Nov 7, 2013

Stealing history in Dodge City

Before Ken, Christine and I departed Dodge City on the last leg of our road trip, we decided to take a few minute to explore the Boot Hill Museum and Historic Front Street near downtown.  A few minutes turned into a few hours, as we were quite literally drawn into the multitude of fascinating exhibits and the journey you go on back in time to a recreated Front Street as it existed in 1876. 

The journey actually began quite innocently at the Museum Store, a gift shop marking the entrance to Boot Hill.  Its exterior has looks like the reconstructed Great Western Hotel, which appropriate also serves as a gateway to the Front Street portion of the museum. 

As I recall, Ken and I were browsing in the gift shop when Christine approached us and told us that a movie explaining the history of Dodge City was about to start in the little theater near the end of the gift shop.  Without thinking any more about it, we went into the room and sat down. 

The movie was hokey, but fun, and after you watched a Ken Curtis (aka “Festus”) lookalike tell his story on a washed out projector screen (seriously, this room looked like your dad’s basement movie theater from the 1980s), you were instructed to exit to the left to continue the tour at the jail and Boot Hill.  The subtle difference between going left and exiting back to the gift shop became much more apparent to us later, and if you don’t already know why, you will at the end of this post. 

Boot Hill is, literally, the hill which served as a makeshift cemetery for six years as Dodge City earned its Old West and outlaw reputation.  And climbing to the entrance of the cemetery affords you a nice glimpse of the rest of Front Street.

Looking out at Front Street, on our way to Boot Hill 

Boot Hill to the left, museum ahead
Just before you get to the cemetery, you pass a recreation of what a jail cell was like for troublemakers back in the day.

It was definitely a place Christine did not want to go back in time to experience. 

The fake wife employs "sad face" to get out of jail.
Here it is. The actual boot Hill, Dodge City version at least. 

Not very large at all, really.

And it borders your average present-day neighborhood behind it.

After reading all of the markers and wondering how accurate they still were (allegedly some bodies are still buried here), the tour continues with the actual exhibits inside the Boot Hill Museum.  And if you like Old West history, you could spend all day here.  You’ll see and hear narrated exhibits on everything from the lives of Native Americans and the near-extinction of the buffalo (the vibrating floor simulating a buffalo herd was especially cool) to the history of Dodge City right up to its last U.S. Marshall’s station in town. 

After an hour in what I considered the main museum building, we moved down to Front Street, expecting to make a quick walk through and move on.  But a stop at the Long Branch Saloon changed those plans. 

It was still only 9:30 a.m., so while we were still much too early for the daily cancan show of staged gunfights, the bartender was already busy polishing his pistol, and the piano player was already tuning up.  

Where are the cancan girls?
So, we did what any self-respecting lover of Old West history would do … belly up to the bar and order a drink.

Yes, it is a fully functional bar.  And yes, Coors at 9:30 a.m. somehow seems appropriate in Dodge City.  And as an aside, the bartender was incredibly entertaining and informative.  He told us a lot about the history of the saloon and the city, the connections to the classic TV show “Gunsmoke” and his job as a bartender/re-enactor.  The guy truly loved his job, and it showed!  We couldn't leave there without purchasing Long Branch Saloon beer glasses as souvenirs.

Many of the remaining storefronts were just that – fronts for more museum exhibits related to the type of business they represented.  The permanent collection of “Guns That Won The West,” including how each gun was used and who used them, was a favorite of mine …

… as was the exhibit devoted to the “ladies of the evening” who did quite a profitable business out of brothels like the Long Branch in Dodge City.  I’m not sure how someone known as “Big Emma” or “Squirrel Tooth Alice” could be so successful in that profession, though.

Our last major stop, near the far end of the Front Street exhibit, was the schoolhouse.  As a teacher, Christine couldn't resist checking it out.  I was surprised to discover there several interesting displays on education during the time period, as well as the history of Kansas (including, appropriately, the Supreme Court case “Brown vs. the Board of Education”) and many of the state’s more famous citizens right up to present-day.  And because I was finished checking out the exhibits before Christine, I was told to sit, behave and guard the beer glasses.   

I was always well-behaved in school.
After touring the schoolhouse, we returned to the museum store, browsed briefly and used the facilities in preparation for the start of a long day’s drive back home.  Now, I still contend it was only after we left did Christine mention seeing a board listing admission fees for the museum and other scheduled activities on our return trip through the gift shop.  Maybe we should have done something at that point, but we huddled in the parking lot and decided that since we purchased items there anyway, we had kind of done our part to support history.  So, I drove casually onto the highway, and off we went. 

And that’s how we quite unintentionally and inadvertently stole history before we got the hell out of Dodge.  

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