by Kathelene McCarty Smith
Photographs taken by Dr. Anna Gove, the second resident “lady doctress” at the State Normal and Industrial College (now UNC Greensboro), have proved a rich source of both campus and local history. A native of New Hampshire, Gove arrived in North Carolina at 26 years of age, becoming one of the first female physicians in the state. The beauty and history of the area intrigued the young doctor, and she decided to make it her home. Although Gove did not keep a diary, she recorded her experiences and her environment through images taken with her trusty Brownie camera. She quickly found kindred spirits at the State Normal who shared her intellectual and cultural curiosity, as well as her love of photography. She initiated a Faculty Camera Club, which included several female professors who would soon become her close friends, including Edith McIntyre (Professor of Domestic Science), Melville Fort (Art Professor), and Mary Petty (Chemistry Professor). Together they photographed interesting vistas across Guilford County and beyond.
Always interested in new experiences, Gove decided to attend a traveling “Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.” Although stereotypical and exploitive, these types of touring spectacles were very popular during the period after the Civil War until about 1920. Capitalizing on the country’s fascination with the romanticized West, these theatrical open-air shows included an array of cowboys, American Indians, horses, wild animals, and outlaws performing thrilling staged exhibitions. Wild West shows visited both America and Europe and were headlined by cowboy legends, such as William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, “Texas Jack,” and Christopher “Kit” Carson. They also highlighted well-known national personalities like sharpshooter Annie Oakley, Will Rogers, Tom Mix, and Chief Sitting Bull, who became huge draws to these traveling tent shows.
Accompanied by brass bands and orchestras, Wild West shows featured action-packed entertainments and historical reenactments, such as the Battle of San Juan Hill, stagecoach robberies, and mock “buffalo hunts.” Brochures for Buffalo Bill’s extravaganza also boasted a parade cavalcade featuring “rough riders” from different parts of the world, including Hawaii, Cuba, Russia, Germany, and the Middle East. Also showcased were “side show” performers, allowing spectators to gawk at snake charmers, magicians, jugglers, sword swallowers, and others with unique talents or features.
Buffalo Bill’s show was one of the larger ones, traveling with an entourage of over 500 people, who needed to be fed and boarded, as well as numerous animals that also had to be maintained. The show also provided its own transportation and electricity. Traveling became an easier feat once Cody hired James A. Bailey who had worked for P.T. Barnum’s circus and was an expert in transporting large groups of performers, staff, and animals across the country.
When Gove attended Buffalo Bills Wild West show, which was touring the southeast in the late 1800s, she took her camera. Although she did not date the photographs, they are labeled “Greensboro.” It appears from examining Cody’s “route maps” and local newspapers that the show visited Greensboro in October of 1895, so it is likely that these images are from that show. Advertisements modestly promised “The Event of a Lifetime! Led by the best-known living romantic character, Col. W. F. Cody (Buffalo Bill).” Signs and ads also promoted an impressive “Cavalry of All Nations” and a portrayal of “a chain of triumphs, eclipsing the story of Caesar, Alexander, and Napoleon!” Gove took her seat under a covered grandstand, seating 20,000 spectators, allowing the show to go on – rain or shine.
Not content to take photographs only from the stands, Gove ventured behind the tents, capturing more candid shots of performers and those associated with the show. These photos included a Native American mother and child, cowboys relaxing during breaks from riding and roping, and the large makeshift kitchens which fed performers and workers three hot meals per day. She even surprised a “Cossack” washing up after his performance. Although Annie Oakley was a member of the traveling extravaganza of 1895, a local newspaper advertisement for the event does not mention her appearance. One photograph appears to be a group of “cowgirls,” but without the benefit of a close-up lens, it is impossible to tell if it was Oakley. Because Gove did not leave a written account of her experience at the Wild West show, observers will never know if she found it horrific, fascinating, or both. We just know that she recorded her encounter with the “Wild West” through film.
In an interestingly postscript, it was in North Carolina that Bill Cody’s Wild West Show would suffer a catastrophe that would herald its slow downfall. Moving through the country on what we would consider a “circus train” filled with featured stars, performers, horses, wild animals, and scenery, the show was involved in a catastrophic wreck. On October 29, 1901, as Cody’s entourage, including Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler, left Charlotte for their next show in Danville, their train struck a westbound Southern Railway train near Linwood. While none of the performers were killed, the crash resulted in the death of 110 horses and the near ruin of the show. Cody’s featured star, Annie Oakley, was badly injured and was taken to a hospital in Winston-Salem. Although doctors were fearful that she would never shoot again, the woman who was billed as “Little Sure Shot” was able to continue her career after months of convalescing. As for the Buffalo Bill’s traveling show, it would never build the momentum it had before the wreck. Oakley and Butler ended their professional relationship with Cody, and he declared bankruptcy in 1913. His death, several years later in 1917, signaled the demise of the traveling Wild West show genre.