By BUZZY HASSRICK
Although William F. Cody grabbed the limelight as the founder of his namesake town, he should share it with another man, George W.T. Beck, who was backstage directing the development of the frontier settlement.
“Beck was the man who greased the wheels,” Lynn J. Houze said. “He was the on-site manager. He got things done.”
He was also a collaborator with clout.
“Beck had deep pockets and political and social connections,” Jeremy M. Johnston said. Because his mother was a grand-niece of the first U.S. President, he noted, some might say “George Washington’s money built Cody.”
Still, Houze credited his social connections to prospective financial backers as the most important asset he brought to the municipal enterprise. Credit is also due, according to Houze and Johnston, to Beck’s descendants for ensuring that the story of their entrepreneurial ancestor be told.
The family shared the original manuscript that became “Beckoning Frontiers: The Memoir of a Wyoming Entrepreneur” by George W.T. Beck, edited and annotated by Houze and Johnston. It also includes an introduction by them and numerous photographs along with a foreword by the Simpson brothers who as children knew Beck as “the Governor.”
Houze is the director and curator of the Cody Heritage Museum. Johnston serves as chair of American Western History at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
“The Governor was an imposing figure with a leonine head, white hair and a white mustache … ,” Alan Simpson wrote. “One would not want to draw a comic caricature of the man, but the dapper man with the top hat and the cane on the Monopoly board would come close if you felt terribly irreverent.”
In Pete Simpson’s recollection, Beck “came deliciously close to my image of Santa Claus.” He lamented the loss of the imposing Beck home at 11th and Rumsey, “Cody’s western landmark, its ‘castle.’ … His legacy is our home, and his spirit surrounds us to this day.”
Portions of two manuscripts by Beck reside in two different repositories, the Park County Historical Archives and the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. Both were heavily edited by his wife and daughters, “who wanted him to be more formal in the manuscript,” Johnston explained.
“They were really worried about his image.”
When he and Houze examined the two versions, which they guessed Beck’s wife, Daisy, had typed, they noticed hand-written edits. When they also noticed differences, they reached out to Betty Jane “BJ” Gerber, his granddaughter, for help.
“BJ said her grandfather had a ‘puckish’ sense of humor” and recalled his use of gingersnaps to court Daisy, Houze said.
“He had a Scottish, wry sense of humor,” Johnston said.
That sparkle as well as entertaining incidents, they discovered, were missing from both versions. In the family’s view, those deletions stripped away his voice, Johnston said.
Gerber subsequently shared four boxes of family memorabilia. In the last box, near the bottom, was a three-ring binder with the original, unedited manuscript, which was entrusted to Houze and Johnston for publication.
“The family is absolutely thrilled,” Houze said. “They felt Beck didn’t get the credit he deserved.”
The task of preparing the manuscript for publication presented the editors with some challenges, particularly in regard to names that were incorrect or misspelled or lack identification.
“We had to check everything,” Houze said. “We had to verify everything.”
They divvied up the manuscript, Houze first tackling the pre-Cody memories.
Over the Big Horns
Born in 1856, George Washington Thornton Beck spent some of his youth in his home state of Kentucky and also in Washington, D.C. He attended the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., prospected in Colorado, worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad and, in the 1880s, homesteaded in Wyoming east of the Big Horns.
There, he owned and operated a ranch, built flour mills and founded the town of Beckton. The railroad’s choice of a route to Sheridan rather than Beckton disappointed Beck, yet that decision may have encouraged him to look elsewhere, Johnston said.
Other factors might have been competing flour mills and the conflict over the grazing range during the Johnson County War of the early 1890s, he added. When a friend suggested the economic potential of the Big Horn Basin, Beck investigated the area and decided to develop the Cody Canal under the Carey Act of 1894. The federal legislation allowed private firms to construct irrigation projects for dry, western lands and keep the proceeds from the water sales.
Back in Sheridan, Buffalo Bill was crafting his own projects, including a stagecoach route from Sheridan to Yellowstone National Park, when he heard about Beck’s plan and sought an introduction. The collaboration between the two men, combining Beck’s organizational skills with Buffalo Bill’s promotional talents, worked well.
“Beck’s memoir offers readers great insight into the building of western communities as told by an entrepreneur and town builder who deserves more renown in the historical record,” the editors wrote.
As an investor and developer, Beck was not the typical town founder.
“He did not rely on a pistol to shoot down the bad guys; instead he used his political and social connections to secure necessary capital,” they wrote.
Beck compromised, collaborated and employed “active hucksterism” to assure progress, Houze and Johnston wrote. “Most importantly, Beck’s autobiography demonstrates how he used his puckish sense of humor to make light of himself and others.”