Spinning the golden threads.

Buffalo draw: White buffalo a top draw for county tourism

First published February 2, 1995

Copyright by Neal White and Beloit Daily News By Neal White, City Editor

JANESVILLE - Rock County's tourism industry has received a boost from the stampede of visitors coming to see the white buffalo.

"By our best estimate, we've had over 50,000 visitors in 1994 coming to see the calf. It has made an impact on the economy," said Elizabeth Sorn, visitor attraction coordinator with Forward Janesville.

The white buffalo, considered extremely rare by bison experts, was born Aug. 20 on David and Valerie Heider's farm in rural Janesville. Public tours were allowed through November, when the Heiders closed for the winter. They plan on resuming operations April 15.

Even though the calf has turned a darker color, it hasn't deterred public interest, especially from the Native Americans who consider the calf holy. Sorn said Forward Janesville doesn't actively market the white buffalo because of contractual obligations, although it has become one of the county's hottest attractions.

"When I'm at trade shows, that's always the first question I'm asked. More people know about the white buffalo than GM or the Rotary Gardens," Sorn said. "We were getting 40 calls a day through November and we're still getting calls on a daily basis." In addition to helping make hotel reservations and provide restaurant information, Sorn said her office compiles newspaper articles on the calf and mails them out to prospective visitors.

Because the calf's birth was unexpected, Sorn said her office hasn't had time to monitor the exact impact it has made.

"It happened and boom, we felt it. The phone started ringing and people wanted information," Sorn said. "We haven't done a study, but I know that every weekend last summer our volunteers had a hard time finding walk-in hotel accommodations because all the hotels were full."

Sorn said GM transfers and the Jehovah's Witnesses convention accounted for some of the bookings, but Janesville hotel managers were reporting many of their guests were here to see the buffalo.

"The white buffalo did have an impact, we can't deny that," she added. Ruth Calson, publisher of the Rock County Tourism Guide, reported similar results.

"In talking to advertisers for the tourism guide, restaurant and hotel managers have told me their businesses have gone up 20 percent or more since August. Certainly they are attributing a portion of that to the white buffalo," she said. Stan Jones, managing partner of the Holiday Inn Express in Janesville acknowledged his business has benefited from the white buffalo.

"It's remarkable. We've had groups as well as a number of individuals from all over the country and the world - all coming to see the buffalo. There is still a lot of curiosity," Jones added.

Two weeks ago, Jones said he accommodated a group of more than 100 Native Americans from San Diego who scheduled a special visitation with the Heiders. "It's quite remarkable and it's certainly good news for us."

Jones added his hotel has already accepted reservations from people planning to visit the calf this spring.

Carlson credits the buffalo for boosting attendance at other county attractions. Wisconsin Tourism Trends, published by the University of Wisconsin Extension Service, recently compared the fall seasons of 1994 and 1993. The Rock County Historical Society reported a 49 percent increase in visitors, while the Janesville Rotary Gardens reported a 14 percent increase, Carlson said. Based on inquiries to her office, Sorn said she expects the calf will continue to have an impact into the 1995 season.

"We are getting a lot of calls from groups wanting to see the buffalo," she said. "We recently received a call from a school in Pennsylvania wanting to bring 24,000 kids. If they come, that would be quite an impact."

Debra Goedert, president of the Rock County Tourism Council, said her organization is "aware and very supportive" of what the white buffalo has done for the county.

In order to help capitalize on the exposure, Goedert said the council is featuring the white buffalo on the cover of its 1995 tourism guide.

Several celebrities have also expressed interest in seeing the buffalo. Mrs. Heider said that country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, rock star Ted Nugent and actress Shirley MacClaine have made plans to visit the farm this summer. "This is really a trip because we don't advertise or anything. People just show up. We're closed for the winter and we still get people pulling into the driveway," Mrs. Heider said. "If we're getting this kind of response when we're closed, I don't want to think what it will be like when we open in April."

The Heiders do not charge admission for viewing, although donations are accepted.

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