The historical marker outside Dodge City, Kansas, sums it up like this: "Dodge City: The Cowboy Capital. For ten years this was the largest cattle market in the world and for fifteen it was the wildest town on the American frontier. Established with the coming of the Santa Fe in 1872, Dodge City became the shipping center of the Southwest. The hunters who exterminated the buffalo here marketed several million dollars worth of hides and meat. Hundreds of wagon trains carried supplies to Western towns and army posts. By 1875 most cattle trails led to Dodge; in 1884 Texas drovers alone brought 106 herds numbering 300,000 head. As a rendezous for hunters, trappers, cowboys, soldiers, railroad builders, bullwhackers, Indians, saloon keepers, dance hall girls, thugs and gamblers, the town became notorious for vice and violence. Some victims were buried on Boot Hill. Eventually law was enforced by such 'two-gun marshals' as Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Bill Tilghman. Near Dodge City are sites of old Fort Mann and Fort Atkinson. The Santa Fe Trail, which they were established to protect, may still be traced on the near-by prairie." Ed's Cafe, Shattuck, Kansas
We were quite impressed with the Santa Fe Trail overlook. The wagons moved four abreast, to keep the drivers from swallowing too much dust, and the ruts must have been several feet deep at the time, because even now, more than a century later, the indentations are a foot below the level of the surrounding prairie. You can see the trail disappear into the distance, the ruts marked by a slightly different angle of the blades of grass. Perhaps in another century the rains and prairie winds will have washed away the last vestiges of the wagon ruts. The overlook is about 8 miles west of Dodge on Highway 50.
Whereas the Garden City Museum was free, Boot Hill is a Dodge City Tourist Attraction, complete with a replica of the old Dodge City the way it used to look, with saloons, newspaper office, jail, drug store, etc., and staged gunfights and musical shows in the summer. They are located near the real estate of the original Boot Hill, but the bodies are no longer there.
Western Historians are faced with a difficult problem, because so much has been invented and embellished. The newspapers of the time were full of exaggerations, not to mention local boosterism, as each town competed for homesteaders and business. Despite these difficulties, the diligent historian can sift through courthouse records and family histories to put together a credible version of what actually happened.
There's no doubt that at the end of the nineteenth century Dodge City businessmen elected to keep the cattlemen returning, to suffer the drunken rowdiness after the drovers were paid off, in the name of profits for the railhead town. Today Dodge City, like Garden City, is a prosperous cattle feeding center, but the emphasis of the Convention and Visitors Bureau is on their main attraction, Boot Hill. We felt it looked too plastic, and gave it Praying cowboy a pass. We did take the self-guided drive, and were most interested by a beautiful house with 22-inch thick walls of stone. The builder, a German immigrant bootmaker named John Mueller, came from St. Louis, and soon owned a saloon and three cattle ranches. But he lost 75,000 head of cattle in the great blizzard of 1886, and returned to bootmaking. After two fires on Front Street, Mueller sold out and returned to St. Louis.
We admired the statue of El Capitan, a longhorn "lead steer." But who would want to follow a leader that's taking you to be slaughtered?
Continuing south, we passed through the towns of Rosston, Laverne, Shattuck, Arnett, Roll, and Cheyenne, Oklahoma, and were quite struck with the relative economic malaise, especially after the prosperous beef feeding centers of Kansas. It seemed that close to half of the stores and businesses were boarded up or falling down; in some towns we didn't even see a grocery. There was a banner across the road boasting that Jayne Jayroe, Miss America 1967, came from Laverne. And we enjoyed lunch at Ed's Cafe in Shattuck, a tired old wood frame building with a good cook and lots of customers.
There were two more sights worth reporting. One is a local form of silhouette attached at ground level to the side of a barn or house. A cowboy is down on one knee, facing a cross, his horse standing quietly behind him. The first time we saw it we thought it was supposed to depict a cowboy praying at the grave of a lost comrade, but maybe it's just supposed to be an abstract symbol of the Christian cowboy. Perhaps one of a readers is more familiar with this building decoration, which is evidently being sold in the area.
