Monday, April 18, 2016

The Unlikely Origin of Tourism’s Sense of Authenticity

Reaching back to a tent restaurant erected there in 1919, Lexington brands itself, at least in part, the “barbecue capital” of North Carolina, a state with considerable heritage in that regard.

But it was a tragic train accident eight years earlier that occurred between that would-be tent site and what is now High Rock Lake that is more symbolic for tourism historically across the nation.

My Tar Heel Roots go back to 1650 but because I am the last of a line of five generations of Idaho ranchers going back to the 1860s and didn’t make my way to North Carolina until 1989, I’m considered “adopted” by those who could be considered far more relative “newbies.”

But it seems that wherever I’ve lived, including my native Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, I’ve crossed paths with William F. Cody.  It was least expected here in North Carolina as I began what would be the last half of a four decade career in community destination marketing.

When a freight train tragically smashed into one of three trains near Lexington, Cody’s “Buffalo Bill Wild West Show”s (sometimes known by other names) was in the midst of 40 performances throughout North Carolina between 1878 and 1916, including two in Durham where we live.

Over 100 horses were killed in the accident, and the vitality of the show that had also performed hundreds of times throughout the country and throughout Europe would never really recover.

But it is easily arguable that no other person did more to instill a curiosity for transcontinental travel across the United States in both Americans and those overseas.

His attention to detail and authenticity informed expectations. 

Equally significant, Cody redefined and instilled a deep appreciation for history, culture and artifacts among those living in relatively newly settled lands east of the Hundredth Meridian.

He seemed to innately grasp what place branding expert Bill Baker tries to impart wherever he is invited to teach.

The brand of a particular place is, in essence, its innate personality.  It exists at the intersection of what internal audiences and external audiences perceive it to be.

Today, more than ever, it is not something you conjure up or create, it’s simple who and what you genuinely are, something Cody understood was far more appealing than fantasy.

In a moment I will share a story or two about how Cody’s influence has helped shape the negotiation of authenticity over the decades about what it is and isn’t western, a negotiation still underway.

But first, for anyone unfamiliar or in need of a very quick refresher:

Cody was born in Iowa in 1846; the year after my ancestors began fleeing across the southern half of that soon-to-be state toward sanctuary in the Rockies.

Then his family moved to eastern Kansas where he lost his father.

At age 11 he worked as a rider carrying messages between drivers and workers on wagon trains before becoming a bullwhacker, then a trapper, miner and briefly a Pony Express Rider.

He enlisted in the Union Cavalry and after the war worked as a buffalo hunter for the railroad.  Cody then became a Chief of Scouts for the 5th U.S. Cavalry, leading the rescue of Wild Bill Hickok.

Eventually, he earned the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars.

Cody became a public figure and the subject of dime novels as well as outspoken about the rights of Native Americans.  In addition, he became a performer and show producer.

As a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, Cody was also instrumental in the nation’s first national forest and the national reclamation act.

The best way to get a sense of William F. Cody is to visit his namesake along the Absaroka Mountains in northern Wyoming as they give way to the Bighorn.

Cody, Wyoming is the eastern and to many the most scenic and least touristy gateway to Yellowstone Park.  It is also home to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which is comprised of four museums including one devoted to Bill Cody’s story as well as a research library.

The little town is also home to the still operating Irma Hotel which Cody co-founded a year after that train wreck back in North Carolina. 

He began by acquiring and then expanding the T E Ranch up the more secluded South Fork from Cody in 1895 and then built a hunting lodge up on the North Fork where the road now leads to Yellowstone since the dam was built.

But Cody first saw the potential of this area in 1870 while leading a scientific expedition up the Bighorn.  It happened to be the same year an expedition was being led to examine the potential of Yellowstone.

Until then, exploration of river valleys along the Rockies such as the Henry’s Fork where my ancestors would settle were dismissive of any settlement potential.  But fresh eyes such as Cody’s changed all of that.

William F. Cody had a sense of authenticity that has inspired 150 years of nomenclature about the old West and is preserved today in details and artifacts such as clothing and dress and speech.

His shows inspired audiences to travel and to know what to expect.  They also helped negotiate what experts call the ongoing interplay and socially-agreed upon construct that we designate as authentic.

Tourism faces much courser fault lines than just authenticity today.  Take for instance, the one that exists between commercial hucksterism and genuine sense of place.

The West does too, and not just recently with standoffs by a few militants in Nevada and Oregon.

In 1939, a movement anchored in the Sheridan Rotary Club began with a threat to secede and break off northern Wyoming including Cody and Yellowstone into the State of Absoroka.

The frustration back then, as it had been during the “range wars” 50 years earlier was more about intrastate politics with the federal policies as a surrogate.

But as it does today, another fault line separated the views of preservationist northwestern and fossil-fuel driven northeastern Wyoming.

I thought of this on a cross country trip through my homeland a few years ago while listening to a story on the radio far more reflective of the West in which I grew up.

A rancher down on the South Fork, near Cody’s T E ranch, was out irrigating his hay fields in June of 2013 when he accidentally came between a Grizzly and her cubs.

Watch this very short video of this remarkable account and listen carefully to Nic Patrick’s remarks at the end.

If you are a regular reader, you may recall that my great-great-great grandfather, Thomas B. Graham, was killed in 1864 by a Grizzly in Cache Valley, Utah under similar circumstances, after having put his rifle down to help my great-great grandfather load some wood.

Like many ranchers, Patrick is a conservationist.  Also like many ranchers, he has another occupation.  For nearly forty years, he and his family have built authentic log homes, often for people who are drawn to live a version of the life Bill Cody depicted.

He understands something that William F. Cody came to understand during his lifetime.

Tourism can help preserve nature and the things it loves.  But unmanaged tourism can also often introduce changes that can kill the very the things it loves.

A lot is written today about gentrification of historic neighborhoods.  If well-managed so that socio-economic diversity is preserved, it isn’t a problem.  If not, the very soul of those neighborhoods and the reasons they became so popular is rapidly hollowed out.

However, gentrification can also occur in areas of the West around public lands.   Studies show that for both kinds of gentrification, tourism popularity can provide warning signals to policy makers that they need to instill protections.

Unfortunately, tourism circles today have far too few Buffalo Bill Cody’s.  Instead of being willing to debate the broader issues society faces, they are prone instead to circle the wagons.