A handful of Western towns are truly legendary, boasting a remarkable history and getting a huge boost from pop culture and media over the past century. You know the names—Tombstone, Lincoln, New Mexico.
The Queen of the Cowtowns attracted folks like the Earps, Doc Holliday, Clay Allison, Mysterious Dave Mather, Dave Rudabaugh, Charlie Siringo, Luke Short and Bill Tilghman. Who can forget the fictional Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke? For some, the 1950s’ TV?show is a first introduction to Dodge City’s Long Branch Saloon, Boot Hill and Front Street.
It’s hard to believe that town leaders tore down much of that history in 1970. The wrecking ball took out most of the old brick buildings on Front Street—all in the name of urban renewal (translated as a new convention center, which was never built, and more parking). What in the hell were they thinking?
Fortunately, townsfolk came to their senses and realized that tourism was a big boon for Dodge, and they began to preserve the heritage that still remained. The Old Dodge City Historic District—more or less centered on Wyatt Earp Boulevard—features Boot Hill, the 1897 Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Depot, the Carnegie library (now an arts center), St. Cornelius Episcopal Church (built 1898) and the Mueller-Schmidt House Museum, which dates back to 1881. Dodge City is home to 20 local historic landmarks, with 11 of those on the National Register. Restoration projects continue on several of those buildings.
A number of groups have spearheaded local preservation efforts. The Ford County Historical Society and Kansas Heritage Center both preserve documents, photos and artifacts; they also use their resources to tell the story of Dodge City’s history. The city’s Historic Landmark Commission raises funds to restore Old Dodge and works to gain historic designation for buildings. The Santa Fe Trail Association aims to save the heritage of that legendary route and to educate folks about its impact.
Organizations are willing to spend big bucks to make it all happen. If you toss in the museums, the convention and visitors bureau and Boot Hill, the operating budgets totaled nearly $4 million last year. That’s pretty sizeable for a town of 27,000.
So give credit where credit is due: Dodge City has made a nice comeback in the last 30-some years, and it’s headed in the right direction for the future. The citizens’ attitude and resilience earned Dodge City the distinction of being one of this year’s True Western Towns.