Two years ago, I visited Pawnee, Oklahoma, on a press trip. The town isn’t much, though there are a few small shops and places to eat along the main drag. But it was the stop at Pawnee Bill’s former ranch that was particularly memorable. It was one of those places that called to me, and I was anxious to see it again. So when Rick said we would be staying in an RV park located about 45 minutes from Pawnee.
In case you’ve never heard of Pawnee Bill (I never had), he was a famous western showman who got his start as one of the starring acts in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in the late 1800s. His real name was Gordon Lillie, but he actually lived with the Pawnee Indians in this part of Oklahoma. The story goes that a member of the tribe sold Gordon an enormous chunk of land located about 20 minutes from the town of Pawnee, where he built a series of structures to house everything from a blacksmith shop, to his beautiful home. Pawnee Bill’s heyday was at the time the Old West was dying, and people all over the world were eager to see the Wild West Shows in an attempt to recapture to romance of the old west. Both Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill became very wealthy providing old west hungry audiences with mock Calvary/Indian battles, rodeo-type acts, trick horseback riders, and sharpshooters.
Eventually, Pawnee Bill spun off his own version of the Wild West Show, incorporating an Asian group of performers after spending time in the Far East. It was Gordon’s wife, May, who was the real star of the show. May was raised as a Quaker and married Gordon Lillie when she was only 15. She had never shot a gun; nor had she ever ridden a horse. That changed immediately after her marriage, when her groom surprised her with a shiny new rifle and a horse. Much to everyone’s surprise, May became one of the best women shooters in the world, rivaling the famous Annie Oakley. Actually, I think May was better than Oakley, as May did her sharp shooting while riding a galloping horse!
Gordon Lillie and Buffalo Bill Cody remained friends throughout their lives and even teamed up in later years to join their shows in world tours. Both Buffalo Bill and Will Rogers were frequent visitors at the ranch, and the mansion has preserved a few articles that had belonged to them.
May Lillie’s story would make a terrific book. Hum…. I may be heading back to Pawnee in the near future to do research! I also recommend that any of you who are interested in the old west, or who would like to see what remains of Pawnee Bill’s own herd, visit the ranch.