Remembering Buckskin Ben Stalker

Photo providedBuckskin Ben Stalker, who operated a Wild West Show for many years, called Indiana home. He is buried in a Cambridge City cemetery.

Butch Kennedy asked if I had heard of Buckskin Ben Stalker.

It seemed that the name was familiar, but I couldn’t think of anything else about him. So, Butch loaned me a book titled, “The Life and Adventures of Buckskin Ben (Ben Stalker) Twenty Years a Cowboy - Thirty Years a Showman.” Actually, the booklet, more like a 32 page pamphlet, was written by Buckskin Ben about 1900 and the Internet said it is worth about $1,750 now. Believe me, I was mighty careful with that pamphlet after reading that!

It’s hard to understand now why the name didn’t mean more to me when I was first asked about it. After all, he is listed in the book, “Indiana’s 200: The People who Shaped the Hoosier State.” It’s listed in that book with others such as Billy Sunday, Booth Tarkington, Lew Wallace, the Studebaker family and others who are well known to nearly everybody. There are stories abut Buckskin Ben in just about any book about Indiana that is about the people who made Indiana what it is.

Stalker is also listed in “Little Indiana, Small Town Destination,” “The Extraordinary Book of Native American lists,” and “Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History.” And that’s only a few of the books about Indiana that has Stalker’s biography or something about him.

Buckskin was born Oct. 27, 1893, in Indiana and died April 16, 1949. He is buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Cambridge City in Wayne County. He was 86 years old.

Buckskin traveled the United States, Canada and Mexico for more than 30 years with what was called “The Biggest Little Wild West Show on Earth.” The show apparently had anywhere from six to eight acts. The beginning had lots of loud music to get the audience in the mood for unusual and rough acts. There were demonstrations of roping and sharp shooting. (No idea how they managed sharp shooting in a tent, but that’s what the advertisements say.)

The other acts in the show, though, are a different matter. For example, they had a “Human Impalement Act” in which Buckskin Ben would throw knives at someone standing still against a board. We’ve seen that act before and it is quite scary, at least to some of us. Buckskin also had someone throw a potato up in the air and he would whip out his gun and shoot it. Another act was of him having someone throw cards up in the air and as they floated down to the ground he shot the cards. Some cards would have four or five holes in them while others only one.

I found the following notice in the Cambridge City Tribune:

“Noah Waddell, who has been out with Buckskin Ben’s Wild West Show, was brought home last Friday in an almost helpless condition. Both of his back legs below the hips are paralyzed.” No information about how he was hurt was given. The show did advertise that there were many trained wild animals, but he could have been hurt while doing some “rough riding” I would imagine.

A story in the Cambridge City 1942 National Road Traveler had this to say about Buckskin Ben Stalker, who was “..still in show business at the age of 76, is now an invalid, but is able to move about in a wheel chair. His eyesight is almost gone. He is able to distinguish only between light and darkness.

“The eye and the arm that made him for 44 years one of the most expert pistol shots of the country still functioned perfectly at 76. Although he was born in the Southwest when the Southwest was bad, Buckskin Ben as a showman was really produced by Indiana. After 30 years of rough life, Ben, cowboy and adventurer, came to Indianapolis to settle down and get married.

“Back in 1886 he started his Wild West show, his wife and all six of his kids hibernated in Cambridge City each winter and left in the spring at the call of tanbark and sawdust. He even has someone teach his whole family how to play various musical instruments so they could form a band. They opened that year in Raleigh, N.C. and it was a huge success. The last years of the shows Buckskin had full blooded Indians in the shows.”

I am grateful to Butch Kennedy for the loan of the pamphlet and to all the readers who share their knowledge with me.

Decatur County resident Pat Smith may be contacted via this publication at news@greensburgdailynews.com.