As described in the Willie Nelson song “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”, I’ve had “things” for all-things ranching since an early age.
While other girls were playing with Barbies and wearing tutus, I spent my time tending a Breyer horse herd and clambering around in fringed cowboy boots. There was always only one thing I wanted to grow up to be: a cowgirl. Not a poufy hair rodeo queen cowgirl (I ended up doing that briefly, due to my need for scholarships), but a real-life, cowpoke with land, cattle, and horses to her name.
Hence, one of the first places I’d longed to see since we received orders to move to Kansas was the legendary Wild West town of Dodge City.
Situated along the Santa Fe Trail, Dodge City played a pivotal role in the western settlements, frontier military history, and agricultural development as it emerged as one of our nation’s largest meat processing centers.
It’s been the home to many figures of the American Old West including lawmen Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, gunfighter Doc Holliday, and even the fictional U.S. Marshal from Gunsmoke, Matt Dillon.
So one cold and snowy December day, we struck out on a road trip to the infamous Dodge City.
Exploring Historic Fort Larned
An hour northeast of Dodge City is a Kansas must-see – the historic Fort Larned. It’s one of the best-preserved frontier forts in America, with a pretty extensive restored campus consisting of barracks, warehouses, shops, officer housing, and a blockhouse.
The fort’s kind of out there (no restaurants, limited gas stations,…basically like all of western Kansas), however, it was well worth the drive, er, in our case, detour.
It’s quite a walk from the Fort Larned parking lot to the actual historic area, however, the walkway is paved and you can request transportation assistance. The Visitor’s Center was really informative, and the Park Rangers on site were quite helpful. We probably spent about four hours in total touring the historic buildings and learning about frontier life through the interactive exhibits. Being a former cavalry officer, my husband could have spent days exploring the ins and outs of Fort Larned. I think we found some career potential for his second retirement – living history interpreter at a military fort.
Driving through Spearville, Kansas
About 20 minutes out from Dodge City is another interesting Kansas special – Spearville.
Established in 2006, the 5,000 acre Kansas City Power & Light Spearville Wind Energy Facility generates enough electricity to power 33,000 homes. The wind turbines are over 260 feet tall and can be seen for miles.
I hadn’t done much research before striking out to Dodge City, so driving up on the wind farm was quite the interesting surprise. The tall wind turbines were really quite the sight, with their caution lights sprinkling across the horizon as the sunset. I could see how windmills could generate a not-so-awesome psychological response, like in Don Quixote (no jousting took place in Spearville).
There was an information kiosk that has some great information of the history and productivity of Spearville; it’s located at the intersection of the US Highway 50/56 (the old Santa Fe Trail) and County Road 126.
A Dodge City Adventure
Dodge City turned out to be everything I thought of when I thought of “cow town” – it’s literally just a semi-small town with a ton of cows.
When we arrived at the hotel, the clerk informed us we’d be staying in the same room that band members of Riders in the Sky had previously slept it (I had to some googling…Riders in the what?). Interesting claim to fame.
The Boot Hill Museum turned out to be a really interesting Dodge City attraction, with a partial reconstruction of historic downtown Dodge City, including a couple saloons, and some neat museum exhibits (lots of guns, bullet casings, and horse stuff).
Going through the living history portion was a like a Who’s Who of the Wild West. I liked learning more about Wyatt Earp’s life and unique career journey (lawman, miner, gambler, boxing referee, and the list goes on and on). Throughout history, Dodge City has maintained a reputation as the wildest town on the western frontier, and the Boot Hill Museum’s exhibits did a great job of portraying just that.
The Boot Hill Cemetery provided some interesting insight into frontier life, just over a 150 years ago. Makeshift graves, many without proper headstones, tell a tale of violence and sickness that plagued pioneers driving western expansion (also known as white people stealing land from Native American, slaughtering bison populations, and impressing their cultural views onto others through the use of unconstitutional imperialistic force).
Here are a few of cemetery burials that will provide more context to what life was like in Dodge City:
- Unknown Cowboy found hanging from a tree west of Dodge City
- M. Essington – a carpenter and part owner of the Essington Hotel shot by the cook
- Lizzie Palmer died from an infected scalp wound during a barroom brawl
- Five Buffalo Hunters whose frozen bodies were found north of Dodge City following a blizzard
- Charles “Texas” Hill – Killed in a dance hall by the Dodge City Vigilance Committee
My takeaway from the Boot Hill Museum and Cemetery was that the Wild West was really, really wild.
Our Southwestern Kansas Road Trip
Being cattle producers, my husband and I couldn’t leave Dodge City without stopping by El Capitan, a life-sized bronze sculpture of a Texas Longhorn steer placed in commemoration the cattle drives brought over 5 million head along the Western Trail from Texas to Dodge City. While railways and 18-wheelers have replaced the American Cowboy as preferred livestock transport, the overwhelming influence of agriculture-based interests continues to shape Dodge City today.
We couldn’t leave without taking a quick look at the stockyards – a place that we’ve sent many a steer to continue its lifecycle into food product. While the overlook isn’t exactly picturesque (not a place for family pics), it provides great perspective regarding the size and scope of the beef industry.
Last stop was the Santa Fe Trail Tracks – a testament to the thousands of people that journeyed this challenging 900-mile stretch between Independence, Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. More than 150 years later, you can still see the wagon tracks that served as a pioneering highway from 1821 until 1880.
If you’re interested in agriculture and military history, a weekend trip to Dodge City and the surrounding area may be worth exploring. It’s a fun trip, with lots of history, that’s guaranteed to change the way you view the story of the American West.