Wednesday, September 21, 2011

New Exhibit at the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum: City on the Plains: A Look at Abilene Architecture

The Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum is pleased to announce a new exhibit highlighting the architecture of Abilene.  The exhibit, City on the Plains: A Look at Abilene Architecture, will be featured now through January 9 at the museum. 

Abilene has had a varied history, and was originally settled by Timothy and Elizabeth Hersey in 1857 along the bank of Mud Creek.  The area saw some growth, with a few brave settlers deciding to build homes near the Hersey stagecoach stop.  It was not until 1867 though, that the community saw substantial growth.  That year, a man named Joseph G. McCoy came to the area and decided to build a shipping point for Texas longhorn cattle.  Abilene quickly became the first Kansas cattle town and saw much growth over the next four years.  After Abilene’s cattle town days were over in 1872, the city saw a sharp decline in business.  Many stores that catered their wares to the cowboys moved elsewhere.  However, Abilene slowly began to grow again and develop into the town that it is today.

Many homes and business buildings that continue to stand in Abilene today were constructed close to the turn of the twentieth century.  Buildings such as the Seelye Mansion, Lebold Mansion, Shockey and Landis building, Sunflower Hotel, Union Pacific Depot, and United Telephone building made their mark on Abilene history and serve as reminders of the past to this day.  While this is the case for many historic buildings in Abilene, there are several that no longer remain. 

The Belle Springs Creamery was a staple of the community for several years, providing customers with a place to purchase milk, butter, ice cream, cheese, and ice.  Another historic piece of Abilene architecture was the Henry House, also known as the Union Pacific Depot and Hotel, a multi-level central hub for the community.  There were many other such buildings that no longer exist in Abilene: the Plaza Theater, Vacu-Blast Dome, C.W. Parker Amusement Factory, Toothpick building, original City Hall, and various residences.  As times change, so do the buildings that form a community, however photographs do remain as a reminder of what happened before.

While the Jeffcoat Studio primarily worked in portrait photography during their business days of 1921 to 2007, they did take many pictures of the Abilene community and the buildings that make up the “city on the plains.”  The Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum’s photography exhibit, City on the Plains: A Look at Abilene Architecture, will feature the images and stories of many of the community’s historic buildings.

The Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum is located at 321 N. Broadway St. in Abilene, and is open Monday and Tuesday 9:00am-4:00pm, and by appointment any day of the week.  For more information about the museum, or to schedule a private viewing, please call (785) 263-9882, or find the museum on Facebook at

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Chisholm Trail Day Festival will be Here Soon!

We are making many preparations for the 33rd Annual Chisholm Trail Day Festival at the Heritage Center on October 1, 2011.  There are many things to do; printing and folding brochures, setting up equipment and displays, and getting the museum extra clean for the big day.  Here are all of the details:

It’s time to saddle up and head to the 33rd Annual Chisholm Trail Day Festival, on Saturday, October 1, 2011 at the Heritage Center Museum, 412 S. Campbell in Abilene, Kansas from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. The admission is $5.00 per adults and children 12 and under is $2.00.

There will be lots of fun and activities for the whole family. There will be live entertainment on the main stage featuring Classic Heart playing great music of the 50s and 60s, Dave “Zerf” Zerfas singing Kansas Ballads and the Tallgrass Express String Band, a four member string band performing traditional string band music. They will play a variety of instruments including fiddle, banjo mandolin, guitar, upright bass and others. There will be great music and entertainment all day long.

This year the Antique Farm Show will feature “Oddballs and Orphans” tractors and farm equipment. Registration begins at 8:00 am. There will be tractor games at 11:00 am and the Parade of Power will begin at 1:00 pm. Also there will be an antique tractor pull beginning at 2:00 pm.

There will also be a pedal tractor pull for kids four to twelve years of age. Registration will begin at 8 am and the pull will begin at 10:00 am. This activity will be free of charge.

Come and learn how the old crafts were done. There will be demonstrations on blacksmithing, chair caning, bread baking, molasses boiling, pioneer cooking, lumber sawing and much more.

