116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Abilene, Kansas, is full to the brim of Western history
In 1944 Gen. Dwight Eisenhower coordinated the D-Day Invasion of France, probably the most complex military actions of modern times. Yet, just a month after Germany surrendered, he remarked, “The proudest thing I can claim is that I’m from Abilene.”
Later, as president, he boosted the development of the Interstate Highway System. We followed his roads from the Corridor exiting Interstate 70 and enjoyed two days in Abilene, Kansas. Ike was right. Abilene is a town to be proud of.
It has but 6,500 residents and shows as a small dot on the Kansas map between Junction City and Salina. Too many motorists cruise by missing its diverse history and fun attractions.
We drove a mile south of the Interstate and spotted people crowding Old Abilene Town’s wooden sidewalks. Parking just in time, we watched cowboys herd longhorn steers through town and into a corral by the railroad tracks.
This was just the start of our Abilene adventure. Although interesting places are scattered around town, five form the core. The Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Old Abilene Town, The Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad, the Dickinson County Heritage Center, and The Greyhound Hall of Fame and Museum are clustered together just a mile from the Interstate. All are walkable from each other. Park the car once and take in the sights, sounds, smells of this unique town.
Founded in 1867 the town was the end of the famous Chisholm Trail. Between then and 1871 tough cowboys herded 440,000 longhorns from Texas to Abilene and loaded them onto boxcars for shipment to Chicago’s stockyards. After their grueling work they craved fun. Abilene was wild and woolly, the stuff of Old West legend. There was whiskey and gunfights. Wild Bill Hickock was marshal for a time.
Modern cowboys still work Kansas cattle. The Munson family has been raising Angus in the area for five generations. “Longhorns did well in Texas’ heat but don’t thrive in the north’s cold. Angus do better here and their meat is superior,” Chuck Munson told us.
The Munson family owns the Brookville Inn. We last dined at the original restaurant in 1975 when we lived in Kansas and enjoyed our return.
When the Eisenhowers moved to Abilene from Texas, the town had calmed down and had become an epicenter of innovation. Telecommunications giant Sprint traces its ancestry to this tiny town and the Parker Co. was a pioneering creator of carnival equipment. Today the Russel Stover Co. makes delicious sweets in a large local factory.
The Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum
Dwight Eisenhower attended grade and high school in Abilene. It was here that he learned of his acceptance at West Point — an appointment that launched his remarkable military career. Abilene always remained in his heart. He and Mamie are buried there. Eisenhower believed in “a balance between freedom of individual and welfare of the nation.”
The museum traces the tumultuous world events that Eisenhower impacted, ranging from world wars to the Interstate Highway System. It is open year-round but the boyhood home is closed for restoration. We enjoyed an exhibit of American cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s work that is on display through November. He was renowned for portraying the GI in combat situations and championing the oppressed abroad and at home.
Old Abilene Town
Old Abilene Town is a re-creation of the town during cattle drive days. Here we watched longhorns be herded through town and into corrals near the railroad. A few times a year cattle drives are reenacted. Old Town features original buildings from settlement days. Numerous volunteers engagingly share the stories.
Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad
The longhorns being herded onto a train car behind the huffing steam locomotive of the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad were lucky. They’re for show and won’t end up at a packing plant. We boarded a passenger car and soon the locomotive pulled us a few miles through the Kansas countryside and back again. Our engineers were a retired physician and a retired minister. As we rocked along the tracks, our conductor, a retired Kansas State University professor quipped, “You’re in good hands.”
For years the engine stood idle on display until a group of Abilene volunteers began the long process of restoring it into working condition. Today it’s one of the few operating steam engines in the country.
Visitors are welcome to ride the rails. The train occasionally features dinner, and sweet roll and coffee trips.
The Greyhound Hall of Fame and Museum
Across the street from the Eisenhower Library is a museum paying tribute to greyhounds, their history, and racing. Coursing dogs go back at least 4,000 years in Egypt. Bred to be fleet, they were used to run down prey. That’s most effective in wide-open terrain where the dogs can see and run great distances. Kansas is perfect for that and was once an epicenter of coursing dogs. Today, greyhound racing has nearly vanished from America but the museum tells a fascinating history of dogs and racing. Admission is free.
Dickinson County Heritage Center
Over the years we’ve visited local history museums scattered about the country. Normally they’re a jumble of somewhat unorganized artifacts pulled from area attics.
Not the Dickinson County Heritage Center. Well organized, clean and brightly lit, it tells the county’s story from prehistory to the development of modern innovation. We learned that C.L. Brown’s company, based in Abilene, was an early telephone pioneer that eventually became Sprint. C.W. Parker’s company was a carnival innovator best known for its finely crafted carousels. We enjoyed a ride on the oldest known Parker Carousel.
Amazingly, it can still be powered by a wood-fired boiler.
After two days visiting Abilene’s historic museums and demonstrations, we understood why Dwight Eisenhower was proud of his town. Volunteers make modern Abilene a great place to visit. They plan and operate the railroad, Old Town and Heritage Center. In good Western form they “corral” other small businesses into sharing their products and stories. This cooperative effort has garnered Abilene accolades — Favorite Small town, Friendliest Small town, Destination of the Year and Best Historic Small Town.
We capped off our visit with a stop at the Central Kansas Free Fair on the west side of town. It’s bigger than most county fairs and smaller than state fairs. We walked the Midway, saw show cattle, horses, sheep, chickens and rabbits on display and munched hot dogs. Admission and parking are free, but there are fees for special events.
We were fortunate The Wild Bill Hickock professional rodeo was at the fair when we visited. Offering $37,500 in prize money for cowboys and cowgirls, it attracts some of the nation’s best riders. We met saddle bronc riders and rodeo queen, Hailey Frederiksen. The rodeo was our capstone activity following two full days in Abilene.
Abilene is about 450 miles from Cedar Rapids and an easy eight-hour drive. We followed Eisenhower’s Interstates 80, 35 and 70 to reach it and took a pleasant shortcut from Cameron, Missouri, to Topeka that avoids Kansas City traffic and tolls.
Driving to Abilene gave us an opportunity to stop in Atchison at Amelia Earhart’s girlhood home, the Kansas capital in Topeka, military museums at Fort Riley, and the Nature Conservancy’s massive Konza Prairie near Manhattan. A side ride through the verdant Flint Hills could be worked into a four- or five-day trip.
For information, contact AbileneKansas.org or travelks.com.