Abilene, Kansas has its place in America’s Old West history: It’s the end of the Chisholm Trail, that led cattle from Texas to Kansas for years. It’s funny how the end of the trail was the start of diving into Kansas’s cowboy history for me, but here we are. Let’s check out Abilene and the town’s famous residents.
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Old Abilene Town
200 SE Fifth St.
I’m a sucker for costumed re-enactors and living history, so I absolutely loved Old Abilene Town and recommend you start your Abilene adventure there. Take a deep dive into history inside the Chisholm Trail Museum and Interpretive Center, or just imagine yourself in the thick of things as you stroll the wooden boardwalk.
Photo opportunities abound. And on the weekends (seasonally), there are mock shootouts in the street and can-can dancers in the saloon. During my visit, I also watched a cowboy poet perform.
Chisholm Trail Days
Labor Day Weekend in Old Abilene Town
Old Abilene Town also hosts Chisholm Trail Days during Labor Day weekend. If you want to maximize your visit and see performances, cattle drives and other once-a-year festivities, Chisholm Trail Days seems like your best option.
If you want prime spots to view the cattle drive, do not wait to the last minute, especially if you have kids with you. I attended a preview of the cattle drive and I still had to wedge myself into a good spot to take pictures and keep the sun out of my eyes. Even just 5 to 10 minutes before the start of the cattle drive should be sufficient.
Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad
200 SE Fifth St.
Abilene is at the end of the Chisholm rail, so hundreds of thousands of cattle have been shipped to market by rail. Visitors can ride in history (not in the cattle cars, mind you) with the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad. Options include riding in an open-air car pulled by 1919 Baldwin 4-6-2 “Pacific” type steam locomotive, or taking one of the dinner trains. The ride is 10.5-mile round trip.
Venture into the old depot located in Old Abilene Town, which houses the Fred Schmidt Railroad Museum. There are model trains as well as railroad artifacts.
Dickinson County Heritage Center
412 S. Campbell St.
Wild Bill Hickok was once the town’s marshall, and you can learn about his life and other former Abilene residents at the Dickinson County Heritage Center. The interior explores C.L. Brown (whose company eventually became Sprint and then T-Mobile) and community life over the centuries, but the real appeal to me was outside.
The center’s grounds include the 1880s Volkman Cabin, a one-room schoolhouse, the 1932 grocery store Burklund’s, and an old farm equipment building. If you’re into more morbid history, look for the horse-drawn hearse and metal caskets. There may be costumed re-enactors there during your visit, too.
Wild Bill Hickok PRCA Rodeo
Early August at the Eisenhower Park Fairgrounds, 600 N. Pine St.
The Wild Bill Hickok Rodeo is held in early August each year in Abilene. It’s a big draw, bringing about 500 cowboys and cowgirls seeking to win over $37,500 in added prize money.
I attended one night and saw bull riding, bronco riding, and the crowd-favorite, mutton busting (which for the uninitiated, is when tiny, adorable kids ride sheep). It’s definitely an experience, especially if you’re more a city person never exposed to modern cowboy life. The rodeo is on the fairgrounds, so you can also venture over to the carnival rides, midway, and food stands.
Big Spur Photo Opp
1810 N. Buckeye Ave.
Fans of “World’s Largest” type stuff will want to seek out this giant spur in front of the retail store, Rittel’s Western Wear. Granted, its Guinness World Record was beat in 2017, but the 28-foot-high spur still makes for a great Western photo opp.
But wait, there’s more things to do in Abilene
Abilene residents are proud of the town’s history, and it extends far beyond the time of the “Old West.” While you’re visiting Abilene, add a few more stops to the itinerary.
Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum
200 SE Fourth St.
Can you really say you’ve been to Abilene without stopping to learn about Abilene’s most famous son, Dwight D. Eisenhower? There are several interesting places to visit on the grounds — including his boyhood home and his burial site at the Place of Meditation — but if you’re limited on time, I recommend the museum. This high tech museum has several interactive elements and is impressively comprehensive.
C.W. Parker Carousel
412 S. Campbell St. (on the grounds of the Dickinson County Heritage Center)
Take a ride on the National Historic Landmark, the 1901 C.W. Parker Carousel. Each horse is hand-carved and painted (and, I learned, that’s real horsehair for the tails). An old Wurlitzer provides the music.
The carousel is located on the grounds of the heritage center mentioned earlier. It’s the oldest of its kind to still be operational.
Historic Seelye Mansion
1105 N. Buckeye Ave.
Tours of historic homes rarely appeal to kids, but unlike most that I’ve visited, Seelye Mansion lets visitors play on the big draw: The bowling alley. Granted, most visitors will like hearing about young Dwight Eisenhower delivering ice the the home back in the day and seeing the exquisite furniture.
But kids? Kids want to throw things down the Box Ball bowling alley. And let’s be honest, you want to take a turn, too, don’t you?
Side note: There are only four known bowling alleys like this one in existence, including one at Arbor Lodge State Historical Park in Nebraska City. This is the only one where you can touch.
Explore downtown Abilene
Angel Wings Mural, 309 N. Buckeye Ave.
Abilene mural, 303 N. Broadway St.
Interactive “Harmon” Mural, 200 N. Broadway Ave.
Rivendell Bookstore, 212 N. Broadway St.
The downtown area has a mural trail featuring a mix of nods to the town’s history as well as some more contemporary photo opportunities (like angel wings at 309 N. Buckeye Ave. and the pose-with-a-giant mural at 200 N. Broadway Ave.). For the quintessential Abilene mural photo, go to 303 N. Broadway St.
While you’re in the area, there are some nice little shops to peek into. My favorite was Rivendell Bookstore, which had new and used books.
Sips Espresso Bar, 2309 N. Buckeye Ave.
Joe Snuffy’s Old Fashioned Grill, 209 W. First St.
Legacy Kansas at Brookville Hotel, 105 E. Lafayette Ave.
You know a place is good when there’s a line of cars in front on a Wednesday morning. Sips Espresso Bar is one of the few drive-through locally-owned places, and it’s worth the line! I had a tasty, flaky croissant sandwich and latte one morning (I went inside to skip the car line).
For more of diner experience, head to Joe Snuffy’s. It’s said to be the local’s favorite, and I can’t argue with that. The hash browns were great.
The fried chicken at Brookville Hotel used to draw in diners from around the region before it closed. Legacy Kansas is attempting to revive that recipe and family-style dining experience and combine with Munson’s Prime. I had a sneak peek at the restaurant’s menu during my visit and it’s promising. It’s not 100% in operation yet (there’s a lot of renovations in the works).