Labor Weekend events and Beyond
Article Diana Lambdin-Meyer | Photographer Diana Lambdin-Meyer and Doug Stremel
Every image we have of the American Cowboy starts with the Chisholm Trail, that 800-mile path from roughly San Antonio, TX to Abilene, KS that brought millions of head of cattle from Texas to the railroad in Abilene to be shipped east. This is where the Hollywood image of cowboys began – in that 20 year period between 1867 and the late 1880s when young men, often boys, managed massive herds of cows.
It’s been 150 years since that first herd of cattle trundled along through the open prairie following a path first traveled by Native Americans. Communities big and small all along the trail are celebrating as wildly as those original cowboys did on pay day when they would roar into the dusty streets of a Kansas town with all of the energy and excitement of the Old West.
A number of activities take place over Labor Day weekend, but before your celebration gets underway, it’s important to understand why the trail was so important in American history.
A newspaper reporter in Abilene in the late 19th century explained it this way:
“The wealth of an empire passed over the trail, leaving its mark for decades to come.”
During the Civil War, it was impossible to ship longhorn cattle from Texas to major cities in the North. By the end of the war, the cattle had multiplied into the millions and were nearly worthless at $2 a head. But in the East, cattle were selling at $40 a head. Yet, war had destroyed the rail lines needed to ship cattle.
But the train tracks were in good shape in Kansas, specifically Abilene, so that was where entrepreneur Joseph McCoy, in 1867, built pens and sent notice to Texans that this is where they could sell their cattle at a profit. In the first five years, an estimated 3 million cattle arrived in Abilene via the Chisholm Trail.
So, the Chisholm Trail was an exceptional endeavor that helped heal the economic wounds of the Civil War. And in Kansas, the trail dramatically boosted the economy and the population of this still relatively new-to-the-Union state.
In the 1860s, Oklahoma was still Indian Territory, thus the trail through Oklahoma offered above average risks for cowboys and their herds. When they finally crossed the state line into Kansas, it was time to relax, kick up their heels, and blow off some steam.
Just across the state line, Caldwell, Kansas, took the brunt of that first wave of raucous behavior.
Nicknamed the Border Queen, Caldwell is a true cow town. Guided tours today reveal a 400-yard wide swath of ruts where millions of hooves pounded the ground for the better part of two decades. A Talking Tombstone Tour demonstrates what a rough place Caldwell was back then.
“We went through 16 marshals in two years,” says Karen Sturm, who plays the widow of one of the many lawmen. “Not all of them were killed, but that’s how rough it was in Caldwell in those days.”
The Old Cow Town Museum in Wichita is the place to learn about how the Chisholm Trail shaped this city. Some of the buildings here are original to the time that cattle regularly trudged through the dirt streets. Special events over Labor Day weekend will include cowboy poets, gun fights and guest lecturers on the significance of the Chisholm Trail.
Beginning in October through December, the Mid-American All Indian Center will host a special exhibit on Cherokee scout Jesse Chisholm, for whom the trail is named.
Abilene, however, is where the deals were made, the gambling, the gun fights, where the good-for-naughts came to cash in on whatever they could.
The notorious Wild Bill Hickok will appear again in Abilene as a part of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, one of several activities during the Trails, Rails & Tales Festival over Labor Day weekend. The three-day event includes parades, melodramas, chuckwagon breakfasts, and fast draw competitions. A big herd of Texas longhorns will take part in it all and then be loaded up on a train car, not an easy task for all involved, just like in the old days.