Friday, June 28, 2019

Part Two: L.E. Decker, Manager

Source: The William F. Cody Archives

In the 1890s, William F. Cody built the town of Cody, Wyoming in the Big Horn Basin. Envisioning the town as a tourist destination and gateway to Yellowstone National Park, he constructed the luxurious Irma Hotel at it's heart. In 1903, as the Irma was undergoing its first major renovation, Louis was made the manager of the hotel. He was reportedly told by Cody to make the Irma "just the swellest hotel that ever happened regardless of expense." Among other improvements, Louis had monogrammed crockery specially made for the hotel's dining room.

Louis and Mary both lived and worked in the hotel. In the 1910 census, they are listed
alongside several other employees of the Irma: clerk Edward Connery, cooks Robert Velick and Jess Minson, and waitress Hilda Friedenburg, as well as the other housekeepers, maids, and laborers that kept the hotel clean and functioning. A photograph taken that year shows Louis, Mary, and William Cody seated together in Cody's private room at the Irma.  Louis is older now, in his late 40's, and sports a mustache. His discussion with Cody looks serious, though there's a slight smile on Mary's face.

Louis continued to manage the hotel until 1913, the year William F Cody filed for bankruptcy and the Wild West show ended. Louis and Mary left Wyoming for Denver, Colorado and moved into 2932 Lafayette Street, a Queen Anne style home built in 1892. Louis went from being the manager of the Irma to being the manager of the White Motor Car Company, and soon became the owner of the Court Place Garage. Shortly after the move, Cody paid his sister and brother-in-law a visit. It was from their house on July 25th, 1913 that he wrote a letter to his lifelong friend, John H. Tait. "Well the old show is closed," he wrote. "But I'll soon have a better one."

In his later years, Cody frequently stayed at 2932 Lafayette Street with Louis and Mary. According to Mary, her brother often referred to the house as the "Home of Peace." It was during one of these stays in January 1917 that his health began to decline. He was 70 years old and dying of kidney failure. When told by his doctor that he had only 36 hours to live, Cody's first response was to call Louis to his bedside. "The doc says I've got 36 hours," he reportedly told him. "Let's forget about it and play some cards." William F. Cody died on January 10th at 12:05 PM. At 1:33, Louis sent a telegram to John Tait that read simply, "Colonel Cody passed away twelve five today. Louie."

In 1919, the editor of the Daily Pantagraph traveled from Bloomington, Illinois to Denver to interview Mary about her brother. The editor describes the large cabinet case that sits in the living room of their home, filled with souvenirs and gifts from Buffalo Bill, and how Mary spoke of her brother with "solemn pride."

In 1926, after three months of illness, Mary Cody Decker passed away at age 73. According to her obituary, Mary's last words were murmured to her husband: "I'm going west." Louis suffered from heart disease in his later years and in 1935 passed away at the home of a friend in Denver. He was 71. Louis's obituary claims that he was the manager of Buffalo Bill's Wild West for two decades, a claim that I've found repeated elsewhere. As far as I can tell, Louis was never the manager of the show. He was, however, many many other things. He was the cousin, brother-in-law, and employee of the famous showman, Buffalo Bill. He began as a ticket-seller and through hardwork became a secretary to Buffalo Bill and to his manager, Nate Salsbury. He was the manager not of Bill's show, but of his luxurious Irma Hotel. He was the owner of a successful garage in Denver, Colorado. He was at Buffalo Bill's side when he died.

Researching Louis Decker's story has been fascinating. If you're interested, here is an article about the restoration of Louis and Mary's home in Denver.

If you know anything else about Louis, let us know in the comments!

A few of the sources I used for this post:
  1. Center of the West article on the Irma Hotel
  2. Denver Library Article on the Whittier Neighborhood and San Rafael Historical District
  3. 1913 letter from William F. Cody to John H. Tait
  4. Virginian-Pilot article, "The Last, Great Performance of Buffalo Bill Cody"
  5. 1917 telegram from Louis Decker to John H. Tait announcing the death of William F. Cody

Friday, June 21, 2019

Part One: Louis E. Decker, Youngstown, Ohio 1880's

Writing on the back reads:
"Louis is nicer
looking now
than in this

Louis E. Decker's rather interesting life began in Youngstown, Ohio in 1864. He was the youngest of Bartholomew Decker and Sophia Billings's seven children. His father was the owner of a feed store, B.S. Decker & Co., where Louis's older brother Charles would work as a store clerk during his teenage years. Charles would follow in his father's footsteps and go on to own a shop of his own, a grocery and confectionary. It's possible Louis may have worked in his father's store at some point as a young man, but he was certainly not destined to become a grocer or clerk.

In February 1882, Bartholomew and Sophia took a trip to Cleveland, Ohio. They were visiting Sophia's cousin, William F. Cody, who is perhaps better known by his nickname: Buffalo Bill. Cody would not form his famous Wild West show until the following year, but he had already gained a reputation as a skilled hunter, rider, and scout during the Indian Wars. Louis's parents must have seen an opportunity to get their youngest son a job with the famous showman.

