The 101 Ranch Wild West Show
To the average man or woman in England during the summer of 1914 the world carried on as usual. The news that an Archduke had been murdered in central Europe meant nothing to most people and as far as enemies were concerned they felt it a good idea to keep a wary eye on the French. There was far greater concern about the possibility of a civil war in Ireland. Certain newspapers such as the Daily Mail had been warning for years of the “German menace” as had the Legion of Frontiersmen. For the residents of London the great talking point was the Anglo-American Exposition at the Great White City. With the start of the First War, the White City ceased to be London’s playground, but in the summer of 1914 it featured the “must-see” event of the summer. Newspaper advertisements announced the grand opening on Thursday 14th May at the Great White City in the “Palace of Music” (with 1000 voices) at 12.30. To be viewed were a 15,000 square feet working model of the Panama Canal, a six-acre replica of Greater New York (with skyscrapers) and a model of the Grand Canyon of Colorado with “hundreds of other attractions”. The greatest attraction of all was the 101 Ranch Wild West show which had been brought over from Oklahoma. According to The Times “This is the first time that the Miller Brothers cowboys and cowgirls, who come from the 101 Ranch at Bliss, Oklahoma, have performed out of America.” In fact a 101 Ranch Show was also sent to Europe. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had toured England before but Buffalo Bill Cody was no longer fit enough to travel. The 101 Ranch show is probably less well-known today but was at least equally as impressive. “With them are a number of Indians who belong to various tribes having their homes close to the 101 Ranch property. Riding ‘buck’ horses they give a representation of life on the prairie and perform rough riding as practised on the plains.”
“Prominent among the cowboys are Guy Weadick, who with his wife gives demonstrations of skill with the lariat, ‘Johnny’ Baker and Stack Lee, expert rifle and revolver shots, Mr. Zach Miller who gives a display of horsemanship, and Chester Byers, described as ‘the champion roper of America’. Among the cowgirls Lucille Mann is the leading Broncho ‘buster’ and rides one of the wildest and most stubborn of the ranch horses.”
It also seems that they could not bring enough riders from America and so they called on the skills of the Legion of Frontiersmen riders via the London Command. Independence Day, 4th July, saw even greater celebrations with a battle of streamers on the lake, a baseball game between London and the Wild West, a Muster of American Civil War Veterans, a programme of “Anglo-American Airs” performed by the band of the Royal Marines, Chatham and a procession through the grounds of “Indians, Cowboys, Mexicans, Cowgirls and members of the 101 Ranch.” According to the Daily Mail there were to have been ninety of the Civil War Veterans, “whose ages, it is claimed, range from seventy to 105”. A firework display between 11 and 11.30 p.m. concluded the day’s entertainment. In his pocket diary, the Founder of the Legion, Roger Pocock, records that he had tickets for this special day with his sister Hilda and her companion. Unfortunately, he did not record his impressions of the day or whether he had met up with any of the Frontiersmen performing there.
Our main account of the links between this show and the Frontiersmen comes from the memoirs of Trooper Roberts, one of the men who went with the Manchester Troop to serve in Belgium. These memoirs were dictated when he was an old man. Roberts had joined the Legion in Australia at Rumbalara near Alice Springs. He had been travelling the world as a merchant sailor. At Rumbalara Roberts recalled that the Frontiersmen had their own club room and a Mr. Kiddman recruited him into the Legion. When he returned to England he surprised his family by wearing his Frontiersmen uniform. “I had to get a Sombrero for my head and find out where the Frontiersmen Headquarters were. I found it in Market Street, Manchester, and when I showed them my Australian badge they were very pleased with me as I had passed my test for riding at the Boundry [sic] Station. Also in the week following we got word from the London Headquarters of Frontiersmen if we would find some riders for Buffalo Bills [sic] Show at Earls Court.” This is where the faults in Roberts’ memory caused some detection problems as the show was at White City not Earls Court and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had not appeared in England since 1904. Buffalo Bill Cody had sold his services to the 101 Ranch Show but he never returned to England. “One night in June 1914 we received a request from London Headquarters of Frontiersmen if we would send someone to London for an interview. Our Captain and another Officer from our troop went. It was stated that it looked like trouble with Germany, and we could be in bad unless was done [sic] also the 101 Ranch had a request from Belgium for some volunteers to join them for scouts in case of War. King Albert himself sent for them to join his 1st Guards as scouts….. Up to now this was only in the case of trouble, London Earls Court sent to ask us for twelve men to ride for them so those who went before went again. It was good riding and a fine show. Bill Cody asked us to stay over the weekend and we did, also to let him have more men for 20th July, they paid us better than if we were working at our own jobs.”