Inside the Heritage Center make sure you visit the Mud Creek Quilters demonstrating the art of quilting. As a fund raiser, the Dickinson County Historical Society will be giving away a beautiful hand quilted quilt at 3:30 pm. For a donation of $1.00 you will receive a chance on the drawing or for donating $5 you will receive 6 chances for the drawing.

Also visit the Daughters of the American Revolution’s booth, where you can look up your ancestors. Learn more about the DAR and help preserve your family history.

The History Stage will feature Wilma and Lori Howie performing Bluegrass music at 10:00 am; Joe Basso talking about the “Origins of Expressions at 11:00 am and at 2:00 pm. From 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm Randy Schumock will be singing your favorite Country and Western tunes.

For $1.00, kids of all ages will enjoy riding on the 1901 C.W. Parker Carousel powered by the original steam engine. This carousel is a National Landmark, a National Historic Carousel and was recently voted one of the top 8 Wonders of Kansas Customs. It is truly a national treasure and everyone should enjoy a ride on it.

If you like trains, come and ride the rails as the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad powers up their 1919 Santa Fe 4-6-2 “Pacific” #3415 Steam Locomotive. Relive the days of the steam powered trains. The train will run from 10 am to 3 pm on the hour.

During the day visit Old Abilene Town and watch Wild Bill Hickok tame the streets of Abilene in 1871. On Sunday from 2 pm to 4 pm Bill Burrows will hold a “Cowboy Jam Session” at the Alamo Saloon.

There will be children’s activities as well as arts and crafts booths, folk craft demonstrations, and the Farmers Market. Kasey the Clown will also be roaming the grounds during the day. Don’t miss out on the fun and the excitement at the 33rd Annual Chisholm Trail Day Festival. For more information call 785-263-2681, check out our website, or see us on Facebook at

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A State of Fighting and Fear: Kansas and the American Indian Wars of the 1860s

Note: This blog post also appeared in the Dickinson County Historical Society's newsletter (the Gazette), and in the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle on 9/14/2011.

During the mid-1800s and especially following the events of the Civil War, a different type of war was being fought on the plains of Kansas and surrounding states and territories.  This war had been long in the making, ever since immigrants came to the New World to settle and claim territory.  Leading up to the mid-1800s, many Native Americans had been affected by pioneers settling on their former land.  The spread of smallpox and other diseases were deadly to many tribes, and in several cases, Native Americans were forced away from their land onto newly formed territory.  However, as emigrants moved west and the western United States population grew, Indian Territory became smaller and smaller in size.  By the mid-1800s, many tribes were infuriated by the treatment dealt to them by the United States.  Plains tribes such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Kiowa, Comanche, and Pawnee greatly resisted the emigrant invasion of their land.  In many cases, this resistance was violent. 

For new western settlers, frontier defense became a necessity.  Many had seen their families and homes attacked by Native American groups in an effort to drive the settlers away.  Many Kansas Forts were established to offer protection to emigrants from the American Indian resistance.  Forts Hays and Wallace were both established to protect the Smoky Hill Trail, which passed through Kansas Indian hunting land, including portions of Dickinson County.  For many Native American tribes, the railroad was viewed as a great threat.  Since it allowed for ease of travel, the railroad greatly contributed to an influx of people, which in turn led to the further use and destruction of many resources such as the buffalo.  Some plains tribes attacked railroad construction crews or targeted their efforts toward the destruction of the rails themselves.  On August 1, 1867, six men of a railroad work party of seven were killed by Native Americans approximately ten miles east of Fort Hays.

