Carbon County Neighbor: Walking in the footsteps of Buffalo Bill

Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Thursday, February 13, 2020
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Photo by Eleanor Guerrero
Ruth Kern shares her diverse history with journalism as well as Buffalo Bill.

Ruth Kern, of Red Lodge, will be turning 92 soon. She reminisced about her days as a journalist back east, and in the early days of Cody, Wyoming. 

Kern was born in Cody in 1928, to Ernest and Effie Shaw. She grew up in Cody, and graduated Cody High in1946. She graduated in 1950, from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Accounting.

She came from a journalist family. Her father, Ernest Shaw, bought the Cody Enterprise from Carolyn Lockhart who had bought the paper from its founder, Buffalo Bill (who founded it with Col. John Peake in 1899). The Kerns would walk in many of Buffalo Bill’s steps around Cody. Her sister, Margaret “Peg” Shaw Coe had also worked at the paper. 

Her mother promoted early Cody and even the early Buffalo Bill Museum, first located at what is now the Visitor’s Center before moving to its current location. “Cody was just a little town. It was a development. People bought land and had set up a development. It was good for Cody. She was on the museum board of the Museum.”  

“I was working as accountant at Pahaska Tepee in 1952, when I met Don,” recalled Kern about her husband. Her sister Peg (Margaret Coe and husband Henry H.R, Coe) had bought the lodge. The former hunting lodge was built by Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody at the end of the 19th century. Buffalo Bill often visited the area hunting in the 1880’s. About 20 years later he returned to the area and was involved in the development of Yellowstone’s East Entrance.

 “Don was a seasonal ranger at East Gate.” 

They had a lot of fun hiking at lunchtimes up behind the geysers at Mammoth Springs. They married and had four children, three boys and a girl. 

They were married on Dec. 6, 1952, in Cody, and made their first home that winter at the Ranger Station in West Yellowstone. After their daughter Kathryn was born, Don left the Park Service to complete an engineering degree at Montana State College in Bozeman. In 1955, the family moved to Richland, Wash., where Don began a career with General Electric Company. Three sons were born there. 

 “We lived in Mass 1969 to 1973. I worked for the Lawrence /Eagle-Tribune. I think I am remembering the dates,” said Kern.

She recalled those years. “I worked for a newspaper mostly local stories all kinds, I even had to do theater reviews.” She reflects, “Politicians are not perfect, a lot of them are kind of crooked. I discovered things like that.” 

“We had a case about a water department.” She started to investigate. “Funny thing-no one cares about the water department. But this water department got really fishy. They kept digging new wells. We had good water, the majority of us had good water.” It appeared to her that they were piping water to the next town.

Her paper sent her over to the next town to investigate. “I put out letters seeking evidence, information,” said Kern. “But they closed it down.”

Asked how it happened she explained. “The Attorney General of the State shut me down.” 

She still finds it all unbelievable. “It’s so crazy you can’t believe it! I was sure they were doing a lot of these things. We were sending water to the next town! They were profiting.” 

When told a few stories about corruption elsewhere Kern laughs and quickly responds with a story she heard. “There was a man in San Jose who exposed the CIA dealing drugs. He was found dead-by suicide-two shots to the head!”

She liked the reporting job because she could work at home. “I had teenagers. They never knew if I’d be home or not. I could keep track of them!" 

She still finds it amazing. “The State Attorney General called my editor and shut me down.” She muses, “I didn’t fight hard enough.”

The next year she and her family left the state and moved to Virginia for one year. “We lived in Lynchburg by the Thomas Road Baptist Church. Jerry Falwell Sr. was the founding pastor of the church. He also co-founded the Moral Majority in 1979,” an evangelical Christian political organization. The group dissolved in the 80’s. 

Locals told her about Falwell and the church and were shocked when she said, “No, I never heard of him!” she smiled. Kern “didn’t much care for Viriginia.” 

In 1975, Don came back West to manage Pahaska Tepee near the East Gate to Yellowstone. The family returned to her hometown of Cody, to the edge of Yellowstone National Park. The Pahaska lodge was the last lodge before the park. “I had a lot to do with the restaurant. I did the books. My husband managed it for four or five years.” In 1979, they moved back to Yellowstone. Don became employed by the National Park Service and he took an engineer’s job in Mammoth a year later. He and Kern lived there until retirement in 1990, when they moved to their home in Livingston. 

In Jan., 2004, they moved to Red Lodge to be near son Leland. The Kerns have four children: Katy (of Red Lodge), Leland (“Lee” owns and operates the Rocky Fork Juniper Gallery on Hwy 212, Red Lodge), Allen and Col. Richard Kern (ret.).

Kern’s own father died 1947; her mother died 1972. “We were in Massachusetts.” She reflected, “I was close to my parents growing up.” 

Asked about news reporting today she believes good investigative journalism is hard and is very expensive to do. As for social media she has no interest. She doesn’t believe that Russia is sending false messages and while she has no interest in censorship she believes ads should have to declare their finance source so people can judge for themselves. “I got on FB once,” she said, “but then got off.” Too many wanted to friend her. “I didn’t like it.”