Dodge City. The name conjures up thoughts of the Wild West, where a man’s best friends were his horse and his trusty six-shooter. Fresh off a hard trail’s ride, the first thing he sought was a shot of whatever cheap whiskey the barkeep had behind the counter, and then a little friendly attention from the ladies of the saloon.
Fast forward a hundred years, and Dodge City hangs on to those memories, sharing the days of yesteryear with visitors who want to relive that chapter of America’s history. While the cattle drives involve semis and packing plants, you can still find a good drink around the town.
Disagreements are still settled on the street with a shootout…at least as part of a daily show during the summer months. Boot Hill Museum, while open year-round, showcases the gunfights during the height of the tourist season. The museum, which uses Old West storefronts as part of its charm, will expand in 2020 to include a contemporary looking building that can hold thousands more historical artifacts and exhibits.
Fans of the television series “Gunsmoke” may recall Dodge City. Marshal Matt Dillon and his deputy Festus kept the western town safe from vermin and other ne’er-do-wells. The real Dodge City relishes the relationship it developed with the program. From James Arness as Matt Dillon to Kansas native Milburn Stone as “Doc,” the stars reciprocated that affection. Each of the series’ main cast and key supporting actors have been honored by the city along its Trail of Fame, with their images (and most, their handprints) emblazoned on the sidewalks around downtown.
Trail of Fame
Arness, Stone, Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty), Ken Curtis (Festus) and Burt Reynolds are among the cast honored. Buck Taylor, who portrayed Newly, became a regular visitor to the city for its summer festival. Dennis Weaver, who played Chester for nine seasons before leaving to become the lead on “McCloud,” was the first person inducted on the Trail of Fame.
A sculpture of Arness as Marshal Dillon stands outside the visitors center, welcoming people to Dodge City.
One medallion recognizes actor Dennis Hopper, an award-winning actor who was a native of Dodge City. The actor, who may be best known for his role in the movie “Easy Rider,” also donated two sculptures he created to the city. One – La Salsa Man – stands 24 feet tall and is located across the street from the municipal building. The second is located in another town.
Besides the Trail of Fame, Dodge City showcases its history in a variety of ways part of a walking tour – flag pole art near key locations and storyboards that identify significant buildings, as well as sculptures.
As a fan of historical sculptures, I fell in love with them. So many to enjoy – Wyatt Earp with his long coat blowing behind him. depicting the Kansas wind, as well as El Capitan, the larger than life longhorn looking southward in anticipation of seeing his brethren being herded into town.
Doc Holliday’s sculpture sits at a poker table with one hand reaching for his revolver as he watches the gambling pot sitting in the middle of the table. He is a popular photo attraction as you can actually sit in chairs at the table.
As you enjoy the historical walking tour – mine included deputy marshal Charlie Meade – ensure you take in the architecture. From churches to storefronts to old libraries, Dodge City features uniquely designed buildings. Now the Carnegie Institute for the Arts, the circular building, which was built in 1907, downtown once served as the town’s library.
Not far from the Carnegie building stands the Mueller-Schmidt House. Also known as the Home of Stone, it was immaculately designed. With only two owners before being donated to the city, the house has largely remained unchanged. With furniture representing the families’ eras, including some pieces that belonged to them, the house also includes museum displays recognizing the role women played in Dodge City’s history.
My guide has served the community for several decades. Proud of the personal relationships he enjoyed with “Gunsmoke” stars Ken Curtis and Buck Taylor, Meade reminisced about how Curtis enjoyed pulling a practical joke on him at a festival in Wyoming.
“We were having dinner following an event,” he said. “So, I go to meet him in the bar. I look around and don’t see him.”
Finally, asking the bartender if “Festus” had been to the bar, the man pointed to a dark corner. As he walked over, Meade realized Curtis pulled a fast one on him as he stood up, laughing, dressed in a Hawaiian-print shirt, khaki shorts and flip flops. Not the cowboy duds, the Dodge City deputy expected.
Later, in Curtis’ final days, they shared one last laugh.
“I called him to see how he was doing. He said, ‘Do you remember that time I pranked you? That was a good time. I’ve been thinking about that day.'”
Meade smiled in memory of his old friend.
