For decades travelers on U.S. Highway 65 have been reminded they are motoring through Buffalo, Missouri by an eye-catching, neon-outlined Buffalo Motel sign. This county seat of about three thousand got its name – one might guess – from a pioneer encounter with a bison. This is a forested region that once had strips of prairie, buffalo habitat, which were kept free of trees by fires started by the Osage Indians. By the time America acquired these lands the Osages had eliminated such big game in western Missouri and were pursuing these beasts hundreds of miles into western prairies. There might have been a few stragglers, but the big herds had long been gone from this region.
A credible account of the origins of the town’s name is on the website of the City of Buffalo. Mark Reynolds of Tennessee, it states, was the first white settler. “Mr. Reynolds found a stake on one of the Blue Mounds that had been left there earlier by some unknown traveler and he placed the nearby skull of a buffalo on that stake. Hence the name, Buffalo Head Prairie.”
Wikipedia has another explanation. “Buffalo was laid out in 1854 by Joseph F. Miles. It was named after Miles’ birthplace at Buffalo, New York.”
When the Buffalo Inn & Suites was built it too used a more abstracted buffalo on its sign. Obviously the citizens believed the genesis of its name had something to do with the hulking prairie animal.
This August, coming back from a trip to document an alleged abandoned cemetery on the shores of Truman Reservoir, we turned into a new flea market parking lot and discovered a small herd of buffalo had rumbled into town. On the side of a long, corrugated metal building, under a purple and magenta radioactive sky, were seven buffalos in various tranquil poses. The tufts of grass sticking through the gravel of the parking lot looked like an overgrazed buffalo prairie. The mural spoke to Crystal. While the senior photographer with the heavy, detachable lens Nikon went inside to futilely look through stalls of crafts and garage sale merchandise she took a series of shots with her little Sony camera. These images would later prove that the one with the most expensive camera doesn’t always grasp the photogenic potential of a given built environment.
Crystal also photographed a billboard that depicted a buffalo for Buffalo Prairie Dentist, “Smiles above the rest. Welcome to Buffalo,” at the entrance to the flea market parking lot. The bold mural was signed “Susan Owensby, June 2014.” The Buffalo dental billboard looked new too.
What’s with all this embrace of buffalos, we wondered. We’ve been driving through Buffalo for more than twenty years and were not aware of the current fad of buffalo branding. The next weekend we drove back and found the town had indeed gone buffalo crazy.
We’ll cover this in Part Two of the Buffalos of Buffalo.
Click on any image below for a gallery of Crystal’s Buffalo mural photographs.