Driving east on Highway 20 to Valentine, Nebraska, I read to my husband Bob from the Highway 20 to Adventure brochure: "Cody has a city park with free overnight electrical hookups". He responded, "Let’s check it out". We pulled off our motor home at mile marker 160, immediately encountering the ubiquitous aging grain elevator common to just about every Midwestern town. Just beyond was the park, with a few kids playing on the swings in the dappled sunlight under the trees. Sure enough, though there were no RVs, we spotted what looked to be electrical hookups (30 amp) for four units. A man power-mowing the grass came by and confirmed that we could stay here. As Bob backed into the site, I noticed a donation box built into the fence. Also behind us were toilets and shower in a bright blue-painted building, fresh water, and even a dump station off to the side! The park contained tables and grills in addition to the playground, and on one end, a weedy fenced-off tennis and basketball court. We decided to stay one night, maybe two, at this idyllic little place.
The sleepy town of Cody is anything but bustling, and just about all there was to do was go for walks and jogs, talk to people we met on the streets (not many), and pet town dogs and horses. The perfect summer weather, billowing white clouds in the clear blue sky, and peacefulness of this little town was rapidly endearing. We’d stay two nights.
Cody was not named for Buffalo Bill, but Thomas Cody, a railroad man. The town was born with the coming of the railroad in 1884, and set up post office and school by 1886. Like Tombstone, Arizona, Cody labels itself a "town too tough to die", and like Tombstone, its past reads rough and lawless as a Wild West novel. Unlike Tombstone, it’s completely authentic, without commercialism and tourists. No slick brochures or visitor centers here. I dug up some of Cody’s past at the Cherry County Historical Society Museum in Valentine.
In its early days, Cody was a cattle town full of new settlers and cowboys. Its livestock yards shipped out cattle by the thousands. Uninvestigated murders and frequent arson fed its unsavory reputation. Marshals were hired and fired in quick succession after Cody’s incorporation as a town in 1901. Bootlegging, illegal whiskey trading with Indians concealing flasks in boot tops, was already widely practiced in the region. Prohibition in 1920 merely gave it a boost. Cody Hootch became distributed all over the Midwest, with countless stills in Cody, neighboring towns, and hidden in the brush alongside the Niobrara River to the south. The "law" looked the other way, with the most elaborate still in Cherry County located within Cody city limits!
Cody’s notoriety as a den of vice and gambling was upsetting to its contingent of law-abiding citizens and eventually attracted reformers and circuit preachers. Hunt’s Chapel, already built in 1904, still stands, a pretty white wood frame church with steeple and arched windows. By 1930, Cody’s population had swelled to 428. The town featured hotels, eateries, nightly live jazz, and a newspaper.
Cody also had become known for its wild street rodeos in the center of town. Champion cowgirl and trick rider "Tad" Lucas Barnes got her start here, winning cash prizes at age 13 riding wild calves. Nicknamed "Tadpole" because she was the youngest of 24 Barnes siblings, and diminutive at only 5’2", she went on to Madison Square Garden, winning Champion All Around Cowgirl and World Champion Woman Trick Rider 8 years in a row.
The Depression, waning of the railroad, and advent of trucking and the interstates hurt Cody. As time went on, agribusiness swallowed up family farms and ranches. One local business after the other failed, and the population began to decline, falling to 180 by 1980. One-mile-square Cody’s population now numbers about 150, falling another 16% during the ‘90s. Cody shares a school district with neighboring town Kilgore, 14 miles east. Local youngsters are bussed to Kilgore’s elementary school, then attend high school in Cody.
A few bikers returning from Sturgis stopped at the brick and stone-fronted Cody Bar and Grill, seemingly the most active and perhaps the only viable business in town. Some other bikers set up tent in the City Park one night, becoming our neighbors and leaving early next morning. Cody’s Husker Hub advertised "great food and lots of fun" in the aforementioned brochure, but was closed the two days we were in town. The pumps have been removed from what obviously used to be a corner gas station. Other businesses appear empty, or being used for residences.
New frontier? Small prairie towns all over the Midwest are sharing the same fate, diminishing, aging, in fear of disappearing altogether. Emotions run high among those who remain. Some see what is happening not only as loss of a cherished way of life, but of the essence of American national identity. In some areas, the population has fallen to six or less people per square mile, meeting the 19th Century criteria for frontier. But something’s happening here.... Just across the northern border in South Dakota, on Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations, as well as in urban centers, populations are growing. Not only human populations, but also bison and native grasses are slowly returning; the prairie is rebirthing itself. Farmland is reverting to wild grassland again in the heartland. To some, this is upsetting; to others, comforting. Will Cody, Nebraska be but a memory in another 100 years, its buildings sagging into the sandy ground, overgrown by prairie grasses, with the deeper, more lasting solitude of a ghost town? Or is it merely changing back to its more slowly changing and intended condition--wild, wide-open Sand Hill prairies?