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December 7, 1996

Photograph of Pawnee Bill's bus
Promoting Pawnee Billís Indian trading post and other enterprises were these four men, captured on film by Perry photographer Barney Enright. The time was probably in the 1920s or early 1930s. From left are Roger Glen Taylor, Perry artist; Earl Cheney, assistant publicity agent; Major Gordon W. Lillie (Pawnee Bill), and M. W. Romine, general publicity agent. The picture was taken at Pawnee Billís home on Blue Hawk Peak

Our friends and neighbors over at Pawnee continue to cash in on the legacy provided for them by the illustrious Major Gordon William Lillie, the American frontiersman who achieved authentic international fame as Pawnee Bill before his death in 1942 at the age of 82. The old gentleman is perhaps as renowned today as he was at the peak of his career in 1900, thanks largely to the recent revival of the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show by determined citizens of the town whose name he adopted.

During the latter stages of Pawnee Bill's career, Perry artist Roger Glen Taylor played a rather important role in promoting the widely traveled Pawnee Bill Wild West Show and the museum that still stands atop Blue Hawk Peak at the western approach to the town of Pawnee. Many Noble county residents were well acquainted with Pawnee Bill as well as his wife, May, a trick rider who was billed as "the only girl horseback shot in the world." The Lillies frequently came to Perry for the annual September 16th Cherokee Strip parade and celebration. They rode their beautiful horses around the square and nodded smilingly to acknowledge applause and friendly shouts of greetings from spectators lining the streets. We felt they were part of our community, too.

Major Lillie was born on Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, 1860, in Bloomington, Illinois, which at the time was regarded as a Western state. He grew up reading exciting stories about the legendary Colonel William F (Buffalo Bill) Cody in pulp magazines of the day. Most of these were written by an author known as Ned Buntline, whose real name was E. Z. C. Judson. Buffalo Bill already was widely acclaimed and his prairie exploits captured the interest of Americans of all ages. The youthful Gordon William Lillie became so caught up in stories about Buffalo Bill that he left home as a teenager resolved to seek such adventures for himself.

Young Lillie eventually found his way to Indian Territory, which was to become part of the state of Oklahoma, and quickly became a friend of Indians in their tepee villages on the plains. They dubbed him a "white chief," and because of his familiarity with the languages of several tribes he served as an interpreter when government officials were negotiating treaties with the Indians. His understanding of the Indians' ways helped relieve the hostility that existed at many levels on both sides.

By then, America's real Western frontier was slipping into folklore. Buffalo Bill Cody was older and he was there when the West was still being opened, but Pawnee Bill came along almost too late. Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill were like intermediate cowboy heroes, reaching the height of their popularity at a time that spanned the period when the genuine articles were at their peak and the era when movies began bringing us their fantasized version of those square-jawed, clean-living riders of the purple sage. Both of the celebrated pair also were consummate showmen.

William F Cody, or Buffalo Bill, was virtually canonized in Ned Buntline's stories in the late nineteenth century. His real-life exploits were offered up in thrilling prose to an eagerly receptive nation by writers like Mr. Buntline. Those true tales of adventure and heroism captured the imagination of this nation and catapulted Buffalo Bill to a plateau of tremendous fame.

While Buffalo Bill's traveling show was still making headlines around the country, Major Lillie adopted the name Pawnee Bill and organized his own touring Wild West Show. He offered spectators a rip-roaring pageant performed on outdoor living stages with real horses, real buffalos and real cowboys and Indians. Annie Oakley toured with him and May Lillie herself was one of the stars. Pawnee Bill soon became a major competitor and rival of his old idol, but in 1908, perhaps because of necessity, they agreed to combine the two productions. It was called "the largest merger ever consummated in the amusement field" when the two cowboys signed their agreement.

Roger Glen Taylor was a largely self-taught Perry artist who established himself as a talented painter while still a young man. Born on the family homestead north of town, he was hired by the famed 101 Ranch Wild West Show of Marland to decorate circus equipment used by that enterprise in the 1920s. He also was commissioned by Pawnee Bill to create illustrated traveling billboards decorating a large bus that helped promote the Indian trading post and old town, a latter-day project of Major and Mrs. Lillie. The Oklahoma Highway Department later engaged his services full-time, primarily to draw Oklahoma scenes for use on the official state highway maps. Taylor, a lifelong bachelor, died in 1963 at his home in Perry at the age of 68.

In recent years Pawnee has resuscitated Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show, turning it into a total community project that draws thousands of visitors to the town east of Perry each summer. It is considered one of the most successful community-based shows in Oklahoma. A minimum of 35 volunteers are engaged in the show at each performance, taking care of the parking, gate, concessions and other jobs, in addition to the performers themselves. Plans are being made to add more bleachers next year. The Oklahoma Historical Society is one of the show's proudest boosters.

Perry Carnegie Library has an assortment of books dealing with the life story of Pawnee Bill. A lot of Perry folks remember the real Pawnee Bill and his wife, May, and all of us are happy that our late neighbors are enjoying a measure of renewed interest with the revival of their Wild West Show. It should also stimulate us to continue giving serious thought to ways we can capture a larger share of tourist business for our own community. Pawnee has shown us what can be done.