Classic Westerns like Gunsmoke, Bat Masterson, Maverick, and even the feature film Dodge City celebrate Kansas’s Western history. With folklore stars such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, “Doc” Holliday, and Buffalo Bill Cody spending time there, it’s easy to see why Kansas enjoys being part of the Wild West. From buffalo hunts near Oakley to bringing in the herd in Wichita, Kansas invites people to put on their best Stetson and cowboy boots and travel back in time to an era when a cowboy’s best friend was his horse and the trail his home.
1. Mosey Through A Living History Museum In Old Cowtown
The dirt street and storefronts set the stage -- you’re in a cow town. In fact, it’s early Wichita, the Kansas city that marked the end of the Chisholm Trail. Herding longhorn cattle from deep in the heart of Texas to the plains of Kansas, the cowboys driving the herds looked forward to a little downtime at the end of the trail. Maybe enjoying a drink or two and a place to relax and clean up, cowboys celebrated the successful completion of a cattle drive. Today, Old Cowtown serves as a tribute to and reminder of Kansas’s early days as part of the Wild West.
With more than 50 buildings, the living history museum brings to life a Western town whose history spanned nearly 20 years, from the 1860s through the late 1870s. Complete with a saloon featuring dance hall girls, a barkeep, and all the sarsaparilla you can buy, volunteers dress in authentic outfits and act the role they’re portraying. You can find a blacksmith hard at work in the local blacksmith building. The marshal’s office is also home to the local jail. Old Cowtown’s main street includes a land office, a hotel, and more.
The oldest home in Wichita -- a log cabin built by Darius Munger -- is located in Old Cowtown. Built in 1868, it was originally located near 9th Street and the Little Arkansas River. The first home owned in Kansas by an African American family also calls the living history museum home. Wesley Hodge, a blacksmith, built the wood-frame house in 1876.
Old Cowtown celebrates Wichita’s Western history throughout the year with a number of special events, such as a Victorian Christmas in December, gunfight reenactments April through October, and stagecoach rides throughout the summer season. Bring your camera and plan to spend an hour or two reliving the Wild West in Old Cowtown.
2. Visit The Place Where Buffalo Bill Got His Nickname
You likely grew up learning about Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show in school. Buffalo Bill lived an interesting life, working as an army scout, Pony Express rider, and actor. But before he launched his entertainment franchise in Nebraska, he was known as a buffalo hunter. Working with the Kansas Pacific Railroad, William F. Cody was considered a sharp buffalo hunter. With some calling him Buffalo Bill, he entertained through his hunting skills. Using a 50-caliber rifle, he could ride up next to a buffalo (technically an American bison) and put the animal down with a single shot. Meanwhile, William Comstock -- the other “Buffalo Bill” -- was also enjoying success as a buffalo hunter, providing meat for soldiers at Fort Wallace.
In a contest to determine who deserved to be called the “real” Buffalo Bill, the men took on a challenge to see who could bring in the most buffaloes in one day. The winner would be known as Buffalo Bill, the loser, just Bill. Just west of Oakley, Cody gained the famous nickname that day by a 69 to 46 margin. Can you imagine the William F. Cody Wild West Show?
Oakley honors the legend of Buffalo Bill Cody with a museum at the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center just south of Interstate 70. You can see a replica of Lucretia, his rifle. Outside the visitors center is one of the most popular art pieces in Kansas -- Buffalo Bill riding next to a buffalo, preparing to take it down.
While in the Oakley area, take a drive to Monument Rocks, a unique natural landmark about 35 minutes southeast of town. Once part of a prehistoric sea that enveloped Kansas, the chalk bed created spires and mounds standing tall over the plains. Located on private farmland, people are invited to drive the gravel road to visit the monument. While you’re walking around the attraction, you may see cattle roaming about the area.
3. Explore The Dalton Gang Hideout In Meade
Deep in the heart of Kansas, about three hours west of Wichita, you can visit the Dalton Gang hideout. Eva Dalton and her husband John N. Whipple bought a small home in Meade, where they lived for a number of years. In the meantime, Eva’s brothers -- Bob, Grat, and Emmet -- better known as the Dalton Gang, ran around the state robbing banks and trains. As their reputations grew, the brothers would hide from the law and posses searching for them. Legend has it that the brothers had a hideout at their sister’s home. While never confirmed, a 95-foot-long underground tunnel ran from the house to a barn. It’s said the gang used the tunnel to hide from the law.
Today, you can tour the home and museum, which is housed in the barn. With Dalton Gang and Western artifacts on display in a museum on the top floor of the barn, visitors can learn about the gang’s story. On the first floor, you can enter the tunnel and experience what it may have been like for the Dalton Gang to travel along the tunnel to the house. As you tour the home, imagine what it may have been like for the gang to join the Whipples for dinner before having to retreat to the tunnel to hide from marshals and bounty hunters. Though the Dalton Gang’s run ended in Coffeyville when they unsuccessfully attempted to pull off two bank robberies at the same time, people still enjoy visiting the Meade hideout.
Following your tour, check out the Old West town in Meade and Heritage House, which was built in 1900 and is furnished as it would have been in the early 20th century.
4. Relive The Days Of A Cowboy In Dodge City
Made world-famous by the television series Gunsmoke, Dodge City embraces its cowboy past. With a statue of James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon standing in front of the visitors center to greet you, it’s the perfect spot to begin a walking tour of town. The city’s Trail of Fame recognizes celebrities and locals for their contribution to the city’s success. From sidewalk markers -- known as medallions -- honoring people, such as the cast of Gunsmoke and actor Dennis Hopper, a Dodge City native, to light-pole art recognizing significant events, you can learn about the area’s history. Sculptures also pay tribute to important Dodge City historical figures including Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Stop by the visitors center and pick up a walking tour guide, which showcases the area’s attractions.
The Boot Hill Museum features Western town storefronts, museum artifacts, and memorabilia. As you stroll along the wooden walkway, stop in the Long Branch Saloon for a cold sarsaparilla and catch a stage show. You can watch cowboys settle their disagreements with daily shootouts during summer months.
5. Ride The Last Stagecoach In Operation On The Santa Fe Trail
With a working farm as its backdrop, you can enjoy a stagecoach ride on the last working stagecoach on the Santa Fe Trail in Olathe. With a barn and stable for horses, a blacksmith shop where farmworkers create pieces to be used on the farm, and a small garden where crops such as corn are grown, the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm Historic Site provides a realistic look at life in the late 1800s. Tour the house, which is furnished as it was during the stagecoach era and includes a working kitchen where stagecoach passengers would stretch their legs and enjoy a home-cooked meal.
Before visiting the farm and taking a stagecoach ride around the area, stop at the visitors center and tour the museum’s displays recognizing the Mahaffie family and life in Kansas during the era.
Kansas offers a variety of attractions to explore and relive the Wild West. Enjoy the nostalgia of your youth, when playing cowboy was common and you may have watched old Westerns with your parents or friends. Knowing that you can visit spots such as Dodge City and Old Cowtown, you may find yourself buying a new cowboy hat and a pair of boots to wear while strolling around town.
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