Wild West Fantasy
LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick
Photo courtesy of Dave Rago.
It’s July 20, 1910.
The Wild West Show rolls into town in the wee hours of the morning occupying 46 railroad cars. Buffalo Bill, the scout turned showman, dozes off in his private Pullman. A cast of 1,300 people and 500 horses waits in various stages of anticipation, exhaustion and excitement in the remaining cars.
The parade is planned for 9:30 a.m. rain or shine through the main streets of town. There’s a lot of setting up to do before that happens. The newspaper has been advertising the event for a week and locals have been talking it up even longer. Beside Buffalo Bill, Miss Annie Oakley will demonstrate her shooting skills.
The West travels east in this colorful, marketable, circus-like extravaganza. Most armchair cowboys and cowgirls believe the standard Wild West exaggerations of war-bonneted Indian attacks and sharpshooting cowboys.
Accurate slices of frontier life? No, but it made for great theater.
Charles H. Tompkins, a Texas roper and rider extraordinaire is busy building his own reputation and will form his version of the Wild West Show. He’ll go down in history as one of more than 100 Buffalo Bill imitators.
Tompkins directed the Congress of Champion Ropers and Riders at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. From 1913 to 1917 Tompkins and his wife operated Real Wild West and Frontier Exhibition in combination with the Cooper-Whitby’s circus. Their show closed at the beginning of World War I.
It included aerial wire and acrobatic acts, trick bicycle riding and trained animal acts. His was a mix of Wild West Show and European circus.
Tompkins was also a good friend of vaudeville performer, humorist, and social commentator Will Rogers.
“Thieving is inevitable on or near the grounds of a large traveling show, but the Wild West detectives and local police worked with a will yesterday and kept losses down to a minimum,” reported the Washtenaw Times in 1910.
Thieves and pickpockets often used the show’s draw to refine their skills. They specialized in diamonds, watches, robes, and lots of jewelry.
Major shows like Bill’s and Tompkins’ commissioned attractive lithograph posters of their star acts like Oakley and Tompkins. Lesser moneyed companies bought stock paper printed with Wild West scenes and simply added their names to them.
Weeks before the show came to town advance men blanketed the area with the posters ranging from small handbills to enormous, multi-sheet advertisements. Some were so big they covered the sides of barns.
The posters reinforced the myth of a romantic, spine-tingling American frontier with the flashiest posters promoters could afford.
Never meant to last, somehow some of these old beauties remain. They’re historical as well as instructive pieces of ephemera, concrete links to another era in time.
These posters wrap the past up in a colorful, storybook package.
On Sept. 22, Dave Rago, Lambertville, N.J.; featured his Great Estates auction. Featured in the sale was a collection of Tompkins’ Real Wild West posters.
Here are some current values.
Tompkins’ Real Wild West Posters
Cowboy-Round-up; Native American Chief; Native American Powwow, Cowboys on Buckskin Horses, 4, by Donaldson Lithograph Company, circa 1914; 20 inches by 30 inches; $3,000.
Cowgirl on Horseback, Native Americans on Horseback, Cowboys on Horseback, Native American Chief, 4, by Donaldson Lithograph Company, circa 1914; 20 inches by 30 inches; $3,000.
Native American Powwow, Cowboy Pastimes, Native American Chief, 3, by Donaldson Lithograph Company, circa 1914; 28 inches by 42 inches; $4,688.
Cowboy Roundup, Wild West Show Activities, Cow Roping, Frontier Pastimes, 4, by Donaldson Lithograph Company, circa 1914; 28 inches by 42 inches; $6,250.