While fighting was common, there was another side to relations between the United States and Native American groups.  Peaceful negotiations did occur, however the success rate for these discussions was generally low.  Early negotiations in 1866 with the Cheyenne and Sioux began poorly when General Winfield Scott Hancock ordered the burning of an abandoned village in the midst of peace talks.  In October 1867 the Medicine Lodge Treaty was signed by several chiefs of different Plains Indian tribes.  According to the treaty, the agreeing tribes would relinquish all land north of the Arkansas River for the promise of federal aid and hunting rights south of the river.  While this may have sounded like a beneficial and easy to manage agreement on paper to both parties, this was not the reality.  The individuals of a nation rarely agree with every decision their leaders make, and this was the case for many tribal nations after the signing of the treaty.  Many individuals within tribes refused to leave their land and agree to the terms.  Additionally, many Native Americans that did agree with the Medicine Lodge Treaty were soon disappointed when the federal aid promised to them came slowly or not at all.  By early 1868, many tribes returned to their former land to hunt and raid.

George Armstrong Custer is likely the most recognizable face of the United States Military during the Indian Wars on the Plains.  Custer led the Seventh Cavalry through several successful campaigns against Plains Indians during this turbulent era.  One of the first substantial victories for the United States during the Indian Wars was the Battle of Washita River.  In this battle, Custer and his men fought and killed several Cheyenne warriors.  As was common during these types of battles, several Cheyenne women and children were killed as well.  The precise number of casualties is unknown.  Custer claimed that his men killed over one hundred warriors, but the actual number may have been significantly lower.  Shortly after this battle, Custer and the Seventh Cavalry met with members of the Nineteenth Kansas Cavalry to pursue a group of Cheyenne.  Among the ranks of the Nineteenth Kansas Cavalry were Andrew and Calvin Freeman, sons of Dickinson County’s first permanent settler, George Freeman.  The reason for the cavalry’s pursuit of this group of Cheyenne was to rescue two women who were held as captives.  The women, Miss Brewster and Miss White, had been captured eight months before.  After the cavalry had made their approach to the Cheyenne camp, three chiefs visited with Custer to make peace.  Custer and his men decided to hold the chiefs captive until the women were released.  According to John McBee, a member of the Nineteenth Kansas Cavalry, Custer threatened the chiefs by showing them a tree and rope, and stating that they would be hanged by sundown if the women were not safely returned.  Soon after this, the women were brought to Custer’s camp.  Custer did not release the three Cheyenne chiefs, but escorted them to Fort Hays, where they found over fifty of their tribe’s women and children already being held.
This mid-1800s era blockhouse features gun ports on either side.
Since peaceful negotiations between both sides were poor or non-existent, and Native American raids on emigrant settlements became a common occurrence in parts of Kansas, many settlers were afraid that they might be attacked next.  The United States Military could not always be counted on to offer defense for settlers in remote areas.  Many armed themselves with weapons to protect their families and property. 

Additionally, many who lived in rural areas built small fortified buildings for use in case of an Indian attack.  The Dickinson County Historical Society in Abilene recently acquired one such building.  Donated by Ron and Sandra Bolliger and Kathaleen Kubik, the building was given to the Historical Society as a memorial to Ervin and Florence Aebi, parents of Sandra and Kathaleen.  Made with native Kansas limestone, the building was originally constructed on the property of Fred Helstab, a Dickinson County pioneer who built his log cabin home in 1867.  The small, fortified blockhouse features two gun ports that could have been used to fire at attackers from the safety of the building.  Helstab also built a large barn and an additional stone building on his property that was used for food storage.  All of these buildings have found many uses over the years at the farmstead, which is located half a mile west of Enterprise.

Battles between the United States and Native Americans continued on the plains in the 1870s, but began to occur frequently less.  Tribes did have incredible victories such as the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, in which a united encampment of Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Lakota Native Americans killed Custer and all of his command in Montana Territory.  However, many tribes had been forced onto reservations by this time.

During this remarkable era, both the United States and Native American nations had instances of glory, honor, and triumph.  However, these events were equally paired with instances of despair, fear, and reckless aggression.  Neither side could easily reach an agreement, or understand the other’s ideas and culture.  The average United States cavalry member and the average Native American warrior did not believe they had much in common with one another, while this was far from the truth.  Both sides fought to protect their families, resources, and property.  Both wanted to see their nation prosper.  Additionally, both committed atrocious acts to further their cause.  The slaughter of civilians, women, and children was knowingly carried out by both groups of people.  For every emigrant settlement raided and fort attacked, there were burnings of tribal encampments and attacks on peaceful Native American nations.  No matter whom a person was, life on the plains was met with great difficulty.

