Kansas Cow Towns

Random gunfire, loud saloons and the notoriety of being the “wildest” town in the West once characterized a series of Kansas “cow towns” including Baxter Springs on Route 66. These cow towns were at the northern end of trails that cowboys used to drive herds of Texas longhorn cattle to the railroad depots for shipment east.

The idea of the “cow town” started as a solution to a marketing problem. In the 1860s, cattle ranchers in Texas faced difficulties getting their longhorn cattle to market in the east because homesteaders in Kansas and Missouri didn’t want the herds passing on their land. A Chicago livestock trader, Joseph G. McCoy, had a novel solution: Bring the cattlemen and the buyers together out on the plains, then send the cattle east by rail. He envisioned a great cattle “depot” adjacent to the railroad for easy shipment east.

McCoy selected Abilene, a cluster of about a dozen scattered log houses that had been a station on an overland stage line, because it was near enough to the railroad, but west of the homesteaders’ settlements. Once the Kansas Pacific railway line was extended in the spring of 1867, McCoy built a Drovers Cottage and the Great Western stockyards there. With the first drives of Texas cattle to Abilene, the sleepy little town was overrun with gunslinging cowboys, galloping horses and their lawless entourage.

An east-west street running parallel to the railroad and about a block south of it was named Texas street. The only other buildings north of the railroad and east of the creek were about twenty rambling frame structures, each containing from ten to fifteen rooms. These were the dance halls and the brothel houses that served the drovers, cowboys, gamblers, and gunmen who congregated during the drive season. The fanciest saloon, The Alamo, was housed in a long room with a forty-foot frontage. It had an entrance at either end, a bar with polished brass fixtures and rails, a large mirror reflecting brightly labelled bottles of liquor, and the entire floor space was filled with gaming tables. Badly rendered popular music, coarse voices, and laughter punctuated by gun shots spilled out onto Texas street at all hours.

The cow town was populated by an uneasy mix of year-round residents and transients. The small core of permanent residents included business men, small-scale cattle buyers and their families, and unmarried young men hoping to improve their fortunes by some legitimate means. These were the “respectable citizens” who loudly protested the violence and vices of the Texan cowboys. In the summers, the townsfolk were outnumbered as the population swelled with speculators, cattle buyers, cowboys, gamblers and prostitutes arriving with the first herds. Mysterious outlaws, sometimes only a few hours ahead of a posse, came and went at will.

At the top of the transient social hierarchy were the speculators, commission men and cattle buyers who spent their time inspecting newly arrived herds, readying them for shipment and negotiating with prospective buyers or sellers on the hotel veranda or at bar of a saloon.

Next on the social scale were the “drovers,” the men who owned the herds. Drovers came from disparate backgrounds and had very different ways of doing business:

Gentlemen: Some were aristocratic Southerners, former slave-owners, or sons of slave owners, who came north by river and rail ahead of their herds. They stayed in comfort at the Drovers Cottage, living a gentleman’s life of ease. Described as candid and outspoken, the “gentlemen” could be free-spending, but drove hard bargains with cattle buyers. They were basically honest in their business dealings.

Professional Cattlemen: Another group of drovers were quieter, unassuming cattleman of smaller means. Self-made men who ran their business fairly. Less inclined to avail themselves of the excesses available in town, they lived in a modest way — sometimes even accompanied by their wives.

The “Others”: The rest were shadier characters, often only operating for one season. Most had a “past,” whether legitimately as a successful cowboy, or otherwise, and some divulged very little about themselves. These were the “gun toters” who, by example, encouraged the regular cowboys in lawlessness.

The largest segment of the transient population were the common cowboys. And they were at the base of the profit-making enterprises, both legal and illegal, that kept the cow towns prosperous.

A cattle drive from Texas to Kansas took between thirty to sixty days on a trail characterized by dust and extreme heat, punctuated by storms and flash floods. Long days in the saddle, hard physical work, and sleeping unprotected outdoors in all kinds of weather made it a grueling test of endurance. When at trails’ end, the herd was sold, the men were paid, and “went to town.”

A typical cowboy arriving at the end of a northern drive, would start with some new clothes, fancy dress boots and maybe a Stetson “tengallon” hat. After a visit to the barber shop, he was ready to “unwind.” The cowtown institutions — saloons, gambling houses, dance halls, and brothels — thrived on his kind. Drunken cowboys were easy prey for the “purveyors of sin,” and often, within a week, a man would spend his entire salary.

But to the “law-abiding” citizens, it was the cowboys themselves who were the “problem” — getting drunk, quarreling over money or women, and all too frequently engaging in reckless gunplay in the center of town.

VISITING KANSAS COW TOWNS: In addition to Baxter Springs on Route 66, there are a number of other cow towns in Kansas that are worth a visit if you are interested in the history of cowboys and cattle drives:

  • Abilene – The Chisholm trail ends here. Wild Bill Hickok is one name from the past that resonates today his history can be found at Dickinson County Heritage Center or the PRCA rodeo that bears his name. A six-mile excursion train offered by the Smoky Valley Railroad Association presents an Iron Horse view of the area.
  • Caldwell – Known as the “Border Queen” because it was the first stop in Kansas after Indian Territory in Oklahoma. South of town, “Ghost Rider” silhouettes dramatically mark the Chisholm Trail as it enters Kansas. Historical markers through town tell the history of one of the most notorious cow towns on the Chisholm Trail. The Cherokee Strip Museum/Border Queen Museum features displays depicting pioneer life, the railroad, Cowboys, cattle, and the Cherokee Strip Land Run.
  • Dodge City – The longest running cattletown in Kansas. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson were just a few famous names that formed Dodge City’s reputation. Cattle is still a big business here, though now the cattle are driven to the stockyards by truck rather than by cowboys. The Dodge City Trolley visits the key historical sites and Boot Hill Museum features collections highlighting the cow town legacy. During the summer, demonstrations, stagecoach rides and the famous Long Branch Saloon Variety Show are all a part of the museum atmosphere.
  • Ellsworth – Proud of their cattle town history Ellsworth continues the tradition of the cowboy today. A historical walking tour highlights the past with seventeen interpretive signs, providing an overview of daily life in Ellsworth when Texas drovers paraded their wild Texas Longhorns through the streets. Historic downtown’s C & R Old West Trading Post is a step into the past with antiques, western wear, cowboy hats and boots. Become a Cowboy for a day at the JL Canyon Ranch, a real working ranch with cattle drives, trail rides, or just working around the ranch.
  • Newton – In 1872, as the western railhead it was known as the ”Bloody Newton, the wickedest town in the West.” Although cattle moved on as wheat was introduced to the area making it the “Breadbasket of the World.” Swales from over a million head of cattle are visible in Trails Park at Kauffman Museum. The Warkentin House Museum and Harvey County Historical Museum feature the story of the introduction of wheat to the region, as well as, railroad and Cowboy history. Unique works of Kansas artists can be found at the Carriage Factory Art Gallery. Highway 15 leading north from Newton follows the Chisholm Trail.
  • Wichita – Now the biggest city in Kansas, it was originally established as a trading post by Jesse Chisholm along his famous trail. Celebrate the city’s western heritage at the Old Cowtown Museum, an 1870’s living history museum. The Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum features a pictorial display of the Chisholm Trail. The Jesse James Museum is home to the only complete collection of never before seen Jesse James photographs, artifacts and documents. Sheplers is the world’s largest western wear store featuring a vast boot department.

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