CHEYENNE, Wyo. — More than 100 years ago, Cheyenne captured the hearts and minds of people across the world. For some, it still does.
When they dream of “cowboys and Indians,” when they romanticize gunfights and lawlessness on the lone range, when they imagine cool nights camped under the stars on a prairie trail, they think of Wyoming – in particular, they think of Cheyenne.
Mike Kassel, curator of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum, said when CFD began in 1897, Cheyenne already was famous, with a less-than-savory reputation for such things as Indian wars, gunfights, saloons and bucking tradition by giving women the right to vote. The nation also was familiar with the Cheyenne-to-Deadwood stagecoach.
“For some reason, we had this dynamic as this frontier town that just kept in front of the American public’s imagination,” Kassel said.
People across the world also developed a fascination with the West through “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show, which he founded in 1883 in North Platte, Neb., and took on a world tour.
Cheyenne’s leaders capitalized on that fascination when they founded Cheyenne Frontier Days in September 1897. They hoped to create an event that would preserve the American West before that way of life disappeared completely.
Kassel said CFD started as part of an effort to create regional agriculture fairs to increase Union Pacific passenger ticket sales.
“We couldn’t grow anything, but we had a legacy here that they could latch onto, with the cowboys and the cattle industry, and the wildness of the frontier that was gone or disappearing rapidly,” Kassel explained.
The original event featured the rodeo, stagecoach robberies, Native Americans and military.
“All of this alluded to Cheyenne’s ‘hell on wheels’ days and its glory days as a cattle baron town,” Kassel said.
Now, 122 years later, CFD still works to preserve the ways of the Old West and Western culture. The city of Cheyenne also persists at honoring its Western roots and heritage — more so than many Western cities.
These parallel efforts likely are a leading reason why Cheyenne remains at the forefront of Western culture.
Tom Hirsig, executive director of Cheyenne Frontier Days, said, “We’ve kind of kept the Western lifestyle alive, so people can actually live the Western lifestyle. It’s that love affair with the cowboy that I think we’ve preserved.”
Hirsig’s great-great-grandfather was one of the co-founders of CFD back in 1897.
“I think the cowboy would have faded away, and maybe people wouldn’t really be that close to it. I think we have helped preserve that,” Hirsig said.
Kassel said CFD enjoyed so much success that other rodeos began to follow the same model. The Pendleton Roundup and Calgary Stampede are two of those.
Along those same lines, rodeos still use the same chutes designed in Cheyenne and still use the “Cheyenne rules” for their events.
Kassel said people likely don’t think of CFD when they think of Western culture, but they may think of rodeo, and they definitely think of cowboys.
“That frontier ethic is still out there, and it’s still something that Hollywood draws on,” he said.
Throughout the years, CFD became a popular place for actors, musicians and politicians to be seen.
Kassel said that started with silent movie actors, such as William Hart and Will Rogers, who acted in silent Westerns.
“When we had the advent of Westerns on television, that was another wave of popularity for Cheyenne Frontier Days, because people wanted to see the authentic experience,” Kassel said.
Actors in TV shows such as “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” would make appearances at CFD, just as their silent film predecessors did. The actors appeared in the parades and performed in the night shows.
Although there are fewer Western TV shows and movies these days, country music hasn’t faded, and Cheyenne still has a prominent place in that genre. The city and CFD also make appearances in popular country songs.
Hirsig said people love the Western culture and CFD because of the tone and spirit of the American West, similar to Gene Autry’s “Cowboy Code” or Zane Grey’s “Code of the West.”
Both include directives, such as respecting those around you and keeping your promises.
“I think it goes back to the whole cowboy and what a cowboy stands for," Hirsig said. "The cowboy is a guy whose word is as good as a contract. He or she says, ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, sir.’ People want that. They want what it means to be a cowboy.”
Kassel said CFD changes each year according to the current Western culture, including modern country music, and the interests of visitors, but it still retains the authentic spirit of the American West.
“As long as (CFD) exists, it’s going to have some impact on the perception of the American West. But that will change, and I couldn’t tell you where it’s going to go next,” he said.