Invoking a Transient Past in the City of the Plains

On a dry summer night, over five hundred local residents left their homes to stare at their beloved Great Plains Theater, engulfed in flames. The fiery performance filled the sky with smoke and evoked tears from those who had grown up with this historic landmark. Despite numerous efforts, firefighters could do nothing to save the building. The roof collapsed within an hour of the first sign of smoke. By morning, all but the east wall had been destroyed. The date was July 23, 2014.

Abilene, Kansas is not known for its Great Plains Theater. Its true draw is Dwight D. Eisenhower. Abilene was his hometown, leaving such a personal impact on him that he chose to be buried there. Today, the modest chapel in which he rests with his wife Mamie and three-year old son Icky is just one of several buildings that comprise the Presidential Center. Eisenhower’s Presidential Library, Museum, Boyhood Home, and a Visitor Center round out a 21-acre site in the town’s southeast quarter, labeled the 5-Star Museum District.

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The Presidential Center is not the only place that displays Eisenhower’s legacy. His image adorns all facets of the town. From street signs and street art to smaller markers and monuments, Abilene is branded by this man. And deservedly so. Despite a decreasing population, Abilene is doing well for itself as a tourist-historic town. Kansans come to pay homage to their golden son, venerated for leading the successful crusade against Nazi tyranny and waging peace for eight years as the world descended into cold war. But there is one thing missing in this picture: the West.

From C.W. Parker’s carousels to Dr. A.B. Seelye’s noxious Wasa-Tusa medicine, Abilene has a multi-dimensional past. Its former status as the “wickedest town on earth” played no small part. A confluence of westward expansion, industrial revolution, a struggling postwar economy, and consumer demand for beef all led to Abilene’s sudden rise to prominence as the West’s first true cowtown. From 1867 to 1871, approximately 1.2 million cattle were driven from Texas to Abilene. The rapidity with which this newly created town rose to fame, however, was met with an equally swift diminution in importance. The town’s short stint at fame was reflected in the hordes of cowboys’ “get rich quick” lifestyles that, in many ways, led to the town’s downfall. By the time young Eisenhower moved to Abilene from Denison, Texas in 1892, the town’s wild side had moved on, leaving only legends and lore that flowed with the tumble weed across the plains.

Joe McCoy, circa 1867

Joe McCoy, circa 1867

How did the Wild West legacy fare in future generations? With difficulty. Following the Civil War, Texas cattle ranchers faced a struggling cattle market. Joseph McCoy, an Illinois stockman with knowledge of the rising demand for beef in the east, constructed stockyards in Abilene along the Kansas Pacific Railway (now Union Pacific) to facilitate a more mobile cattle trade by rail. In addition to the stockyards, McCoy built a bank and the hotel Drovers Cottage, “whereat the southern drover and northern buyer would meet upon an equal footing, and both be undisturbed by mobs or swindling thieves.” Drovers traveled northward from Texas via the Chisholm Trail, a previously blazed Confederate supply route that provided ample grazing opportunities for cattle and protection from conflicts with Kansas homesteaders.

Trails are hard sites to memorialize. On top of a Heritage Center in Duncan, Oklahoma, and a Heritage Museum (opened in 2013) in Cuero, Texas–some 730 miles to the south of Abilene–there are 400 trail posts scattered across the Chisholm Trail. Abilene, the first historic terminus, is graced with a small marker and a small stone monument. It is hard to suggest doing more for this historic route. And yet, a visitor to Abilene with no previous knowledge of the trail would have a hard time even learning of its existence, let alone Abilene’s premiere importance in its history.

With the cattle came crime. Drovers driving cattle north to Abilene relied exclusively upon the success of their mission for their pay. A successful enterprise meant getting a lump sum of cash in a small town in which to spend it, and spend it they did. After the 1871 season, cowboy Lake Porter left Abilene for Texas with a suit of clothes, a pair of boots, and $2.50. Three months of labor would render approximately $500; Porter had worked five. Vice and violence also accompanied excessive, rapid spending. Gambling, prostitution, and drinking were staples of the cowboys’ brief high-rolling lifestyle.

