Dodge City, Kansas: Relive the Wild West in the Wickedest Little City in the West
As America moved westward, the Wild West had a unique culture. Unlike eastern parts of the country where law prevailed, vast stretches of sparsely populated land relied on one marshal to enforce the law. Legends grew around some like Wyatt Earp. Television’s longest running Western show, Gunsmoke, showcased that culture. There’s a place you can visit to understand that lifestyle, Dodge City, Kansas, known as the Wickedest Little City in the West.
Boot Hill Distillery
Naturally, the Wild West had its share of whiskey. The city and the whiskey began around the same time. In the spring of 1872, George M. Hoover strapped a load of whiskey barrels into his wagon and rode out five miles to the edge of Fort Dodge’s reservation. He set up a tent, tossed a board atop two posts for a bar. There’s a video of him telling his story at Boot Hill Museum. Boot Hill Distillery continues the legend of Dodge City, Kansas with its dedication to locally sourced handcrafted spirits.
The Distillery has an interesting history. It sits atop a hill that was formerly the Boot Hill Cemetery–a place where the less-desirable or people from out of town were buried. Locals were buried at Fort Dodge at that time. In 1878, 60 graves were moved to the municipal cemetery and the Third Ward schoolhouse was erected on the grounds where it stood until 1927. In 1929, the multi-room schoolhouse was replaced by a Spanish style Municipal Building where it housed a multitude of city offices, from city hall to marshal’s office and jail.
By 2001, the building was empty and in poor shape. It was on the verge of being demolished when the distillery came in and renovated. As you tour, the distillery remnants of its former use are still present. One example is the vodka distiller that is much taller than whiskey distillers. It is in the firefighter’s hose closet where they hung hoses to dry after a fire. Looking way up the shaft, you can still see the hose hooks. You can see for yourself. Tours are on Friday and Saturday at 4PM and 6PM.
There’s a touch of real old west history on the Distillery’s front lawn. There’s a statue of a cowboy. The inscription reads “On the ashes of my campfire, this city is built.” The statue was created in 1929 by dentist O.H. Simpson as a monument to the cowboy. He used Dodge City lawman, Joe Sughrue, as a live model. The casting using cement over the marshal’s body almost proved fatal, as the straw he was breathing through got pinched. Fortunately, it got caught in time and Sughrue survived. He was the son of an earlier Dodge City lawman. His father, Patrick Henry Sughrue, emigrated from Ireland as a child and became Ford County sheriff in 1884.
Boot Hill Museum
A statue of John Henry “Doc” Holliday sits at a Long Branch Saloon table in front of Boot Hill Museum. You can grab one of the empty chairs and join him. The Trail of Fame around the historic district has statues of both real Old West characters, like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, and Gunsmoke’s James Arness as Matt Dillon.
The Boot Hill Museum does a great job of showcasing accurate history with over 60,000 objects, photographs, and documents. There’s a reconstruction of historic Front Street with the old Dodge City Jail, a blacksmith shop, an old schoolhouse, the beautifully maintained home of the Hardesty family and so much more.
One of the reconstructed buildings on the museum’s Front Street is the aforementioned Long Branch Saloon. The original Saloon was built in 1874 under the ownership of William Harris and Chalkley McArtor “Chalk” Beeson, a well-known businessman, lawman, cattleman and musician. Harris named it after his hometown of Long Branch, New Jersey. The Saloon burned down in 1885.
The reconstruction of Long Branch Saloon was guided by period photographs of the original building including the interior that includes an 1881 bar with two Golden Eagles.
In Gunsmoke, Marshal Dillon, his deputies, Chester and Festus, often met there with Miss Kitty nearby. Unlike the characters in Gunsmoke, Long Branch Saloon was a real-life place.
Marshal Dillon was loosely based on real-life Dodge City lawman, Wyatt Earp. The Boot Hill Museum shows a more accurate image of Earp in its exhibit “Lawmen and Outlaws.” One placard explains, “there was a fine line between lawmen and outlaws. They were smart, fearless, and skilled with a gun. They killed, gambled, and consorted with ‘fast’ women, all while changing the course of frontier justice.”
In the course of his career, Earp was charged with running a brothel and theft, before being appointed assistant marshal of Dodge City in 1876.
Likewise, the character of Miss Kitty may have been inspired by a real-life saloon singer who died tragically. Gunslinger Slim Kennedy shot her while she was staying at the home of the local mayor, probably her lover. Kennedy was trying to kill the mayor in revenge for a gunfight they had at a local saloon. The museum tells her story with pictures, placards, and a realistic video where she tells about her life in Dodge City, Kansas. The book, Dodge City: Up Through a Century in Stories and Pictures describes her, “Dora Hand, a singer in the variety theaters of the West under the name Fannie Keenan, was the tragic victim of an assassin’s bullet meant for the mayor of Dodge City, Dog Kelley. A performer in the Comique and Variety theaters in Dodge City, Kansas, she was known as a ‘prepossessing woman [whose] artful winning ways brought many admirers within her smiles and blandishments.’’’ Does that sound a lot like Miss Kitty?
Like the show Gunsmoke, Dodge City, Kansas had lots of gunfights in its early days so every day at noon and 6:30pm, the museum stages a gunfight. The one I saw had the marshal and his deputies confront a bunch of rowdy cattlemen coming into town armed and ready for trouble. It was well done and even had a couple of women fighters engage in a catfight. The blows looked real, as did the shots. After the fight, all the “dead” fighters get up and interact with the audience.
Their variety show brings in a touch of Gunsmoke with Miss Kitty and some of her girls performing. It is now held in the newly renovated Great Western Hotel, an original wood-frame structure moved to the site from the other side of the Santa Fe Railroad tracks. (You see the depot and an engine right in front as you enter the museum.) The show features “Charkley Beeson” as the owner of Long Branch. They serve you a tasty western-style meal before the show begins. Miss Kitty and other characters interact with the audience for a fantastic show. It ends with the traditional can-can dance by the saloon girls.
Whether you are a history buff or a Gunsmoke fan, you’ll love Dodge City.
COVER: Dodge City cowboys and girls heading towards the gunfight. Photo: Kathleen Walls
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Kathleen Walls, former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, GA, is publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. She is the author of several travel books including Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways, Finding Florida’s Phantoms, Hosts With Ghosts, and Wild About Florida series. Kathleen’s articles have appeared in Family Motor Coaching Association Magazine, Food Wine Travel Magazine, Weekender Extended, Travel World International, Tours4Mobile and others. She is a photographer with many of her original photographs appearing in her travel ezine, American Roads, as well as other publications. Her fiction includes Last Step, which was made into a feature movie of the same name by Forbes Productions, Kudzu, Under A Bloody Flag and Under A Black Flag.