Robert Kennicott Commentary: Making Friends With the Elephants and Thrilling to the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show


One good thing about living where I did was that the circus unloaded right outside our back gate. One bit of extra noise on the track and I was dressed and out, leaving the family safely asleep in their beds. The elephant car is where I stationed myself with my shirt and pockets filled with windfall apples. I walked up and down the line making the elephants find and get apples out of my clothes. They were very clever at this and we made quite a game of it, much to the delight of the mahout (a person who rides and tends to an elephant).

I never had brains enough to be afraid of a strange elephant and never did they give me reason to. When the show was over and they were loading again at night, I was there again with pockets and shirt filled with apples and greeted like a lost friend!

In one circus there was a huge she-elephant who had fallen in love with a Shetland pony. To keep the elephant content while they were being transported, they had built a heavy crib of 2X4’s in one corner of the elephant car directly in front of the she-elephant. When I was handing out apples, she gave hers to the pony. Then I gave one to her and the pony simultaneously and proceeded on up the line handing out apples to the other elephants. I had one left which I safely hid in the back of my shirt.

When I returned to the she-elephant, she reached out her trunk to me. I held out my two empty hands and sadly shook my head. Quick as a flash, her trunk went inside my shirt, around the back, grabbing the apple and sticking it in her mouth. Her eyes sparkled! I threw my arms around her trunk and laughed like crazy. Even the mahout chuckled.

All of a sudden it struck me. How amazing that an elephant and two humans, none of which could understand each others’ language, could all share the same joke. It was one of life’s wonderful moments. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on her back with her holding my foot so I wouldn’t fall off. In one swift movement of her trunk she had swept me off my feet and placed me there. And there I sat, the King of the World, until it was time to load the elephants back onto the circus train and leave town.

A Visit With Buffalo Bill

My father was as big a circus buff as I was. When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to Chehalis, he insisted on taking me to the show in spite of my mother’s heated protestations that it was coarse and completely unsuited to my tender sensibilities.

It was a one-tent show, full of action and noise––strictly a cowboy and Indian affair. There were Indian attacks on stagecoaches, trick riding and trick roping and stagecoach races, all dust and action and tumult!

The most thrilling of all was the performance of Buffalo Bill on his beautiful Palomino. He came in at full gallop and swinging under the horse’s belly, shot into a shiny metal sheet. At the end of the tent he tossed his empty 30-30 rifle to a man who threw a full rifle back to him. He reversed and came back again at full speed and shot under the horse’s belly again. After two or three swipes at full gallop, the metal plate revealed the perfect picture of an Indian’s head with two feathers as a headdress––all drawn with bullet holes. I will never forget the thrill.

At the conclusion of the show, Buffalo Bill rode up to a half barrel filled with water, swept off his light colored ten-gallon hat, filled it with water from the tank, gave the horse a drink and then drank from the hat himself. That brought down the house.

When the show was over, Dad took me by the hand and led me into the ring where Buffalo Bill Cody still stood by his horse. My father complemented Bill Cody on the show after introducing himself and me. Bill Cody was a tall leathery person with dark skin and flowing white hair, beard and mustache. What I remember most were his piercing eyes. I don’t remember much of the conversation because I was too busy petting his horse’s nose. What a big day in the life of a country boy!


Next week: The joys and tragedies of living along the railroad tracks.


Robert Kennicott was born in Chehalis in 1904. During the Great Depression he bought 120 acres above town on what is now known as Kennicott Hill, later expanding his holdings to 587 acres on which he raised hogs, sheep and cattle. Before he died in 1990, he gave his memoirs to Jan Pierson, an author who spent 25 years living in Chehalis. She has compiled Kennicott’s stories into a new book, “Prohibition, Prostitution and Presbyterian Pews,” which is being published this autumn. For more information visit