An 1878 billboard promoting a "Buffalo Bill" Cody stage show has been restored, five years after it was discovered beneath the crumbling...
JAMESTOWN, N.Y. — An 1878 billboard promoting a “Buffalo Bill” Cody stage show has been restored, five years after it was discovered beneath the crumbling brick facade of a former hotel.
The 24- by 10-foot paper billboard had been pasted to an unfinished exterior wall of the hotel during construction 129 years ago and was sandwiched in by brick when the building was completed.
The billboard, a montage of the Wild West folk hero and scenes from his show, was revealed when part of the wall fell away from the building in June 2002.
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“It’s a miracle that it even exists,” said Juti Winchester, curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.
Printed from engraved wood blocks, the billboard resembles a watercolor painting in hues of orange, brown and blue. A multicolor, life-size depiction of the bearded Cody — clad in fringed buckskin and holding a rifle — is of particular importance, said Winchester, who traveled to western New York for Saturday’s unveiling of the finished work.
“We don’t have much of this early imagery of Buffalo Bill,” she said.
William F. Cody, who died in 1917, was a prospector-turned-Pony Express rider and Civil War veteran who later hunted buffalo to feed railroad construction crews.
According to legend, he earned the name Buffalo Bill in a daylong shooting match with a hunter named William Comstock, presumably to determine who deserved the title.
He became a national folk hero in dime novels written by Ned Buntline, who in 1872 persuaded Cody to tell stories of the Wild West on stage.
Crews would put up the billboards to advertise the shows. Most were pasted over when the next show hit town.
“The only reason this survived was a completely unique set of circumstances,” said Michael Flaxman, who was involved in the restoration, which was funded by a $52,000 federal grant and matching private donations.
Experts used tissue paper and steam to remove the fragile billboard in strips and shreds from the wood sheathing. Though protected from the elements, the paper had become brittle and torn and some pieces disintegrated before they could be removed.
Paper conservator Laura Schell was hired to piece back together the work, and images of Cody — in one scene atop a horse and swinging his hat overhead — painstakingly emerged.
“She cleaned and stabilized all these hundreds of pieces of what was a giant, very fragile jigsaw puzzle,” said Pat Anzideo, the restoration’s project manager. “She put it back together again, without the benefit of a picture.”
The billboard will be displayed under glass in six wood-framed panels, each 7 feet high and at least 4 feet wide, at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, a restored 1920s vaudeville and movie house in downtown Jamestown.