CODY, Wyo. — His movies starred the likes of John Wayne and Charles Bronson, and his own stint as an actor led to portrayals of Pvt. Gawky Henderson in “The Story of G.I. Joe.”
But it was the 1935 film staring Barbara Stanwyck and her role as Annie Oakley that got Bill Self — Hollywood actor and producer — started as a collector of Western memorabilia.
Self died last year at 89. But his legacy lives in his collection of Annie Oakley items, which his family donated last month to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
His gift includes a glass target ball and a pair of Oakley’s spurs. There’s an 1892 William Cashmore rifle with “AO” emblazoned on the stock and a reel of 16mm film.
“Dad always loved heroes,” said Self’s daughter, Barbara Malone, who gave her father’s collection to the museum. “Even as a teenager, he was fascinated by Annie Oakley.”
Legends in the making
Oakley rose to fame as a 19th century sharpshooter. She was discovered by marksman Frank Butler at a shooting contest in the Ohio woods.
Oakley and Butler were married in 1876 and joined the Sells Brothers Circus for one season in 1884 as “champion rifle shots.” The following year, the couple headed out with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where Oakley’s reputation grew.
Self, who was born in 1921, missed Oakley’s heyday as a performer. He discovered the legendary sharpshooter in 1935 when he saw Stanwyck star in “Annie Oakley” at the Keith Theater in Dayton, Ohio.
As luck would have it, Oakley’s brother, John Moses, had loaned the theater a collection of his sister’s memorabilia to help promote the film. The movie, along with the collection, sparked Self’s fascination with Oakley.
“As the story goes, Bill Self had embraced Annie Oakley’s work so much that after that first movie, he contacted John Moses and the two became friends,” said Marguerite House of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
“Self started writing an Oakley biography and persuaded his family to travel to Cody so he could study the Oakley scrapbooks in what was then the original Buffalo Bill Museum.”
Self’s collection covers an array of odds and ends, including news clippings about the Butlers, a powder horn stamped with “FWM 1887” and a wig woven from auburn-colored hair.
Lynn Houze, assistant curator of the Buffalo Bill-Western History Gallery, said Oakley’s hair turned white prematurely and she wore a wig.
“The Wild West train had a wreck in North Carolina in early November 1901, and many people said that caused Oakley’s hair to turn white,” Houze said. “Others say she went into a Georgia hot springs and stayed too long.
“Oakley always dressed very properly,” Houze said. “I think that might have been quite embarrassing for her to suddenly have white hair.”
Self’s friendship with John Moses enabled him to borrow and reproduce some treasured family photographs. The images arrived at the museum with Self’s collection in an aging leather scrapbook.
The photos are what you’d expect of 19th century portraits. There’s John Moses holding a stoic pose, and Oakley’s mother, Susan Moses, looking off into the distance, unsmiling. A Will Rogers quote inscribed next to one Oakley image reads, “the greatest woman rifle shot the world had ever produced.”
In the photo, Oakley’s chest is covered with shooting medals.
“I grew up in New Jersey and for the first 13 years I lived in Nutley,” Houze said. “Annie Oakley lived in Nutley for a time. I knew of her before I ever knew about Buffalo Bill.”
The most telling image in the collection may be that of Oakley standing with Butler, the man she would eventually marry, but not after challenging him first in a shooting match in the woods near Cincinnati.
“Frank Butler was in town and he wanted to have an all-comers contest with the area’s best shooters,” Houze said while studying the photograph. “He was really surprised when Oakley was put up to shoot against him and beat him.”
Oakley won the match with 25 hits from 25 attempts. Butler missed one shot. History suggests Butler was initially soured by his defeat, but the contest between him and Oakley led to a lifelong partnership in marriage.
The two remained with the Wild West show for 16 years, a stint that included two trips to Europe, securing Oakley’s position as one of show’s leading stars.
The couple retired from the Wild West show in 1901. They quit shooting exhibitions in 1913. When Bill Cody died in 1917, Houze said, Oakley penned his eulogy and noted “the passing of a golden era,” which Self would miss by less than a decade.
But Self was never deterred by his timing. A fan of the American West, he spent his life collecting what he could, including several letters written by Oakley to Butler when the two had just months to live.
“Sorry you fainted, but you are in the best hands you could get into,” Oakley wrote to her husband. “Don’t try to write any of your checks. Just sign. So glad you are getting some sunshine there. Hope you feel better.”
The letter is dated Oct. 21, 1926, two weeks before Oakley died. She signed it, as always, “Lovingly, Missie.” Three weeks later, Butler also passed away.
“It’s exciting to see new things come to the museum, especially with Annie Oakley,” Houze said. “She believed that women could do anything and still present a feminine side.”
Contact Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-527-7250.