Sunday, June 26, 2011

Life on the Trail and in the Cattle Town for an American Cowboy

Note: This writeup first appeared in the Dickinson County Historical Society's newsletter, the Gazette.

July 23 marks the National Day of the American Cowboy and people throughout Kansas and other states will be gathering together to celebrate this national icon.  Abilene is no exception, as Old Abilene Town will be holding many festivities to celebrate the day.

When students visit the Heritage Center, many of them wonder why cowboys were rowdy when they reached a cattle town.  This may seem like a simple question, but there are many different answers.  Life on the trail for a cowboy was difficult, and this affected their behavior in cattle towns greatly.

Life for a cowboy (or drover as they were often known) was difficult before they even left the ranch.  Many men and boys that drove cattle lived together in small shacks on their employer’s property.  These buildings had very few furnishings, small bunks for each inhabitant, and not many luxuries.  Many cowboys plastered up newspaper along their walls to keep warmth inside their cabin, and offer themselves a little reading material.

Once a drover was out on the trail, conditions were worse.  Most cowboys slept under the stars while on the trail, which as itself would not be too hazardous except for the risk of rattlesnakes and stampeding cattle.  Stampedes were a constant worry no matter what time of day or where the herd was located.  Prairie dog holes and other ground agitated by animals were another problem, as horses could trip into these easily, possibly throwing the rider to the ground.  For these reasons, strict discipline along the trail was enforced to prevent injuries to the men and cattle.  A cowboy always had to be on guard for problems along the path.

Another hazard was encounters with Native Americans.  Since many tribes had lived throughout the land that the Chisholm Trail passed through, many cowboys met Native Americans along the trail.  A typical encounter simply entailed the trail boss paying a fee for his herd to pass through the Indian land.  Fees were typically under ten cents per head of cattle, or entailed the trail boss allowing a tribal group to have two to three cattle.  Occurrences of fighting between the two groups did happen, but these skirmishes were few and far between.

When a drover arrived to a cattle town such as Abilene, he was ready to relax and “cut loose.”  These men and boys had spent roughly three months on the trail though, so they did not always have the best of manners when they arrived in town.

Once the herd arrived and were sold and ready to ship east, the cowboys were paid for their work.  Most cowboys went about spending most of their wages within the next few days.  A drover would typically pay a visit to a local barber for a haircut and shave, clean himself up, and buy new clothes and boots to wear.  Most cowboys would also treat themselves to a fancy meal served by their hotel (such as the Drover’s Hotel), and spend the rest of the evening using his money to gamble on card games and drink his weight in whiskey.  During the evening, some drovers would feel inclined to visit a brothel and spend their money on the wares of that business.

After spending evenings filled with gambling, booze, and debauchery, tensions flared and fights broke out over card games and other matters.  Before Abilene’s “no firearms ordinance” in 1870, many people were armed, and weapons may have came out during brawls.

Overall, cowboys were likely rowdy for the simple reason that they could be.  Compared to the standards of law enforcement in the big cities of the east, there was a general sense of lawlessness on the plains.  In Abilene’s case, it became a cattle town in 1867, seeing a large influx of people, but had no official law enforcement until 1870.  There were several reasons cowboys behaved the way they did, and their experiences on the trail and in the cattle towns greatly contributed to that behavior.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Greetings from Pioneer Camp!

I took a little time off from writing on this blog since Pioneer Camp was going on at the Dickinson County Heritage Center.  It is a really fun event to help organize and put on, and this year was no exception.
For those of you who do not know, Pioneer Camp is a week long day camp in which twenty four youth come to the Heritage Center and learn what it was like to be a pioneer.  We hold two weeks of camp every June, so in the end, we have forty eight kids and a ton of youth and adult helpers at the museum during that time span.

