sitting Bull or Cochise. Most often though we wanted to be the ‘goodies’ and they were always the cowboys.

We had models galore to copy – Roy Rogers and his faithful horse Trigger, Tom Mix and Tony, Gene Autry and Tex Ritter the ‘singing cowpokes’ and the one and only Hopalong Cassidy, who apparently has relatives in Bonnybridge. These guys were stars of the silver screen and we met them most Saturday mornings at the ABC Minors or the ‘Pivvie’ and for the rest of the week turned Windsor Road into Dodge City.

I was reminded of all this recently when my good friend Jim Mathieson passed me a book by Glasgow writer Tom Cunningham which tells the story of Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West tour of Scotland in 1904 and included a memorable visit to Falkirk. Buffalo Bill, real name William F Cody, was the man who brought the west alive to the world. Former bison hunter, Pony Express rider and army scout, Bill turned showman and was said at one time to be the most instantly recognisable man on the planet.

On Sunday, August 14 the huge entourage arrived in special trains from Edinburgh at the Springfield Goods Depot (where Central Retail Park is today) and made their way with all their paraphernalia to Randyford Farm which lay opposite today’s Forth Valley College.

Here the arena was constructed with great tents and pavilions including a special sideshow where visitors could see the ‘blue man’ or shake hands with a 21-inch woman. The main event was the amazing wild west show itself, which was performed twice on the Monday in the afternoon and evening to an incredible 21,000 people who came from all over the district in special trains.

The cheapest tickets were one shilling at a time when a skilled man might be earning about 30 shillings a week, but for this the audience were treated to 23 acts with screaming mounted Indians, cavalry units, settlers in wagons, acrobatic riders, trick gunslingers and a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand.

The cowboys were supplemented by a strange mixture of Cossack riders, Bedouin cavalry, South America gauchos and even a British army regiment. There was cannon fire, fancy rope work with the lasso and even ‘Carter the Cowboy Cyclist’ flying through the air at 85mph. The undoubted highlight was Buffalo Bill who rode around the arena shooting down glass balls thrown in the air by his associates. The evening performance was lit up by 76 electric arc lamps at a time when electricity itself was a huge novelty and thunderous applause brought the show to an end.

By the morning the whole troupe were on their way to Dunfermline leaving the bairns with a multitude of new ways to bring wild west mayhem to the quiet streets of Falkirk.

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