Forth Cody's impressive battlements.
Forth Cody's impressive battlements.

Fort Cody Trading Post

Field review by the editors.

North Platte, Nebraska

Frontier forts were a welcome sight to the trail-weary, and Fort Cody Trading Post is similarly reassuring to today's Interstate 80 travelers -- with its 30-foot-tall Buffalo Bill Cody sign, log stockade walls, and promise of "Free Museum."

Postcard Cowgirls of Fort Cody.
1960s postcard cowgirls of Fort Cody.

The 30-foot sign is not of some arbitrarily exploited Old West figure; Buffalo Bill and his family lived in the area for many years, and he made North Platte the headquarters of his famous Wild West Show. His home on the outskirts of town, Scout's Rest Ranch, is now maintained as a state historical park.

Bill's spirit of showmanship lived on in Royce Henline (1923-2016), who created Fort Cody Trading Post and was followed in the business by his son, Chuck, and grandson, Nick. "I remember my dad talking about the old times, the Great Depression," said Chuck. "He said people back then might only have a nickel, but they'd be willing to spend it for a souvenir."

Forth Cody ready for business.
Fort Cody founder Royce Henline, ready for business.

Motivated by this knowledge, Royce and partner Irwin "Doc" Dunlap opened a series of souvenir shops. The Fort Cody Trading Post began as a much smaller establishment along the old Lincoln Highway. One of its first "carrots," as Chuck put it -- a gimmick to lure tourists out of their cars -- was a stuffed two-headed calf, advertised with a boldly lettered sign out front. Another gimmick was the trading post's large "Souvenirs" sign, from which dangled a noose and dummy. "In those days people would stop just to see a guy hanging," said Chuck.

Royce rolled his best gimmicks into the current Fort Cody Trading Post -- a replica redoubt of the frontier era -- which opened in 1967 just off of the newly-completed Interstate. One of the life-size dummy soldiers along the parapet has an arrow sticking out of his backside. "The arrow in the butt was Doc's idea," said Nick (Doc died in 1972, but some gags never grow old). Another crowd-pleaser involved a family of Oglala Sioux, who'd perform traditional dances on the back of a flatbed truck that Royce or Chuck would drive around to local motels, beating on a tom-tom to drum up business. Chuck immortalized this in a hand-built miniature motorized display at Fort Cody Trading Post; drop in a quarter and you can make the Indians dance again.

Sioux Trading Post animatronic display.
Coin-op model of Forts Cody's 1950s predecessor.

Wild Bill and Chiefs in Wild West Show miniature.
Wild Bill and Chiefs in Wild West Show miniature.

When the Sioux family retired in 1977, Royce purchased an immense, mechanically animated version of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, with over 20,000 figures and 20 motors, carved over a period of 12 years by another showman character, Ernie Palmquist (His similarly vast miniature circus is now owned by the Smithsonian). Every half-hour, for five minutes, the Wild West Show comes to life: cowboys twirl lassos, poker players show their cards, picnickers eat, Annie Oakley shoots targets, a rider bucks on a bronco, a stagehand tugs a stubborn mule.

Although Chuck technically retired in 2019, he still crawls under the Wild West Show display to fix its motors whenever they seize up.

Out in the stockade is another Royce carrot: a Native American Muffler Man. The company that made the Muffler Men, International Fiberglass, also mass-produced giant Indians in the 1960s, but the one at Fort Cody is unique. "One night [this was in 1968 or '69] my dad was having a drink at a bar," said Chuck. "And he met this guy in town with a gas station who said, 'I don't know what the hell I'm gonna do with my Big Man.' And my dad said, 'I'll give you a hundred bucks for it.' And he did. And then he forgot all about it! The next morning we find this thing in pieces in our parking lot, and I said, 'What are we gonna do with this?' And my dad said, 'I know. Let's make him into an Indian!' And we did."

Late night casualty.
Late night casualty.

2-headed calf.
Fort Cody's 2-headed calf: stopping traffic for 75 years.

The Muffler Man and Wild West Show at Fort Cody are free, as is the Free Museum, which includes the two-headed calf (now approaching its 75th birthday). The museum also has guns, chaps, spurs, boots, saddles, headdresses, a buffalo fur coat, and other leftovers from the Wild West. In a special case is one of the world's oldest cowboy hats, so primitive that it looks nothing like the hats later worn by country singers and Texas politicians. "The guy I bought it from thought it was an Amish hat," said Chuck. "There're only two or three left in the world."

Chuck and Nick agree that one of the best parts of working at Fort Cody Trading Post is the constant flow of visitors, even though some of them believe that Buffalo Bill killed all the buffalo (he didn't) or claim that they're direct descendants of Bill himself (Chuck said that's highly unlikely). "And we get a lot of people who think this is a real fort," said Nick. "They're honestly amazed when you tell them that it's not."

Fort Cody Trading Post

Address:
221 Halligan Drive, North Platte, NE
Directions:
I-80 exit 177, northeast side.
Hours:
Summer daily 9-9, fewer hours off-season. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
308-532-8081
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Muffler Man - IndianMuffler Man - Indian, North Platte, NE - < 1 mi.
20th Century Veterans Memorial20th Century Veterans Memorial, North Platte, NE - < 1 mi.
Swimming Pool Shaped Like NebraskaSwimming Pool Shaped Like Nebraska, North Platte, NE - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Petrified Wood Art, Ogallala, NE - 50 mi.

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