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'The Spirit of the Old West'

Saga of Indians and settlers on vivid display at Blackhawk Museum

An Indian saying goes: "We will be known forever by the tracks we leave."

Jerry Fick of Cody, Wyoming, now in his early 70s, remembers finding a jasper arrowhead in his yard in Pennsylvania when he was 7 years old, and he has been accumulating Indian "tracks" ever since.

"My mother was a collector," Fick said, noting that she was half Lenape Indian, which helped spur their interest in Native American artifacts. "My first museum was my parents' basement and my room."

Over the years Fick's collection grew and grew, housed first in Pennsylvania and for the last 25 years in Cody at his Tecumseh's Trading Post on the Yellowstone Highway, which drew thousands of visitors.

Then last year, Blackhawk's Ken Behring -- an enthusiast of the American West as well as antique cars, opening museums, distributing wheelchairs around the world, and real estate development -- swept into town, checked out the collection, and made Fick an offer.

Fick was on hand last week for the Blackhawk Museum's grand opening of "The Spirit of the Old West," a permanent exhibit that showcases the American westward expansion from the early 1700s through the early 1900s. It includes the experiences of the High Plains Indians and the early Western trappers, explorers and pioneers as the two civilizations met -- one hungry for land, and the other unable to comprehend how one could own land any more than he could own the air.

A massive mounted Plains buffalo welcomes visitors inside the gallery, and a display titled, "Buffalo: Sustenance of Life," explains his integral part in the life of the American Indian.

Behind it spreads a sprawling diorama of miniatures, which Fick began while in his teens. The topographical table has more than 60 scenes with thousands of little figures, some carved by Fick himself, depicting the history of the American West beginning with early Native American life and continuing with the arrival of the white man.

To the left of the entrance, life-sized dioramas feature mounted wildlife, including a moose, grizzly bears, wolverines, mountain goats, elk and beavers. An authentic tipi has seating in front in anticipation of presentations to school children.

Nearby are eagle feather headdresses, buckskin clothing as well as that made from traded cloth, cradle boards, and vast information about Indians across the U.S. Necklaces show beads interspersed with claws from bears, mountain lions, wolverines and elk's teeth.

"All of the artifacts are authentic, and some are extraordinarily rare," said Executive Director Timothy McGrane.

Many of the game in the exhibit are now protected species, he noted, and U.S. Fish and Game representatives checked out the display to make sure nothing had been procured illegally.

The other side of the gallery is devoted to the American settlers, including a California trail exhibit with a covered wagon and a display of barbed wire noting that its invention in 1874 changed the West.

A video airs actual footage of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, which toured all over America and Europe during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Buffalo Bill Cody, who served as an Army private and later Chief of Scouts for the Fifth Cavalry, earned his nickname by killing more than 4,000 buffalo in 18 months to supply Kansas railroad workers with meat after the Civil War.

Throughout the opening weekend, Jerry Fick gave speeches that were videoed and will be available at the museum and on its website. Folks found Fick's talks fascinating and informative as he shared his love of history and knowledge gained not just from books -- as a boy he listened as old Indians he knew told their tales.

"I've always had an interest in early American history in general," Fick said. "I've always admired a lot of Indians. And my favorite white man was Daniel Boone; he was born five miles from where I was born, in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania. He was a good man, a Quaker."

"I still have a small personal collection in Cody, Wyoming," Fick said, adding that the display at the Blackhawk Museum meets all his expectations.

"I never thought in my wildest dreams that anything like this would happen, he said. "Until Mr. Behring came along, no one had been able to see the value in my collection. I am glad it has found such a wonderful home."

As visitors exit "The Spirit of the Old West," they look up and understand better the words engraved over the doorway: "We will be known forever by the tracks we leave."

Westward expansion

What: "The Spirit of the Old West"

Where: Blackhawk Automotive Museum, 3700 Blackhawk Plaza Circle, Danville

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday

Admission: $15 adults; $10 students, seniors and military veterans; free for children under 6 and active military; admission includes automotive exhibits

Information: Call 736-2280 or visit www.blackhawkmuseum.org

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