To see the Dickinson County Historical Society’s recent addition, a fortified blockhouse with gun ports, come to the Dickinson County Heritage Center and “experience the past.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Thoughts on Giving a Historical Bicycle Tour of Abilene, Kansas

A couple of weeks ago, I guided a historical bicycle tour of Abilene.  This tour was put on by the Quality of Life Coalition as part of their Dickinson County Road Race event.  All in all, it was a really fun event, and I believe that everyone that took part had a blast.  For the tour, we rode about three miles with several stops along the way, making the tour last close to an hour.  The group stopped at the Lebold Mansion, Texas Street, the Kirby House, Abilene’s historic downtown district, and a couple of historic homes.  We also stopped and talked about the Drover’s Cottage, Belle Springs Creamery, and Joseph G. McCoy’s Great Western Stockyards; all places that do not exist today.  I was really happy to see that everyone had a lot of questions and was interested in the different sites.

When I help out with events like this, it’s fun for me since I get to meet new people and share my love of history with them.  It’s always great to see other people that are interested in a history-related topic, and see excitement build for them.  It is incredibly important for us at the Dickinson County Historical Society to be active in events like this.  It not only promotes our organization, but also our mission to preserve and educate about the history of Dickinson County.

D.R. Gorden: A Man about Town

David Ross Gorden was an early resident of Abilene who had a remarkable career in several positions.  During his time in the town, Gorden served as Abilene’s first Kansas Pacific Railroad station agent, first telegraph operator, and served as the town’s postmaster.  He was also involved in the organization of Abilene’s first grain elevator, and in the formation of the Citizen’s Bank of Abilene in 1885.  Needless to say, he was an incredibly active man in Abilene.

Before making his way to Abilene in 1869, Gorden was present for one of the most famous presidential speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address.  Gorden was eighteen at the time, and managed to situate himself close to President Lincoln so that he could clearly hear the President’s words.  Prior to President Lincoln’s famous speech, a man named Edward Everett gave a long address to the crowd.  After this, the President delivered his Gettysburg Address, which is admittedly a rather short speech.  After President Lincoln had finished speaking, Gorden distinctly heard the President say to Everett, “I have made a failure of my speech.”  Everett’s reply was, “Oh, no, your speech will live long after mine has been forgotten.”

After the end of the Civil War, Gorden learned the skill of telegraphy and moved to Abilene, Kansas.  He would live in Abilene for the rest of his life.  During his duties as Abilene’s railroad station agent and telegraph operator, Gordon encountered many colorful characters including the town’s city marshal in 1871, James Butler “Wild Bill”Hickok.

According to one of Gorden’s memories, he witnessed a conversation between Hickok and a gambler that almost turned into a shootout.  One day when Hickok was visiting Gorden in the telegraph office, a gambler walked into the building with a revolver strapped to his leg.  Hickok ordered the man to give him the gun since it was illegal to carry firearms in Abilene.  The man replied to Hickok, “Bill, I am not going to take off this revolver and you know darn well you cannot make me take it off.”  Both men glared at one another and rested their hands on their six-shooters.  Now, Hickok is of course known for his famous shootouts, but he was a practical man when it came to fights.  He always tried to avoid a fight that he was not positive he could win.  According to Gorden, Hickok replied to the man, “Well, just keep it hidden so that I cannot see it.”  The unsettling moment passed.

As a resident of Abilene, Gorden saw many changes in the town.  After the end of the cattle drives to Abilene, Gorden saw his town change from a wild and dangerous place, to a peaceful small community.  Throughout his entire life, Gorden remained an active man, always willing to tell a story about Abilene’s past, and offer his support for new enterprises that would improve the community.  He lived until the ripe age of ninety, and died April 7, 1935.

Note: Quotations were taken from the "Reminiscences  of D.R. Gorden," found in the files of the Dickinson County Historical Society.