9. DODGE CITY, KANSAS
The Queen of the Cowtowns, Dodge City, Kansas—population 28,500—boomed thanks to the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, but although the cattle drives ended by 1886, the cowtown legend lives on here.
The year 2009 proved to be a hardworking one for those toiling to keep the legend of Dodge City alive. The city commissioned a Heritage Master Plan that demonstrates its earnestness to correct its mistakes and move forward with its successes. The Kansas Chapter of the Great Western Trail Association was formed to assist in the preservation group’s work with the National Park Service to designate the western branch of the Chisholm Trail as a national trail. Most important, Dodge City has strong citizen advocacy through its numerous local preservation groups. And George Laughead Jr., president of the Ford County Historical Society, discovered an 1878-82 ledger book belonging to Dodge City that was up for auction while reading the blog of this magazine’s executive editor. He successfully worked with the FBI to get the book returned to the city, its rightful home.
Dodge City first appealed to buffalo hunters and traders in 1872, then Western legends Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson made the city notable, and finally Hollywood put it on the map, especially with Gunsmoke, the longest-running series in the history of television. The city has an ongoing project (mostly via volunteers) to commemorate some of its famous denizens via bronze medallions and sculptures throughout the historic district. You can already find out a lot about these figures on the Dodge City Trail of Fame that has as its centerpiece a larger-than-life bronze statue of Dodge City’s famous lawman Wyatt Earp.
The Historic Trolley Tours tie the cowtown past to the present by including stops at feed lots, the Santa Fe Railroad Depot and the National Beef Packing Plant. Even the Bank of America building pays homage to the past with murals of historic scenes of Dodge City by Stan Herd.
Area ranches, such as Moore Ranch, Cloud 9 Ranch and the 1884 Hawes Ranch, offer cattle drive experiences, as well as horseback pack trips and even buffalo hunts. And where else but Dodge City can you fly into the airport and find longhorn cattle grazing outside on prairie grass?
Dodge City has been on a forward path of success that makes us excited to see what the town will come up with next. In the 1990s, the Dodge City Convention & Visitors Bureau was instrumental in the historical marking and opening of Fort Dodge, which saw service from 1865-82. The Boot Hill Bed & Breakfast was designated a National Historic Site in 2008. That same year, the 125th anniversary of the Dodge City Peace Commission—which included Wyatt Earp—was celebrated. The Boot Hill Museum, on top of its yearly Adult Education series (with programs such as “Boots & Stetsons: The Kansas Cowboys” and “Plucky & Purty: Women on the Santa Fe Trail”), celebrated the 2009 restoration of the First Union Church with an old-fashioned ice cream social.
All of that is in addition to the long-standing attractions the city boasts: the original Boot Hill that inspired them all and the largest continuous stretch of clearly defined Santa Fe Trail ruts. Some of its unique annual events include a Bull Fry featuring the state delicacy of calf fries, summer concerts by the Dodge City Cowboy Band (in honor of the original band organized in 1881-82) and the 10-day heritage festival Dodge City Days. The town is home to 21 local landmarks and 11 National Historic Sites.
The peak years for Dodge was when Gunsmoke was big, in the 1950s-1970s. With all the work this heritage cowtown has done since then, Dodge City deserves recognition as a top True Western town. So folks, ignore the age-old axiom; it’s time to “Get the heck into Dodge!”