James Butler Hickok - Wild Bill

James Butler Hickok – Wild Bill

One man hired to reign in these grievances was the notorious James Butler Hickok, known colloquially as Wild Bill. As marshal, Hickok dueled the crooked gambler Phil Coe, whom the Texans had elected to kill Wild Bill. Taking a shot that grazed his ribs, Hickok downed his opponent with two shots to the abdomen. Wild Bill was also known to pay for the funeral expenses of those he felled. In his personal memoirs, George Armstrong Custer remarked, “Not only to send a fellow mortal out of the world, but to pay the expenses of the transit.” “What could be more thoughtful than this?” Hickok’s morality, one of the many reasons young Eisenhower found a hero in the marshal, only increased his stature on the frontier.

The prevalence of vice did not float well with locals, who saw that the cattle trade benefited primarily outsiders–Texans–who invaded their town, introduced crime, and got out of dodge with what riches they had left. Sympathetic municipal leaders, who rather suspiciously held careers in land speculation, sided with the locals by combining the moral issue of vice with the economic debate between farming and cattle trade. Local farmers despised the cattle, which they feared would trample upon their crops (barbed wire did not yet exist). When a brothel was erected next to a schoolhouse, the debate reached a new extreme. Mayor McCoy–ever the defender of the Texans’ lifestyle, as he saw it indelibly tied to the cattle trade he so supported–sought to remedy the situation by physically separating the divergent lifestyles. McCoy’s Addition, as the southeast district below the railroad tracks came to be known, housed the less noble pursuits of the cowboys, while the gentrified north lived more respectably. Theophilus Little, a contemporary lumberman, claimed that “money and whiskey flowed like water down hill and youth and beauty and womanhood and manhood were wrecked and damned in that Valley of Perdition.”

Thus was born Abilene’s societal divide, geographically separated by the railroad tracks. North of the tracks, you were in Kansas; south of the tracks, you were in Texas. The Eisenhowers, a family of humble beginnings, lived on the south side–the “wrong side of the tracks.” Ike was not permitted to socialize with the more “respectable” beings north of the tracks. Today the town’s lifeblood, the Presidential Center, sits in the town’s southeast quadrant. Political campaign buttons have replace prostitutes, and diplomatic gifts have replaced gambling tables. This irony should not be lost on the contemporary visitor, but how does one bring to life the story of McCoy’s Addition, which fell into obscurity when its patronage left with the cattle?

Various debates on herd laws ended when the municipal leaders formulated a circular, signed by 366 residents and all Dickinson County officials, formally discouraging Texans from bringing cattle to Abilene for the 1872 season. Politically, opposition was paramount from the start. As early as February 26, 1867, certain “political bummers and played-out adventurers”–as McCoy called them–passed the Texas Cattle Prohibitory Law, ensuring that “Ellsworth [was] the only point at which such cattle could be legally driven.” Although this initial legal opposition proved ineffective, the moral dilemma and subsequent public backing through the circular finally drove the nail in Abilene’s coffin. When this did happen, the town of Ellsworth became a major hub some sixty miles to the west.

It was not just the cattle that moved west. In early 1872, Moses B. George, then owner and manager of Drovers Cottage, moved to Ellsworth. There, he erected a hotel to accommodate the new influx of cowboys. He named the hotel Drovers Cottage, having physically taken a portion of his Abilene hotel with him. George sold the remaining portion, with only thirty of its preexisting one-hundred rooms, to a previous owner who renamed it the Cottage House. The building that came to define an era had literally moved on.

drovers cottage 2

Drovers Cottage

The brevity of Wild West-era buildings, as evidenced by the unique situation of Drovers Cottage, is another factor in the present difficulty to remember Abilene’s Wild West heritage. Time too will always take its toll. Apart from the Great Plains Theater, itself a relic of the late nineteenth century, Abilene residents lost the Kirby House to flames on February 20, 2013. Built in 1885, this Victorian-era home turned restaurant was erected on the original site of Joe McCoy’s home. History is a fickle thing.

