To travelers, a stop in Cody, Wyoming, carries the promise of a step back in time; and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Cody was founded in the early 1900s by the famed cowboy, buffalo hunter, Army scout, hunting guide, stage actor and investor who would become a symbol of the rough-and-tough American West, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Its downtown main street, Sheridan Ave., is rumored to have been designed wide enough to accommodate turning a six-horse wagon team and has certainly seen a high-noon shootout or two. With such historic charm, it’s easy to see why tourism is Cody's main industry.
Still, while Cody is happy to capitalize on its storied past and welcome travelers on their way to Yellowstone’s east entrance 50 miles away, this Wyoming town is certainly not stuck in the dust. Its unique culture includes dude ranches and rodeos right alongside a vibrant downtown, up-and-coming manufacturing and high-tech companies, as well as a growing family-friendly scene.
A rich history
In a time of dime novels, traveling stage shows, and cowboys and Indians, “Buffalo Bill” Cody -- with his memorable Stetson hat, buckskin jacket and leather boots -- became one of the most famous American heroes. He introduced the world to the rugged American West while bringing investment and innovation with him.
He was a risk-taking businessman himself, investing his wealth into projects he thought would bring economic prosperity to the West, such as mining, ranching, oil and coal development, hotels and publications.
In the late 1900s, Cody, impressed by the beauty of the region and the abundance of game and fish, invested heavily into what would become the city of Cody.
The story of Cody – both the city and its founder – is just one of countless stories found within the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which includes the Buffalo Bill Museum, the Whitney Western Art Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, the Draper Natural History Museum, the Plains Indian Museum and the McCracken Research Library.
The Center welcomes 175,000 visitors annually, 15 percent of which are international visitors, and 75 percent of which are traveling to Yellowstone. It employs 85 full-time staff and 250 total employees during the busy height of the summer. It's among the top-five employers in the community and the largest private cultural institution in the state. And it contributes $30 to $50 million to the local economy every year, said its executive director and CEO, Bruce Eldredge.
Eldredge said the Cody Firearms Museum is its most popular attraction. It tells the story of the American West through the progression of its firearms, from the earliest days in the 16th century to modern technology.
Visitors can also get a sense of what life in the American Frontier was like at the turn of the century at Old Trail Town, conveniently located on the road between Cody and Yellowstone. It’s a collection of carefully relocated historic buildings and artifacts from Wyoming and Montana, some of which were used by America’s famous outlaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Also showcasing American-West traditions, the Cody Nite Show Rodeo and Stampede have been held every summer since 1919 — a tradition begun by Buffalo Bill’s own Wild West Show. Cody has come to be known as The Rodeo Capital of the World thanks to its nightly rodeos from June 1 to Aug. 31 and its larger Stampede Rodeo held over the Fourth of July each year. Both shows have been the proving grounds for some world-famous rodeo cowboys such as Jim Houston, Chris LeDoux, Tom Ferguson, Deb Greenough and Dan Mortensen.
A promising future
While Cody embraces its rugged beginnings, it also looks ahead. Many are surprised to learn that the city offers more than tourism, with several up-and-coming ventures that are taking advantage of the natural resources, mature infrastructure and high quality of life.
Companies like Wyoming Authentic Products combine the past, present and future of business in Wyoming. Its story began alongside Buffalo Bill’s, with the Fales family arriving in the Cody area and starting to raise Wyoming cattle in 1918, just after the completion of the Buffalo Bill Dam project that allowed the Big Horn Basin area to be developed.
Today, David Fales runs Wyoming Authentic Products, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved beef processing facility. Its main product is a beef snack stick sold in about 8,000 locations in North America.
In 2017, the plant received a $748,360 grant from the Wyoming Business council for a 3,500 square-foot expansion, with the goal of doubling its production capacity as well as increasing office and storage space.
A second USDA facility, Wyoming Legacy Meats, was developed in 2017, adding to the value-added food processing capability of the region.
Oil and gas extraction has also been a backbone industry in Cody for decades. One of the first oil wells in Wyoming was drilled in nearby Oregon Basin, just over 100 years ago. The industry continues to provide quality jobs and opens opportunities for supporting businesses, such as JCA Companies.
Josh Allison, owner of JCA Companies, is continuing to innovate within the industry.
He and his team have developed the patent-pending C-MOR lighting system for oil rigs and fracking sites. It’s a cheaper, safer, simpler and more environmentally friendly alternative to halogen lighting systems that run on diesel motors, Allison said. C-MOR lights mount to the rig crown and run off the of the rig’s power, providing light in a radius of about 200 yards from the base of the rig. The system allows for safer working conditions on rigs that drill 24 hours per day, which is common, Allison said.
C-MOR lights are currently being used in North Dakota, the Powder River Basin, Colorado, Texas, Ohio, New Mexico and Oklahoma; and Allison said the company is currently backlogged for months with interest from additional companies.
The custom systems are designed, welded and fabricated right in Cody.
“Wyoming is very business friendly,” Allison said. “It might be a little bit easier for me in Texas, to be closer to the oil field, but I like the community (in Cody). This is home to me.”
Also adding value and diversity in manufacturing is Cody Coffee Roaster. It began as a side-hustle in Jesse Renfors’ backyard while he was a stay-at-home dad. When demand for his small-batch, fair-trade, organic coffee beans grew beyond what Renfors could deliver on his bike with his kids in tow, he converted a camper into a roasting room.
In June 2016, he opened a café at its current location in the former Yellowstone airport, and he currently ships coffee all over the state and nation.
The café is a local favorite for a cup of coffee and a crepe in the morning, Renfors said.
He works with local businesses such as hotels and ranches to sell his coffee and buys from local farmers for his café menu items.
“The way that Wyoming takes care of Wyoming is unbelievable,” Renfors said about doing business in the state. “I never thought that we would do the business that we are doing currently.”
Today, Renfors is working to open a second café location downtown.
While pharmaceutical company Cody Laboratories has had some bumps in the road lately, it continues to be a viable and important company in Cody. It currently employs 130 people and serves as a testament to the potential of Wyoming’s smaller communities to support diversity and growth.
Another example of this potential is Eleutian Technology, an English language education company. Utilizing the excellent broadband in the region, the company offers online English classes to all ages in countries like Japan, Korea and Indonesia.
The Wyoming Business Council supported both Cody Laboratories and Eleutian Technology with grants for expansion in 2012 and 2010, respectively.
A family-friendly community
Whether Cody residents are making a living from the city’s rich history or are innovating for its promising future, its fantastic quality of life helps recruit and retain its workers. The Cody area boasts world-class rock climbing in its backyard, a thriving art scene bolstered by its incredible scenery, and a growing family-friendly environment, particularly thanks to the new inclusive playground at Mentock Park.
The playground received a $150,0000 Business Council grant in 2016 to install ADA-compliant equipment, and the community provided matching funds.
The playground is designed to meet the needs of all children, as well as their friends and families. So, not only can children of all abilities enjoy it, their friends and guardians of all abilities can join them, side-by-side.
“It’s absolutely awesome,” said the CEO and president of Forward Cody, James Klessens, who is also a Rotarian and helped with the fundraising efforts. “The kids just love it. It was absolutely a stellar effort by the community to get this done.”
Not only does the park improve quality of life for locals, he added, but it offers yet another reason for travelers with young kids to stop in Cody as they drive through.
While Cody’s claim to fame may always be its rugged western charm and its famous Founding Father, Cody residents know its little secret: Cody’s innovators and big thinkers are leading it toward a bright future.