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Out of the dust, the Wild West Conservator restoring 1878 Jamestown ad

They don't make billboards like they did in 1878. Just ask Laura Schell.

It took the Lockport paper conservator months to restore, step by painstaking step, one segment of a historic billboard heralding an appearance by the legendary William "Buffalo Bill" Cody on March 14 of that year in Jamestown's Allen Opera House.

Hidden for over a century behind a brick facade at Third and Pine streets, the 26-by-10-foot sign was uncovered when the wall gave way in 2002.

The part Schell completed, featuring the life-size likeness of John Young Nelson, an authentic frontiersman who became part of Buffalo Bill's barnstorming theater troupe, was unveiled Friday in the Reg Lenna Civic Center, where the work eventually will be displayed. .

The center believes it is the oldest restored billboard in the United States, which pioneered outdoor advertising.

"It went up right around the time billboards came into use," said Executive Director David Schein.

The difficulty for Schell is that the advertisement was printed on ephemera, or paper, pasted onto wood sheeting. In other words, not meant to last.

"It survived because fairly soon afterward, it was covered by the brick, which protected it from the elements all these years," said Schell, a graduate of the Buffalo State College's art conservation program.

To be sure, the brightly colored ad has suffered indignities. Whoever laid the brick slopped mortar on it. And at some later point, a fire in the building left a coating of soot and oozing glue.

By the time Schell started working on it, under a grant from the Save America's Treasures program, the work "was very degraded -- extremely brittle," she said.

The first figure to emerge from the tatters, Nelson, was more than the actor who traveled with Cody for years, first in theater productions like the one that visited Jamestown and later in Buffalo Bill's famous rodeo shows.

Nelson was a scout and cavalryman who married a Lakota Sioux and spoke the language. He is depicted in fringed buckskin, with handlebar mustache and raccoon hat and holding a rifle -- all faithful to the Wild West stereotype.

The restored image, with Nelson's Sioux name -- ChaShaShaOPogeo -- emblazoned across the bottom of the 6 1/2 -by-3 1/2 -foot panel, pleased 10 relatives who came for the unveiling, including granddaughter Marirose Morris, a folk art specialist with the Wyoming Arts Council in Cheyenne.

Through their traveling shows, Wild Bill, Kit Carson and others "created the myth of the Wild West" -- a romantic story that was usually at odds with history -- Schein pointed out.

The show Buffalo Bill put on in Jamestown, on the site of what is now the Lenna Center, was a melodrama based on the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, a dark episode in which 137 settlers traveling by wagon train through southern Utah were attacked by Mormons and Indians. After surrendering, 120 of them were murdered, including women and children.

The central figure in the yet-to-be repaired part of the billboard is Cody himself -- on horseback, long hair flowing, rifle waving. Schell hopes to finish piecing it together by June.


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