What Abilene now faces is not the fear of a forgotten past, but a golden opportunity to revitalize an episode of history that has not been given its due. Today, tourists can visit ‘Old Town Abilene’, a recreated Wild West-era village contained on a plot of land just south of the Presidential Center. Here, one can experience a Main Street gunfight or see Can Can girls dancing in the Alamo Saloon. Despite its earnest attempt to bring alive a frontier texture, the spatially forced atmosphere feels contrived. Inserting our memory of the Wild West era back into its proper place within the town’s urban fabric would help authenticate its existence.

Although remembering the Wild West has proved difficult, it did not simply lay down to die. It imbued its raw character and its frontier verve in America’s collective memory, its imagination, and particularly in one of its chosen sons. After all, Eisenhower stated that, “The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.” Having seen the world, resided on a farm next to America’s greatest battlefield, and waged peace on a global scale, Ike chose his small hometown as his final resting place. In doing so, he breathed new life into the town. By hanging the town’s hat on Ike’s legacy, local leaders have given themselves the opportunity to resuscitate the memory of the town Eisenhower knew. The cattle trade and its array of players all contributed to an undercurrent that, though but memories during his youth, left an indelible impact on Eisenhower’s character. The town that made him was not one with his face plastered on street signs, but a town made of these legends.

Given the transience of frontier life, Abilene’s cowtown heritage has operated in the collective memory more as myth than as history. The frontier is by nature temporary, so striving to bring it “back to life” and make it “permanent” must be viewed with its own level of contrivance. Still, it is a historic episode that deserves telling, and we must create practical ways to educate and inspire future generations with engaging history. ‘Old Town Abilene’ is a step in the right direction, but it should not stop there. With the tourist dollars coming in, perhaps with time we will see a rebuilt Drovers Cottage, a rebuilt Great Plains Theater, cowboy reenactors walking through the town’s streets, and Abilene’s complex heritage pumping on all cylinders. Its spirit is timeless.

chisholm trail

The Chisholm Trail

Examining animals in a historical context your thing? Click here to see how a proposed U.S. camel corps fared in the American Southwest! Or, click here to read about an avian invasion in NYC!

Sources:

Joseph G. McCoy, Historic Sketches of the Cattle Trade of the West and Southwest, ed. Ralph P. Bieber, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1966, reprint.

Karen De Bres, “Cowtowns or Cathedral precincts? Two models for contemporary urban tourism,” in Area,vol. 26, no. 1 (1994): 57-67.

Robert Dykstra, “The Last Days of ‘Texan’ Abilene: A Study in Community Conflict on the Farmer’s Frontier,” in Agricultural History, vol. 34, no. 3 (Jul. 1960): 107-119.

Robert Dykstra, “Wild Bill Hickok in Abilene,” in Journal of the Central Mississippi Valley American Studies Association, vol. 2, no. 2 [Kansas Centennial Issue] (Fall 1961): 20-48.

 Samantha Anderson, “Abilene residents miss the Kirby House,” KWCH 12 Eyewitness News, February 26, 2013. 

Tim Horan, “Abilene theater burns,” Salina Journal, July 24, 2014.

Tiffany Roney and Ron Preston, “Abilene loses historic landmark,” Abilene-RC.com, July 23, 2014.

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2 thoughts on “Invoking a Transient Past in the City of the Plains

  1. Pingback: Strangers in a Strange Land: Hi Jolly and the U.S. Camel Corps | The History Bandits

  2. Pingback: Screwmen, Spidermen, and Cotton’s Gilded-Age Gargantua | The History Bandits

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