Dwight D. Eisenhower loved calling Abilene his hometown. The Kansas city reciprocated its affection for the man who would go on to become a five-star general, head the D-Day invasion of Europe that changed the direction of World War II and then go on to be elected the 34th president of the United States. However, as you explore the city of about 6,500, you learn there’s much more to Abilene than being the home of President Eisenhower.
Abilene once marked the end of the Chisholm Trail, which ran cattle beginning in Texas. A model of Abilene during the Chisholm Trail is displayed at the Dickinson Heritage Center. The historically accurate model was created by a couple of locals.
Celebrating its western heritage, Rittel’s Western Wear is home to the world’s largest spur. On a windy day, the spikey rowels rotate. Inside the store, I traveled back in time to my childhood, when my nickname was “Cowboy.” I loved being a cowboy back then, wearing a cowboy hat, boots and a six-shooter on my hip. My bicycle was my horse. Country singer Billy Dean’s song “Billy the Kid” could have been about my childhood. Rittel’s was a tempting store for me, as I found a hat I liked (as Lisa noted, it looked like the one I bought in St. Joseph) and a pair of boots that actually fit. I had a blast visiting the store.
Wild Bill Hickock
Abilene’s western ties include once employing Wild Bill Hickock as marshal. Hired in 1871 to deal with the western town’s lawless characters, Hickock accidentally shot and killed his deputy when he mistook him for a criminal. The guilt apparently stayed with him for the rest of his years. He was relieved of duty following an investigation into his methods. He would never be a lawman again. Following performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for a few years, he was killed during a poker game in Deadwood, SD. His hand – two aces and eights – is referred to as a “Dead Man’s Hand.”
Fast forward a few decades and Carrie Nation, the infamous prohibition activist, visited nearby Enterprise, where she took an axe to a local bar. It was one of more than 30 attempts to close bars Nation took leading up to the constitutional amendment to outlaw alcohol in the United States.
The Dickinson County Heritage Museum includes a look into Abilene’s telephone history, including the role of technicians and operators, as well as a look at some antique phones.
The heritage center’s living history town gives visitors an opportunity to live life in the 1800s with a stroll through the area, including a log cabin, barn and church. A carousel is popular with families with young children.
Jeffcoat Photo museum
While the heritage center documents the area’s history, the Jeffcoat Photo Museum examines the role of photography in Abilene. Housed in a former photo studio, the museum includes several antique cameras, as well as film projectors. The museum offers special exhibits, such as a look at Abilene’s sports history. From high school football and baseball to golf and tennis, the exhibit shares some interesting historical pieces, such as a high school letterman’s sweater and football.
Greyhound Hall of Fame
Abilene’s sports scene includes the Greyhound Hall of Fame. Opened in 1963, the hall of fame honors key players – dog and human – who made greyhound racing a popular sport for much of the latter half of the 20th century. I remember my parents going to watch greyhound racing in South Dakota. Today, five states offer legalized dog racing – Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, West Virginia and Alabama. Florida voters opted to ban dog racing by 2021, despite having about a dozen tracks that remain popular with fans.
Despite the dwindling impact dog racing has on the American animal sports scene, the Greyhound Hall of Fame continues to attract visitors. Located across the street from the Eisenhower Museum complex, visitors the hall of fame are greeted by two greyhounds – Gary and Ginger. The older dogs are friendly and enjoy spending time with people.
The museum reflects on the history of greyhounds and the development of dog racing in the United States. Recognized as special animals dating back to ancient Egypt, European royalty sought to use greyhounds for status symbols and later hunting.
With the greyhound’s ability to run fast and catch smaller animals, such as rabbits, their use went from hunting to racing. Eventually, greyhound racing moved from high society events to racetracks across the country. Museum exhibits include people recalling their family traveling across the United States to tracks where their dogs would race.
Abilene’s history includes a mansion that sits on the site of the town’s original settlement. Lebold Mansion was built in the mid-1850s. After the original owner ensured financial difficulties and lost the Italianate mansion, it’s been owned by several people and served multiple roles, such as an orphanage and boarding house for telephone operators. Today, it’s undergoing a renovation.
While Lebold Mansion stood on one end of town, Seelye Mansion owned everyone’s attention. The 25-room mansion was built in 1904 for the Seelye family. Dr. A.B. Seelye was known for his medical creations, which made him a rich man. Living in the mansion, Dr. Seelye, his wife and two daughters entertained dignitaries and celebrities, from President Theodore Roosevelt to Thomas Edison. Col. Harlan Sanders attempted to buy the mansion and change into the headquarters for Kentucky Fried Chicken, including a restaurant on the first floor. Fortunately for Abilene – and history and architecture lovers – they passed on the offer.
Most of the furniture and fixtures are originals, including the dining room table and chairs. Chances are when you visit and sit on a chair, a historical figure once sat there, too. Imagine, sitting in the same chair as Thomas Edison. A Steinway piano sits in one room, next to an original Edison phonograph. Chandeliers and light switches are original Edison products. The house is a walk through Americana.
A TV set?
When the current owner bought the mansion in the early 1980s, he asked the Seelye sisters to continue living in the mansion with him. The sisters shared a room their entire lives. The owner introduced them to television when he brought a TV into the sitting room. At first they opposed the idea, because the few times they saw televisions in the public, sporting events were on. When he turned the TV on in the mansion, “Sound of Music” was on. They loved the program, so the TV stayed. It’s humorous that you immediately notice the TV (pre-flat screen era) as something that seems out of place.
One of the highlights of a mansion tour is the single-lane bowling alley in the basement. The century-old alley is popular with collectors, with one man willing to part with $1 million to take it home. It remains in the basement.
Art and candy
As you stroll around town, you notice Abilene’s affection for public art. Between painted garbage cans featuring historical subjects, such as Eisenhower, to murals featuring bison, sunflowers and historical figures, the art creates a welcoming impression to visitors.
The sweet fragrance you notice in the air is the Russell Stover warehouse and store on the western edge of town. When you visit the store, you’ll have a tough time leaving without buying a box or two of sweets. The store also sells “Bloopers,” chocolates that may be misformed and don’t meet the company’s standards to send to stores. While they may look a bit odd, they’re just as tasty.
With a variety of interesting places to visit, Abilene’s main attraction remains the Eisenhower Museum complex. The complex includes a visitors center, museum, meditation chapel, Eisenhower’s childhood home and the presidential library. The museum is being renovated and will reopen in June. In the meantime, the library offers a small exhibit tracking Eisenhower’s life, from his childhood to his military experience, as well as his presidency.
As you plan your visit to Abilene, I understand that Eisenhower will likely be the main reason for your trip. But, take an extra day and explore Abilene beyond Eisenhower. You’ll appreciate the history and culture the city offers.
For more information on Abilene, check out Visit Abilene KS.