Visitors flock to Janesville after birth of white buffalo
JANESVILLE—On the morning of Aug. 20, 1994, Dave Heider burst into his kitchen to tell his wife, Val, that a white buffalo calf had been born on their property.
They didn't know then that their lives had changed forever.
The birth of the female calf fulfilled the prophesies of the Lakota Sioux and heralded harmony among races.
The couple were told the birth of a white buffalo is about one in 10 million.
The birth made news around the world.
The Heiders' farmette, located along sleepy South River Road in the town of Rock, became a pilgrimage site for thousands of people from across the globe.
At least 40,000 people, about half of them Indians, viewed Miracle that first year. It was estimated her birth increased Rock County tourism by 22 percent. People continued coming even after her white coat turned a cinnamon color, and she had to be pointed out to visitors. The changing colors were part of the legend and prophecy.
South River Road turned into a parking lot as the town wrestled with crowd issues and rutted lawns. The town board changed the zoning so the Heiders, who ran a buffalo meat business, could build a structure to sell white buffalo memorabilia and create a museum.
“We didn't ask for the calf to be dumped on us,” Heider told town officials then. “There's been crowds of people, whether we want them or not. We need to learn how to deal with it the best we can.”
The couple did, graciously.
On Miracle's first birthday, Valerie recalled the first visitors to the farm in a newspaper article.
They were Indians from Black River Falls, and they asked permission to pray. They hoped the Heiders would participate.
“When you saw the respect they gave the calf and to us, it was like, 'Wow, this is really important,'” Valerie said then.
The couple took part in Indian ceremonies—although Dave declined some aspects, such as smoking pipes—and were inducted into the Sioux tribe. They traveled Europe for 31 days in 1995 and spoke 27 times in four different countries.
Rocker Ted Nugent and media magnate Ted Turner were among those who offered to buy the calf. But the couple never sold her, although Dave would later joke—or maybe not—that they should have taken the money and run. Talk show host David Letterman wanted to fly Miracle to New York for his late-night show. They met Billy Ray Cyrus and Travis Tritt and partied with Nugent at a New Year's Eve party in 1994.
“I think of all the people that I've met that have been here, I would say at the top of the list was the Dalai Lama and two Native American code talkers,” Heider said.
“They really impressed me.
“I have thrown out a few news media people, too,” he added.
Visitors continue to come today.
Heider estimates about 700 to 800 people have visited in the last three or four years, mostly Indians traveling through the area to say prayer offerings at Miracle's grave site.
“We've got a young lad from Boston, two couples from Ohio and one from Chicago who always make sure they're here on Miracle's birthday,” Heider said.
They continue to get Christmas cards from around the world.
“It's really heartwarming,” Heider said, noting he had met most of the people only once.
The gift shop is still on the property, and people can still view Miracle, who is mounted inside.
The Heiders are working with the Rock County Historical Society to find a permanent display venue for Miracle and for the supportive materials, such as the gate and mementos left by visitors.
Looking back, Heider called Miracle's birth a double-edged sword.
Granted, the couple's lives were never really their own after that, he said. But Miracle also enriched their lives.
“We learned you can't turn people away,” Heider said. “Basically, it's their faith. You have to be gracious and show respect when you're asked to join in. It's an honor to be asked and an honor to participate.”
If he knew back on that day he burst into the kitchen what he knows now, “I probably would have played it the same way we did,” Heider said.
“We got to meet a lot of great people.”