Friday, May 16, 2014

"Billy the Bear" Iaeger -- a Chadron legend

by Larry Miller
Louis John "Fred" Iaeger
"Billy the Bear"

Cow puncher, horse trader, riverboat captain, sea-going sailor and one-time secretary and friend to the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody.   Add to that Postmaster and Police Judge, and you’ve hit a few of the high points in the life of  “Billy the Bear” Iaeger, one of Chadron’s most famous citizens of yesteryear.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1856, Louis John Frederick Iaeger would become one of the “prosperous and prominent citizens of Dawes county, Nebraska.” Young Iaeger was just five years old after his father died in an accident; then his mother died the following year.  So, “at the tender age of six was sent, via Central America, to California, where he was raised by his father’s brother in Yuma, California….

The Iaeger story is chronicled within a book of biographies entitled Reminiscence and Biography of Western Nebraska.  It is utterly fascinating.  Stories told between the covers of this publication – and other similar biographical books from that era – are likely to generate a bit of skepticism among many readers.  As with many of today’s paid newspaper obituaries, those old biographies were sometimes penned by a family member.  It was not uncommon for subjects to submit their own manuscript, which was “smoothed over” by an editor.

A young "Billy the Bear" Iaeger
Nonetheless, those publications often have become valuable, particularly if there are few or no other documents or “paper trails” left by the subject.

Fortunately, in Iaeger’s instance, there are numerous other sources that share tidbits of his many pursuits – and they all piece together a story about a fellow who truly  had a remarkable life.  From making a “wagon full of money  to becoming penniless, his was a life filled with adventure – and many challenges.

He gained theatrical experience on stage at the San Francisco Opera House in the 1870's, which led to an engagement with the Buffalo Bill Combination Company as it toured California.  He portrayed a bear in the play "Red Right Hand."  That successful tour also branded Iaeger with a new nickname:  Billy the Bear.

After transitioning to ranching, Iaeger found himself hop-scotching to several locations in the heartland -- including Wyoming.  It was as the result of  the horrendous Wyoming Blizzard  of 1883 that he lost his feet and fingers.  After recuperating at the hospital in Laramie – and then outfitted with artificial limbs – Iaeger settled in Chadron. Again, his list of accomplishments began to grow, despite his “infirmities.”  

Iaeger (left) with Sheriff James Dahlman
For all of his many endeavors, perhaps Iaeger is best remembered for helping organize the famous Chadron to Chicago Cowboy Race  in 1893. But we think his earlier dramatic experience may have led to an association with one of the earliest film dramas about the legendary Wild Bill Hickok.  It was filmed near Chadron.  While we've not yet seen documentation that supports that contention, we do know that his son, Richard, played a role in the early film.  The story of “Billy the Bear” Iaeger and his many diverse experiences is, indeed, mesmerizing. 

While we don't pretend to have great knowledge of the Iaeger family genealogy, we believe a few folks around Chadron will remember long-time educator and one-time county sheriff, Jim Butler.  Our sources indicate that Butler married Madeline Iaeger -- a 1935 graduate of CHS who was Billy the Bear's granddaughter -- before the onset of World War II.  She died of pneumonia in 1943.   

Another Chadron family -- the Kindigs -- also had ties to the Iager's.  Karen (Kindig) Schlais tells us that her mother's sister, Elizabeth Larsen, was married to Richard Iaeger.  He was the younger son of "Billy the Bear."

If you want to learn more about Louis J. F. Iaeger, a good place to start is Reminiscence and Biography of Western Nebraska, published in 1909 by the Alden Publishing Company of Chicago.