Louis began working as a ticket seller for Buffalo Bill's Wild West about 1885 when he was 20 years old. That same year, sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler joined the show. Louis continued to sell tickets for several years and possibly sold tickets during the show's European tours between 1887 and 1892. Then in 1893, the Wild West came to Chicago and set up in a lot right next door to the fairgrounds of the World's Columbian Exposition (after a committee declined to include the show as part of the fair itself). While researching Louis, I was surprised and very excited to discover a brief mention of him in one of my favorite books, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. In order to illustrate the success of the fair, Larson describes how Louis "sold 17,843 tickets during his shift, the most by any one man" and as a result won a box of cigars. Though Larson mistakenly refers to Louis as Buffalo Bill's nephew, there's no doubt to me it's the right man. Why exactly he was selling tickets at the fair instead of at the Wild West show is unclear to me. Maybe he was looking to earn a little extra money while in Chicago, or perhaps he just really wanted to win that box of cigars.

According to an 1896 souvenir book titled "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Route Diary," the traveling show made a stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan on August 9th. Louis, or "Lew" as he is called here, took the opportunity to visit his sister in Elk Rapids. Though she isn't named in the diary, I believe he visited his oldest sister, Carrie, who was living in Michigan around this time. The diary also says that Louis made the visit with his wife, and a "Mrs. Lou Decker" is listed as the Matron of the Camp. This is interesting considering the fact that, as far as I know, Louis wasn't married until 1906. If she's a different woman, I haven't been able to find a record of her.

In the 1899 "Route Book," Louis has moved up to being a secretary for Cody and for Nate Salsbury, Cody's manager, though it appears that he continued to help sell tickets and work as a mail carrier. During his time working for the Wild West show, Louis must have been introduced to William F. Cody's sisters, Julia, Eliza, Nellie, and Mary, who also went by "May." Cody was close with his sisters and wrote to them frequently. Photographs show that the Cody sisters were rather stern, serious looking women. The youngest, Mary, had been married to Edgar Bradford, a locomotive engineer, until his death in 1896. She was left a widow at 44, with two adult children. She and Louis had likely known each other for a while, as Louis was an employee of her brother (not to mention the fact that they were technically cousins.) Though she was 10 years his senior, a relationship formed. Mary and Louis were married in Big Horn, Wyoming on December 30th, 1906.

Before the marriage, Louis experienced big changes in his career as William F. Cody embarked on an ambitious new project- a tourist destination that would serve as the gateway to Yellowstone National Park.

Find out more next week in Part Two! And if you know anything about Louis, let us know in the comments!

A few of the sources I used for this post:
  1. 1882 letter from William F. Cody to Al Goodman in which Bartholomew and Sophia's visit to Cleveland is mentioned
  2. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, page 319
  3. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Route Diary, 1896
  4. Route Book Buffalo Bill's Wild West, 1899

Friday, June 7, 2019

Mary Katherine Southall, Florence, Alabama 1900

Writing on the back reads:
"Mary Katherine Southall
c 3 years"

Mary Katherine Southall was born in Florence, Alabama on February 24th, 1897. She was the youngest child and only daughter of Charles Morton and Ida Mae Hester Southall. She had 2 older brothers, James Morton and Eugene H. The Southalls were fairly wealthy. Mary's father was a successful druggist in Florence and he appears often in the Florence Herald advertising such miraculous cures as "Electric Bitters," "Herbine," and "Dr. Howard's Specific."

Growing up, Mary was a bit of a social butterfly. The early years of her life were full of parties, clubs, and outings with friends, all of which were recorded in detail in the Florence Herald. At age 9, Mary served punch at a friend's birthday party "beneath the roseate glow of pink-draped chandeliers." Mary hosted her first tea party in 1908 at age 11. That same year she was the hostess of the T.F. Club and served refreshments at a party held for her Aunt Maney Hester when she visited from Chicago (the house was decorated with white and yellow). At 15 Mary and friends served frappe in the music room of Miss Olive Rogers "where pink and white roses rioted in lovely profusion." She attended countless other events, including dinner parties, barbecues, plays at the Princess Theater, and a football game between Vanderbilt and Auburn in 1919.

Mary was not only an excellent hostess, she was also well-educated. In 1916 she left Alabama for Pennsylvania, where she attended the Baldwin School, a private girls school, and later Bryn Mawr College. There she studied economics and politics and graduated in 1919. On February 26th, 1920, shortly after Mary's 23rd birthday, the Florence Herald announced Mary's engagement to a Mr. Benjamin Hall.

Benjamin Homer Hall was born in Illinois but had lived in Hoosick, New York for much of his life. He was a reporter for, and later the owner and editor of, the Rensselaer County Standard. I'm not sure what brought Benjamin to Alabama in the first place- did he meet Mary in Florence or did they meet while Mary was attending school in Pennsylvania? Friends and family poured into Florence from across the country to celebrate. The week leading up to the wedding was filled with luncheons, tea parties, and receptions all in honor of the bride-to-be. The ceremony itself was held in the Southall home on April 29th. I was surprised that I couldn't find any descriptions of the wedding- maybe Mary wanted to keep this particular event private.

Not long after the wedding, Mary and Benjamin moved back to Hoosick, where Benjamin continued to run his newspaper. During WWII, Benjamin served in the Office of Strategic Services both in Washington and overseas and, according to his obituary, was "closely connected" with William J. Donovan, the head of the OSS. After the war, Mary and Benjamin lived in Pittsburgh for 14 years. When Benjamin retired, they moved to Tryon, North Carolina where he built a home for them. The couple lived there together until Benjamin passed away in November 1965.  Benjamin and Mary never had children, but they were close with their nephews Derick and Donald Hulme. In Benjamin's will, he passes several family heirlooms onto his nephews. Mary passed away ten years later in 1975 at the age of 78.

If you know who this may be, let us know in the comments!