We're kicking ourselves for not photographing the next one, but we didn't think of it until later. There was a field surrounded by a fence with a gate, and on top of six or seven of the fence posts near the gate were mounted fish heads -- possibly having been first dipped in something to preserve them. They were good size heads, roughly triangular in shape, about six inches on a side, facing upward. We should have gone closer to investigate, but Prairie dog we didn't. Oh well.
The prairie southeast of the Oklahoma panhandle is largely flat, but there are lovely stretches of low hills and river valleys. The soil is red and clayey. This is oil country. The farms on the flat land grow beans, corn, grain and cotton.
We realize that our preference for quiet back roads means that we'll take our chances on finding motels and restaurants along the way. Elk City, Oklahoma, has a good half dozen motels but only a couple of eating places. We gave a pass to the National U.S. 66 Museum, since (a) we've been many places on "Old US 66," (b) we've been to several other Route 66 museums (not to mention a fair number of Route 66 50's-style diners); and (c) this one seemed to have a lot of replicas of 1890s western wooden storefronts, looking exactly like the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City. Instead we wandered up and down Main Street, trying to keep our footing in the gusty wind, and picked up a couple of plastic glasses in the Dollar General. Cheap thrills. In Elk City, the most common stores are clothing stores, manicure parlors, and pawn shops.
Way in the back of the pool hall in Elk City sat a table full of men. Since the sign read, Pool, Snooker, and Dominoes, we can only assume that they were engaged in a vigorous game of dominoes. These Oklahoma guys!!
South and east of Elk City, we drove through more prairie, where alfalfa just sprouting was a brilliant green against the darker, newly plowed fields. Unexpectedly, mountains appeared to the south, rising a thousand feet or so above the plains. Yesterday's winds had blown the air clear and comfortable, and we drove with the windows down.
As we turned on to the scenic highway through the Wichita Mountains, we noticed autumn color, the first we've seen since leaving California. Most trees are now bare, but there are enough red and yellow leaves to make lovely views. In the National Wildlife Refuge, we stopped to snap buffalo, prairie dogs and a couple of longhorn cattle. The new Visitor Center had lots of wildlife displays and a video which showed the rangers rounding up buffalo by helicopter and then auctioning off the excess animals to keep the herd from overgrazing the Refuge. The auction is "the big social event of the season". Some of the animals are subsequently slaughtered by Native American buyers for ceremonial purposes, including dancing around wearing buffalo heads. It Fall color, Oklahoma seems like an elaborate process; good thing the Federal Government doesn't have to keep accounts like businesses. We took the road to the top of Mount Scott, which had pretty views of the surrounding countryside, but no explanatory signs.
After the Civil War, the Army moved west, and Fort Sill dates from those times. We stopped at the old quadrangle, which has been turned into a museum. We could have entered any of the buildings around the parade ground, but the exhibits in the first building, called the Visitor Center, were so disappointing that we didn't bother. Nor did the gift store impress us. It's a National Historic Landmark, so perhaps two or more agencies fund the operation. We hope they get a good historian and museum curator to dress up this museum to modern standards. Perhaps the tight security on entering the base has kept tourists away. But the fence could readily be relocated to put the old quadrangle outside the perimeter.
We admired the old houses and the horse drawn wagon -- perhaps practicing for military funerals -- but did not drive back to the cemetery to view Geronimo's grave. We also took a look at Atomic Annie -- a powerful gun capable of firing nuclear rounds. The nearby town of Lawton provided catfish for lunch.
The falls of Wichita Falls was only about five feet high to begin with, but got washed away by a flood in the nineteenth century. Probably to minimize the jokes, the city fathers ordered a decorative new waterfall built in 1987, so highway travelers can see it on their way through. The hotels were sold out this weekend to accommodate The Thespians, a convention of high school drama students, so we won't stay a second night here.