The first day of camp started off with the Heritage Center’s director, Jeff Sheets, instructing all of the kids that they were at a “working camp,” meaning that everyone would be getting their hands dirty and pitching in to get jobs done.  Jeff then led the kids around the museum grounds so everyone could see artifacts and get to know the layout of the buildings.  The campers then split up into three groups, each group going to a different station first.  At one station, the campers headed over to a Native American tipi, and got to make beaded pins and learn about Native American beadwork.  Every Plains Indian tribe had/has their own style of designs and history.  At another station, the kids got to play some pioneer games.  The first game was “hoop and stick.”  Hoops and sticks were common primitive toys because all you need is a long stick with a “T” shaped end, and a small metal hoop.  The kids quickly picked up the skill of pushing their hoops without falling, and were racing one another in no time.  After that, the campers also had a potato sack race, a three-legged race, and played cat’s cradle.  At the third station, the campers helped prepare the day’s lunch, making ham and beans, corn bread, and apple crisp.

The second day of camp allowed for the kids to visit the prairie and learn about Kansas wildlife.  Throughout the day, the campers picked and pressed prairie flowers and grasses, made illustrations of plains life, and played some nature themed games.  After this, we all ate lunch together.  After having an egg tapping contest to see who had the hardest egg, we sat down to a lunch of hard boiled eggs, sandwiches, and watermelon.

On Wednesday, the kids found out they would have to do chores first thing every morning for the next three days of camp.  During chore time, the kids worked in the cabin, milked a goat, and did a little gardening.  For the day’s regular activities, the kids made Native American dream catchers in the tipi using yarn, beads, and feathers.  The campers also learned how to make rope and ground corn to make feed for the goat and chickens on the property.  Of course, the campers also helped prepare lunch for the day, making beef stew and spice cake.

For Thursday, Week One’s campers were shown the process of shearing a sheep, learned how to spin and weave, and made candles by dipping wicks into paraffin wax.  During Week Two, it was raining throughout most of the morning, so activities were altered a little bit.  The campers were still able to work on spinning and weaving, but instead of dipping candles, we toured inside the museum.  Included in that tour was a brief lesson on the Plains Indians’ relationship with the buffalo (or American Bison).  The kids got to touch real buffalo bones and learn about the different uses of those objects.  After the activities, we sat down to a lunch of chicken noodle soup, bread, and oatmeal cookies.

Friday was the last day of camp, but was certainly a fun one.  The campers attended a brief class in an actual one room school house located in Old Abilene Town.  During their lesson, the kids learned some songs, solved some problems and riddles, and worked on their penmanship with old fashioned ink pens.  The campers also learned about personal hygiene in pioneer times.  The girls curled their hair using ribbons, and the boys were treated to a “shave.”  Afterwards, everyone dressed up in pioneer garb and had their picture taken.  For lunch, our main dish was biscuits and gravy and sausage, so the kids learned how to make sausage with an old fashioned sausage stuffer.  After lunch was over and dishes were cleaned, many campers’ parents and grandparents came and everyone took a ride on the 1901 C.W. Parker Carousel.  All in all, it was a great time for everyone involved.

What I love about Pioneer Camp is that kids get to learn about history in an entirely hands-on way.  The kids work while they are at camp, and the funny thing is, they enjoy it.  So often these days, many of us do not think about where our food comes from.  To us, it simply comes from the supermarket.  We do not always think about the hard work that goes into raising that crop or animal to bring it to the store and our homes.  Additionally, so often, we take modern conveniences for granted.  While at camp, all of the meals are prepared on a wood burning stove.  There is no air conditioning or running water in the cabin.  Since many of us have had these conveniences our entire lives, it is easy to forget about the difficulties of the past.  In this way, the purpose of Pioneer Camp is not to only learn about history, but also the present.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Golf

The media has been mentioning golf a lot this week, due to President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner's game that was played earlier today.  It's also been mentioned that many past presidents have been golfers.  In fact, fifteen of the last eighteen United States presidents have been golf players.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower was probably the most dedicated to the game.  It has been said that during his presidency of eight years, he played over eight hundred rounds of golf.  Many weeks, he would find time to play eighteen holes on both Wednesday and Saturday.  It is amazing he was actually able to make the time to do this.  President Ike knew Bobby Jones and Arnold Palmer, and played at the Augusta National Golf Club often. While he was a very active player, he must have thought that he could do better.  He once joked "If I don't improve, I’m going to pass a law that no one can ask me my golf score.” has an interesting look at a set of President Eisenhower's golf clubs here.