Living the Cowboy Way in Kansas
Dodge City: Horseplay that sells
On my quest to try the Cowboy Way, Kansas offers an obvious starting point. In the 1870s, cowpokes pushed millions of Texas longhorns to railheads at Abilene, Ellsworth and Dodge City -- Queen of the Cow Towns. "Home on the Range" is Kansas' state song, and Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and Doc Holliday all became famous here.
First stop on my dusty ride: Dodge City, the most famous cowboy ground in Kansas, perhaps all of America. At the Old Boot Hill Museum, I park among the tourists' minivans and RVs and wander a re-created stretch of Old West buildings (left). Gunfire crackles at scheduled times as faux gunhands throw down in front of the Long Branch while saloon girls dance inside.
There's no escaping that the place is a monument to spectacularly bad behavior revolving around liquor, gambling and gunplay -- a legacy that towns like Dodge City once discarded like photos from college parties.
"When the cattle trails ended, the towns didn't want their children and grandchildren to know they had a role in that sort of thing," says Jim Gray, an Ellsworth cowboy historian. They put up streetlamps, built schools and tried to plow under the wild oats. Wichita's Old Cowtown Museum focuses on this more civilized era, with reenactors filling shops and polite, old-fashioned baseball games. But just when the cow towns' old-timers died off, Hollywood came along, unleashing a stream of "Gunsmoke"-loving tourists who still pour into Dodge City, looking for the horseplay that always sells.