Santa Fe Trail
Located on the Santa Fe Trail, you can still find wagon wheel ruts a few miles west of town at the Santa Fe Trail rut site. During the tourism season, you may want to hop aboard a trolley tour that can take you to the spot.
Its history as a cowboy town plays a role with businesses and attractions. Boot Hill Museum’s love for the Wild West is on display as you stroll down the boarded walk in front of western-style storefronts serving as a general store, hotel and, of course, the Long Branch Saloon. Enjoy a cold drink – adult and soda – at the bar or one of the tables where you can imagine a few card games going on.
A small stage is in the spotlight during peak tourist season as dance hall girls perform. Of course, the costumes may be risqué to some, but the performances are family-friendly.
Since it is a museum, you can view exhibits highlighting early life in the area, including Native American tribes, and European-American settlers. The museum also features types of weapons used by law officers, outlaws and frontiersmen, as well as businesses such as a drug store and newspaper.
Distillery, brewery attractions
While Dodge City embraces its past, the city also enjoys its role in creating contemporary attractions, such as Boot Hill Distillery. Located atop a hill overlooking the city’s main drag, the site was the original Boot Hill Cemetery. City leaders thought the land was too valuable to bury dead cowboys, so bodies were moved to a new site. A school was built there; and when it outgrew its usefulness, the building became home to city government offices, including a courtroom and jail. Later, the city moved its offices to a new building.
Owned by the Kelman family, Boot Hill Distillery removes the middleman from its business process. Using grain grown by the family farm, the Kelmans handle the entire distilling process themselves.
Using what for gin and vodka and corn to make whiskey, Boot Hill Distillery processes spirits from the farm to the tasting room. They also raise rye, but don’t currently have plans for its use yet.
Handling the distilling process inside the building’s garage, spirits are processed in 500-gallon batches. Bottling and labeling are manually completed. The final products are among the tastiest whiskey and spirits you’ll find in Kansas.
With its beautiful architectural design, the distillery is an attraction itself. Outside the main entrance stands the Cowboy, a sculpture of local Joe Sughrue created in 1927 to recognize Dodge City’s cowboy and cattle trail era.
Down the hill from the distillery is Dodge City Brewing. Creating six to eight flavors of beer, visitors can find the brews on tap in the tasting room. The brewery also serves New York-style pizza baked in a brick oven.
Dodge City has an impressive culinary scene. From the New York-style pizza to amazing steaks, you can find a dish from almost any style of cuisine.
Central Station Bar and Grill offers three areas for a fun date night. A more traditional steakhouse dining room menu invites you to try great-tasting Midwestern steaks or casual dining inside a converted train car.
Sports fans can shoot pool and enjoy a casual menu while watching games on 16 television sets. The third section – a dance club – welcomes music fans.
A throwback to classic steakhouses your parents and grandparents frequented in the 1960s and ’70s, Casey’s Cowtown Club has called Dodge City home for nearly 25 years. With large and tasty steaks, with portions to match, Mike Casey has created a popular dining destination. Even celebrities such as Willie Nelson crave the menu when traveling through Dodge City.
The restaurant also features western-themed decor featuring photos of cowboys and Native Americans and other memorabilia, including a bison covered in denim.
While popular with gamblers, Boot Hill Casino and Resort features a couple of restaurants. While Firesides features an upscale dinner menu, the Cowboy Cafe offers a casual menu, with its burgers the most popular items.
Red Beard Coffee
As you tour downtown Dodge City, stop in at Red Beard Coffee for a tasty drink. Since I’m a latte guy, I usually order a vanilla-flavored drink. However, I grabbed a seasonal drink highlighting a maple flavor. The two-year-old coffeehouse is the only true local coffee shop in town.
During my visit, I stayed at the recently-opened Hampton Inn and Suites. Located adjacent to Boot Hill Casino, the hotel is a perfect place to stay. I admit I’ve become a fan of the Hampton chain over the years, so I’m always confident I’ll enjoy my visit.
As a kid, I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up. So, my visit to Dodge City brought out the cowboy nerd in me. Lisa wants to visit and the visitors bureau recommended a return trip during the summer months. I’m already planning to wear my cowboy hat on our return visit. Since I know I plan to return, I think it’s safe to say I strongly recommend visiting Dodge City.