"I'll be home for Christmas, You can count on me, Please have snow and buffalo..."
Of course, that's not how Bing Crosby sang the tune. But it's a request that South Dakota has nonetheless honored in the Capitol Rotunda this year.
It's perhaps not so surprising that the tallest tree in the building – and grown in the state of South Dakota – is adorned with a stuffed buffalo head.
But it was a series of events starting 200 years ago that led one particular buffalo head to wind up perched amongst the boughs of a 27-and-a-half-foot Colorado blue spruce.
The tale involves a Supreme Court justice, a state human resources commissioner, a mayor's spouse, the former CEO of a concrete company...and Buffy.
The nickname for the stuffed head is "not clever" concedes Jim Mollison, former CEO of South Dakota Concrete Products Co. He was Buffy's first owner. The animal was named by his office staff, he told the Capital Journal. For the roughly 18 years that Buffy watched over the business from his office wall, Mollison's staff would typically decorate him for Christmas – with Santa hats and the like.
As stuffed buffalo heads go, Mollison said Buffy is a particularly nice one: "He's a good-looking buffalo. It's a handsome mount." That comes from a combination of the animal's inherent good looks and the taxidermist's skill, he said.
About the buffalo's nickname, Mollison's friend Ron Schreiner told the Capital Journal that he'd suggested years ago a moniker along the lines of "E.F. Hutton." When Mollison would stand up from his desk, Buffy's nose would be right in Mollison's ear, Schreiner explained. So his suggested nickname was a play on the financial firm's advertising slogan at the time, "When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen."
But Schreiner didn't exactly have naming rights – even though he's the man who shot the animal.
Schreiner told the Capital Journal the story of how he came to take down one of the state-owned buffaloes in the Black Hills back in 1984. At the time Schreiner was an administrator with the South Dakota Department of Transportation. The annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (ASHTO) was to be held that year in Rapid City.
With around 1,000 people from across the country expected to attend, state officials wanted to serve a home-grown menu. Pheasant was an easy choice. Anything else? They settled on buffalo.
His initial inquiries with other state officials – about serving one of the state-owned bison for the ASHTO convention – were rebuffed, he said. He kept at it, reminding people that reciprocity was useful on a variety of projects. It turns out, Schreiner said, that buffaloes, like desks and chairs and file cabinets, all get inventoried. And one of the animals had not made it onto the official rolls.
Buffy was unaccounted for in the official tally, Schreiner said. To reconcile the inventory numbers, it was decided to round down the extra buffalo.
There were a couple of other guys involved in the negotiation, Schreiner said, and they flipped a coin for the right to take it down. He won. Another toss determined who would keep the trophy and the hide – presumably on calls of heads and tails.
While he’s an avid outdoorsman Schreiner did not own a buffalo gun. So he borrowed a 7mm Remington Magnum rifle. Describing the event to the Capital Journal, he said, "It wasn't a wild and woolly chase," but also stressed that it didn't take place in a feedlot. The animal went down on one shot, the animal went down, Schreiner said.
It had been naive, Schreiner allowed, to think that a single buffalo would feed 1,000 people. So the chefs prepared several different kinds of hors d'oeuvres. "He was really, really tasty," Schreiner said.
Although Mollison was Buffy's first owner, he's not the current one. That honor belongs to Mollison's friend, Steven Zinter, who serves as an associate justice on South Dakota's Supreme Court.
Zinter told the Capital Journal that in the general timeframe of his appointment to the Supreme Court, Mollison gave him Buffy. When Mollison retired from the concrete company, he took Buffy with him, but his wife didn't want Buffy hung on a wall of their house, Mollison said. So Buffy stayed in the basement for a couple of years.
He and Mollison would tease each other, Zinter said, as hunters will do, about their spouses not allowing them to hang big game mounts on the walls. And after he was appointed to the court, it was apparent that his new office had a suitable spot for Buffy – above the huge fireplace.
Zinter described how fireplaces in the offices of justices were part of the original Capitol construction, ornate wood and marble structures – but the chimneys have now been capped off.
Visitors who come into the office immediately notice Buffy, Zinter said, and typically ask to have a photograph taken of themselves with the buffalo.
Why did Buffy make a short trip from Zinter's office to the Capitol Christmas tree? It's a Fort Pierre connection.
Two centuries ago, just across the Missouri River from where the state Capitol now sits, Fort Pierre was settled. Fort Pierre's bicentennial celebration has lasted this whole year, highlighted by a weekend of events in September.
Fort Pierre's bicentennial earned it the privilege of decorating the tallest tree at the Capitol, according to Dawn Hill, co-chair of Christmas at the Capitol.
Buffaloes are tightly connected to Fort Pierre historically – the city is just south of where Scotty Philip, remembered as the "Man who saved the Buffalo," set up a pasture for a small herd of the last remaining bison in 1901. So it's not surprising that Fort Pierre would want to infuse its decorations with a buffalo theme.
Schreiner, who took Buffy down, is married to Fort Pierre's mayor, Gloria Hanson – but that's not the direct connection that put Buffy on the tree. The direct relationship was through Zinter.
Zinter is also a Fort Pierre resident. And he's married to Sandy Zinter, a retired state human resources commissioner who's serving on the Fort Pierre committee tasked with decorating the tree.
In the Capitol Rotunda a spotlight is aimed upward at the stuffed buffalo head from under its chin. And Buffy is clearly basking in the glow.