VALPARAISO — Valparaiso apparently was, once upon a time, home to its own purveyor of alternative facts.
“Broncho John” Harrington Sullivan, a larger-than-life resident of Valparaiso for more than 60 years, was known for his tall tales, many of which could not be verified throughout the years.
Yet what can be verified is that Valparaiso’s perhaps most colorful resident was a friend to animals and Native Americans and rubbed elbows with Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane and the 19th century’s well-known western artist Frederic Remington.
The Porter County Museum officially opened a refurbished exhibit honoring Broncho John on Saturday with a room full of artifacts and photos and a presentation about one of the area’s biggest personalities by museum board member Helen Arvidson.
Arvidson said that while Sullivan was most well-known as a cowboy and showman, he was also a businessman, a patriot, a writer, a husband, a father, and a friend to many personalities of the time.
Sullivan, born in 1859 in Providence, Rhode Island, became a scout in the Western United States as a teen and spent three months in the Grand Canyon with Remington, known for his paintings and sculptures of the West, particularly cowboys, Native Americans and the U.S. Calvary.
Sullivan came to be regarded for animal handling and care taking skills, so much so that Buffalo Bill Cody invited Sullivan to be a part of his Wild West show in 1884. Sullivan eventually joined William Frank “Doc” Carver and his traveling Wild West show, but when the spectacle went bankrupt in 1884, Sullivan helped the show’s Native Americans return to their homes in the West after being stranded in Valparaiso.
Sullivan would eventually return to Valparaiso to marry and raise a family, but not before he started his own show in 1888, which performed at fairs and carnivals across the country.
In 1898, Sullivan served in the Spanish-American War on the USS Mohawk, which transported men and livestock to Cuba and the Philippines.
Sullivan was married in 1897 and fathered two sons — Clarence and John, who became known as “Texas Jack,” a cowboy in his own right. In 1903, Sullivan’s wife divorced him. He lived in Valparaiso until his death in 1951.
Sullivan was known for his tall tales, many of which could not be proven or disproven. He claimed to own the largest buffalo hide in the world, said he was unconscious for six days after falling from a horse in a Wild West show and “saved” Buffalo Bill’s wife from being injured by a buffalo.
Sullivan was said to have had a pet bear named Uno and a pet eagle named Abe at or near his home in Valparaiso on Erie Street.
Arvidson read letters written to Sullivan by Calamity Jane, who asked Sullivan for money because she was “dead broke” and another from Annie Oakley’s husband asking to borrow or rent one of his stagecoaches.
Over the years, Sullivan acquired several stagecoaches, and the museum hopes to display two of them in the near future.
“He was a cowboy, but there is more to him,” Arvidson said. “He didn’t just pass through here, but was involved in the county for 65 years — a long, long time.”