Helen Cody Wetmore: More Than Just Buffalo Bill’s Little Sister

The reminders are all over the city, but still, few people know that Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody had business interests in Duluth one hundred years ago. His sister, Helen Cody Wetmore, lived in Duluth back then and convinced the famous frontiersman and Wild West showman to invest in the Zenith City. She also made a name for herself as an advocate for women achieving what she called “their rightful spheres in church and state.”

It was July of 1893 when Helen Cody married Hugh A. Wetmore, proprietor of the People’s Press, a pro-labor newspaper in Duluth. Helen was excited by Duluth and the newspaper business, and encouraged her brother to invest in both. Buffalo Bill responded by sending $30,000 for the construction of the Duluth Press Building, a four-story brick structure at 1915 W. Superior St., which served as the paper’s headquarters.

Helen took over as business manager at the paper, changing its name to the Duluth Press and broadening its appeal to female readers. She began organizing women’s group meetings, such as the Woman’s Suffrage Circle. She pushed for women to run for office, and when Susan Burrill Bangs ran for school board, Helen vociferously endorsed her. After Bangs lost the election, Helen hired her as an editor of the paper.

In 1894 Helen began organizing the Zenith Press Club with the mission “to give the women’s organizations of our city a medium to let the city and country at large know what is being done by organized women’s work in Duluth.”

The Women’s Department of the Duluth Press, conducted by the Zenith Press Club, was started in September of 1894 with Helen as president. By the end of the year the Duluth Press was being promoted as “The Women’s Paper of the Great Northwest.” Women dominated every department of the paper’s staff. It had readership in every state and throughout Canada, at one time boasting “the paper is reaching fully 200,000 readers.”

By July of 1895, however, Helen was ready for a new venture. A Duluth Press editorial noted: “There ought to be in America hundreds of home-like sanatoriums for the sick, just outside of our cities, in which capable women should be in charge and where physicians can conscientiously send patients. Duluth will soon have an institution under the charge of women, located on the most beautiful site at the head of the lakes. The city has long needed just such a place where special cases can be cared for.”

In August, the Cody Sanatorium, built on an eminence in western Duluth overlooking St. Louis Bay, was open for business. The 54-room retreat was advertised as a “place for delicate women and children to rest and recuperate.”

Helen gave up her positions as managing editor and business manager of the Duluth Press in September of 1895 in order to focus on the sanatorium business. The newspaper folded that fall, after years of failure to rent office space in its expensive building in the West End. Business at the sanatorium was going well, according to Helen’s accounts, but on Nov. 17, 1896, it burned to the ground.

Helen resumed work in the publishing business, writing a biography of Buffalo Bill called Last of the Great Scouts. Her new home, which she called “Codyview,” was built in 1897 on the site of the former sanatorium. “I may be prejudiced in its favor,” Helen wrote, “but it commands a view so striking and magnificent that I cannot conceive anything more lovely on earth.”

What became of Hugh Wetmore remains a mystery. Claire W. Schumacher, in her 1969 booklet Codyview: Buffalo Bill’s Link with Duluth, wrote that “Hugh seems to have been the forgotten man in [Helen’s] life. Many of the old timers around Duluth remember [Helen], but only one man ever knew she had a husband.”

Schumacher quotes a Duluth man who recalled seeing Wetmore tending cows in the woods at the top of 44th Avenue West, just northwest of the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway tracks. “He lived in a tent up there,” the man said of Wetmore. “I think his wife kicked him out.”

The remnants of both Helen Cody Wetmore and Buffalo Bill Cody still linger in Duluth. Helen’s home in the Bayview Heights neighborhood, and the Duluth Press Building, now an apartment complex, continue to stand today. A number of other artifacts and stories have survived as well.

Elsie Sjodin bought the old Helen Cody Wetmore home from her father in the late 1980s. She said all that’s really left of the original house at 2618 N. 77th Ave. W. is its three-foot-thick basement walls. Two parapets sit at the front porch of the house that are also presumed to be from the original Codyview.

The historic home changed ownership nine times before Elsie Sjodin acquired it. David Anderson sought to make the house an historic landmark when he owned it in the early 1940s, but the effort failed to get city or historical-society attention.

Legend has it that Buffalo Bill buried a treasure, which included a buffalo head, about ten to twelve feet under where Codyview was built. The story is largely dismissed based on reports that a former owner, Howard McDonald, dug up the basement floor in the 1940s and found nothing. McDonald was looking for a cesspool outlet, but he also searched for the treasure. What most people don’t know is that McDonald claimed to have dug only five feet down, then gave up.

Schmacher’s booklet also reports that Helen Cody’s ghost was thought to have been wandering the house in the early 1900s. Even in 2002, Elsie Sjodin said the place is “a little eerie.” For several years she rented the downstairs portion of the house and had tenants who claimed to have seen the ghost of Helen Cody Wetmore.

In 1905, Helen left Duluth for Cody, Wyoming, a town named after her brother. There, she managed the Cody Enterprise newspaper, which Buffalo Bill eventually gave to her. She died in 1911 in Pasadena, Calif., a remarkable woman, in many ways ahead of her time.

This article originally appeared in the October 2002 issue of the Area Woman magazine, now known as the Woman Today. The story was part of a series called Area Women in History.

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