Over the years, North Devon has played host to numerous travelling entertainments, and easily the most flamboyant of them was the visit to Barnstaple in July 1903 of ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World’ show.
North Devonians were first alerted to the coming attraction by newspaper advertisements which showed the mounted figure of long-haired and extravagantly bearded Colonel W F Cody (alias Buffalo Bill) wearing his trademark fringed buckskin jacket.
From these, locals learned that three special trains, each of 21 carriages, carried the 500 horses and 800 people that made up the show, which was ‘a veritable kindergarten of history-teaching facts’.
Customers could expect to see ‘Virile Martial Manhood’ in the shape of ‘Cowboys, Cuban Patriots, Mexican Ruralies, Bedouin Arabs, South American Gauchos, United States Cavalry, Russian Cossacks, American Artillery, Western Girls, Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, Royal English Lancers’ plus 100 American Indians including some Cheyenne and Sioux.
The first of the special trains arrived at Barnstaple Junction station on Sunday, July 26, and many thousands of spectators waited patiently in a rainstorm to see them. Victoria Road and Taw Vale were also thickly lined with people all the way to the Sticklepath showground.
The crowds saw a mile-long procession with 400 horses all ‘in the pink of condition’ plus 100 ‘foreigners’ (including an Egyptian some 8’ 2” in height who was said to be the tallest man in the world).
The crowds were delighted by everything they saw and especially entranced by the ‘Red Indian’ encampment, where one brave used his lasso to ‘capture an unwary passer-by – who was as astonished, not to say frightened, as the Redskin was hilariously delighted’.
The next day Barnstaple was packed as people flooded in – 1,000 came from Ilfracombe alone, along with 400 from Lynton.
In total some 24,000 people saw the two shows, and reports waxed lyrical about the whole show and its accompanying ‘Buffalo Bill Town’, where ‘all the races and classes mingled freely and without rancour’.
The whole was compared to a 4.5 acre sized ‘kaleidoscope’ which was ‘occupied by a swiftly moving mass of figures, individually picturesque, brilliant with metallic reflections and gay with colours, momentarily springing and flashing into new combinations and modes of motion, which dazzle, confuse and fascinate the eye of the beholder’.
The visit was a huge success – and certainly it must have given those who were lucky enough to have seen it a subject to talk about for years to come.