It has been difficult to pick out clear facts from these reminiscences of an old man. We know he had confused Earls Court for White City and that Bill Cody was not there. He was probably thinking of Guy Weadick, whose show name was “Cheyenne Bill”. Weadick originated from Alberta and is credited with establishing the Calgary Stampede in 1912. The only other notable “Bill” in the show was Bill Pickett, a legendary cowboy from Texas of black and Indian descent.
“We went back to Earls Court again to do some riding in the show and on July 24th His Majesty King Albert of the Belgiums [sic] came to Earls Court to ask for volunteers to join the Belgium Army as scouts for him, he said we would be his bodyguards, thirty of us said we would join him. He had several Officers with him who took us to the Belgian Consul in London and signed us on for service with the Army.”
It has not so far been possible to obtain confirmation that King Albert was definitely in London at the time, but it is quite probable. In “The Real Wild West, the 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American Wild West” Michael Wallis wrote that “Frequently the cheering audiences included not only prominent Londoners such as Robert Baden-Powell, the British soldier who founded the Boy Scout movement, and an assortment of high society types but also British nobles and several European monarchs.” Even King George V and Queen Mary “sat spellbound in the royal boxes, thoroughly captivated by the saucy cowgirls, Indians in war paint, and wizards of the lasso.” The Legion’s first President, Lord Lonsdale, threw a huge dinner party in Bill Pickett’s honour. In Belgium the season ended at the beginning of July and society left town. On July 21st the anniversary of the Monarchy, King Albert had returned from Ostend for a service of celebration, but neither his biography nor his published War Diary indicate where else he may have gone. Albert was not comfortable in high society. He was a good horseman who was happy with the military men and with ordinary people. In his 1935 biography “Albert King of the Belgians” Charles D’Ydewalle wrote about the King and Queen and their “unprejudiced outlook, their absolute lack of snobbishness, their unique position, their love of adventure, their indifference to danger, etiquette and criticism.” p.45 Noble families, princes and diplomats were kept at a distance. The 101 Ranch Show is something King Albert would have been keen to see.
There is another small link with King Albert in Legion of Frontiersmen Lieut. Linton Hope, who commanded the Legion’s Maritime Troop out of Lowestoft, Suffolk. Linton Hope was a brilliant yacht designer and his original pre-First War yachts are still lovingly preserved and restored. In fact Linton Hope’s hull designs were even adapted in later years for aircraft fuselage. For several years Linton Hope had been King Albert’s official Naval Architect. Albert was well aware that war was inevitable. A year earlier he had visited Kaiser Wilhelm II in Berlin and the difference between the thoughtful Albert who disliked pomp and the exhibitionist Kaiser who would change his uniform many times during an official day was marked. The Kaiser had renewed his pledge to Albert’s predecessor, Leopold II, that he would extend Belgium’s frontiers if the German army was given free passage on a march to Paris. Should war break out, Belgian neutrality would certainly be violated. As the Belgian army of 1914 was commanded by incompetent generals and had neither sufficient arms or equipment nor sufficient skilled officers to lead them, it cannot be considered strange that the King might seek to enlist the highly accomplished horsemen he may have seen at the Wild West Show at White City.
There was obviously some encouragement from the Belgian authorities, as the Frontiersmen in their Frontiersmen uniform were made very welcome when they reached Ostend. What happened to the 101 Ranch Wild West Show which had so captivated London? America had announced its neutrality, but Zach Miller and Americans from the show were among many Americans seeking to return to the U.S.A. As to the horses, the British Government officially commandeered those, although offering to pay a fair price, as good horses were desperately needed for the War. We know that many Frontiersmen began serving in the remount departments at Swaythling near Southampton and Avonmouth near Bristol and it is likely that some of these Show horses may have found there way there. Frontiersmen always had an eye for a good horse and the ability to get what they wanted. There are two relevant and interesting short films that can be downloaded free from http://www.Britishpathe.com. One shows the Manchester Frontiersmen exercising their horses on the sands. There is another, just headed “Military Wild West Show” which was taken at a military Wild West Show staged for the residents of Romsey, not very far from the Frontiersmen remount depot. Although it is not listed as being put on by them, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that some Frontiersmen decided to stage for the good citizens of the country town of Romsey the kind of show that had so excited London society.
The history of the Legion of Frontiersmen is a vast jigsaw and we are slowly piecing it together. There is still some way to go.
In Belgium the Frontiersmen were known as “The British Colonial Horse”. We have here a grainy photograph of them in action late in 1914.
Recommended reading: Michael Wallis: “The Real Wild West – the 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West” (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1999) is very highly recommended. It was later published in paperback format.
Charles D’Ydewalle “Albert King of the Belgians” (London, Methuen1935) R. Van Overstraeten (Editor) “The War Diaries of Albert I King of the Belgians” (London, Kimber, 1954)
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