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It all started with White Beaver


Sun, Jul 30th, 2000
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Monday, July 31, 2000

I’ve always been a bit skeptical, I’ll admit, about Buffalo Bill’s Lanesboro connection. Never having seen any mention in Fillmore County history books that the legendary scout, buffalo hunter and showman ever spent any time in this area, it seemed curious in 1985, that Lanesboro would begin hosting a festival called Buffalo Bill Days.

That always sounded like quite a stretch to me. But for that matter, Chatfield has an annual summer festival called Western Days. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call it Midwestern Days? And if Preston wanted to be candid about the vast majority of catchable fish in its surrounding streams, they’d call their spring festival, Shiner Days or Chub Days instead of Trout Days.

Over in Spring Valley a couple years ago, they changed the name of Ag Days to Wilder Fest, apparently due to the fact that cable reruns of Litttle House on the Prairie were more popular than the farmers’ morning Channel 10 favorite Ag-Day.

I suppose a town can take as much license as it likes when it comes to naming its annual festival. Still, if Buffalo Bill really did have something to do with Lanesboro, I wanted to find out what it was. And with the town’s 16th annual Buffalo Bill Days coming up on August 4th, now seemed like an opportune time to do some investigating.

DR. FRANK ‘WHITE BEAVER’ POWELL of Lanesboro and Buffalo Bill Cody were business associates and best friends. Pictured in this 1890’s era photograph from left to right are White Beaver, George Powell, Will Powell and Buffalo Bill Cody. Photo courtesy of Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming


The White Beaver connection


"It all started with White Beaver," Don Ward, Lanesboro’s preeminent historian, told me last week. "He was a great friend of Buffalo Bill’s."

White Beaver was the name given to Dr. David Frank Powell, by a Sioux chief who was grateful when Powell cured his daughter of an illness. Powell lived in Lanesboro in the 1870’s and by all accounts practiced a unique brand of 19th century medicine. He was a colorful and multi-faceted man who never shied away from self-promotion. He was a mystical healer who concocted his own herbal tonics and in a published declaration claimed that he possessed "an extraordinary natural development of the perceptive faculties" which aided him in diagnosing the diseases of his patients.

White Beaver had known Buffalo Bill in Nebraska before moving to Lanesboro and the two men enjoyed a close camaraderie, sharing among other things, an enthusiasm for guns and liquor.

Cody and the Wild West Show


Don Ward showed me several news items taken from Lanesboro papers in the 1890’s and early 1900’s that clearly stated that Buffalo Bill staged his first Wild West Show in Lanesboro. Lanesboro’s Levang’s Weekly, in January 1917, on the occasion of Buffalo Bill’s death wrote, "Do you know that the great Wild West show originated in Lanesboro? Some thirty odd years ago Dr. Frank Powell (White Beaver) was a resident of Lanesboro. He and Buffalo Bill were great friends, and during one of the latter’s extended visits to Lanesboro the idea of the Wild West Show was born. They were both men of action, and as there were plenty of Indians around here at that time, the first rehearsals of the show that was to electrify this country and Europe were staged on the river flats of the present Ensrud farm east of town,"
extravagance of the Wild West Show that Cody would later develop.

Dr. Fees suggested that I contact an historian named Eric Sorg if I wanted to find out more about White Beaver and his friendship with Cody. "Eric wrote his master’s thesis on White Beaver," Dr. Fees said. "And I would consider him to be the world’s foremost authority on him."
White Beaver, Buffalo Bill and Lanesboro

I called Mr. Sorg at his home in Laramie, Wyoming, and he was more than willing to talk of White Beaver and Cody. He too, discounted the story that the Wild West Show was ever performed in Lanesboro, but he added that the stage play Prairie Waif was both rehearsed and performed in Lanesboro. Cody employed local Winnebago Indians in the cast and then moved the show on to a larger venue at La Crosse, Wisconsin.

White Beaver was a brilliant man and a highly trained physician, Mr. Sorg said. He was touring the West teaching Masonic rites when he met Cody in the early 1870’s. "They were Masonic brothers and became lifelong best friends," Mr. Sorg said.

The duo participated in several get-rich schemes including the production of ‘Yosemite Yarrow Cough Cream and Wonder Worker’. "The ingredients were 82% alcohol, 16% chloroform and 2% opium," Mr. Sorg said. "And it was guaranteed to relieve your every pain."

Cody and White Beaver also attempted to market a drink called ‘Panamalt’ which was targeted at Mormons and contained neither liquor or caffeine. The beverage never caught on.

In 1885, White Beaver was elected mayor of La Crosse, where he had moved his medical practice after leaving Lanesboro. In his first year as mayor, he missed half the city council meetings because he was touring Europe as a sharpshooter with Cody’s Wild West Show. "In some ways White Beaver reminds me of your present governor, Jesse Ventura," Mr. Sorg said with a laugh.

Mr. Sorg spent considerable time in Lanesboro and La Crosse while researching White Beaver’s life and times. He fondly remembered the research help he got from Don Ward. Mr. Sorg is currently trying to get his manuscript of White Beaver’s life published as a book, which runs about 250 pages.

"I’ve been flogging that rascal for the past couple years," Mr. Sorg said. "I was amused when the University of Wisconsin Press rejected the manuscript on the grounds that it was the story of an "insignificant politician from an insignificant state."

Mr. Sorg pointed out that, not only had White Beaver been mayor of La Crosse for four terms, he had twice ran for governor of Wisconsin on the populist People’s party ticket. "His was the most radical egalitarian platform in the country," Mr. Sorg said.

It appeared that Mr. Sorg was just warming up and he laughingly said, referring to the time we had already spent on the phone, "I could talk of White Beaver until you were forced to take out a second mortgage."

I wished him success in selling his manuscript. The compelling life story of White Beaver was one that I hoped would soon find a wider audience.

So in the end, not only did I determine that Lanesboro did have a legitimate Buffalo Bill connection, I also discovered they had the right to claim White Beaver, a man of prodigious and visionary talents, as one of their own.

It seems that Don Ward was right all along when he said, "it all started with White Beaver.”

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