To turn a phrase commonly associated with the Old West, the folks of Dodge City, Kan., “live with their boots on.”
The southwestern Kansas city of 27,340, historically known as the Queen of the Cowtowns, centers its tourism industry efforts on a recreated settlement born of local history and made famous in the radio and television versions of “Gunsmoke.”
Boot Hill, which contains a number of buildings in the replicated cattle town, includes a museum housing more than 60,000 objects, photos and documents from the Old West era.
Initial plans to leverage Dodge City’s infamy as a tourist attraction were met with some resistance. The town was notably wild and rugged, and many considered it the most dangerous place in the U.S. at the time.
But the Dodge City Daily Globe, in a Feb. 9, 1932, editorial, asked, “Why should Dodge City be ashamed of Boot Hill? Have we become so goody goody that the days of the primitive, elemental West offends our fine sense of right and wrong?”
During the ’50s site, attractions included a hangman’s tree with three nooses, a saloon featuring can-can dancers, a two-cell jail stolen from nearby Fort Dodge — with the eye-winking acquiescence of the fort’s government caretakers — and an open pit inside the 1947 museum revealing the skeleton of one of Boot Hill Cemetery’s original inhabitants.
Over the next two decades, tourism burgeoned to a peak of nearly half a million annual visitors. After the “Gunsmoke” TV series was canceled in 1975, the attraction’s antagonists resurrected their objections, blaming the resultant decline in visitors to site’s grisly bawdiness.
The hangman’s tree and several sacrilegious cemetery headstones were jettisoned and the open grave was covered by flooring.
Curators added more family amenable educational sections devoted homesteading, Victorian fashion and Native American culture, and visitors can now stand on the museum floor and experience the jostling of a simulated buffalo stampede.
The area of the cemetery not taken up by the museum’s footprint is now a docile, well-manicured exhibit sporting inoffensive natural wood headstones and educational markers.
In 1985 the complex was accredited by the American Association of Museums.
Boot Hill has a storied history, serving several purposes other than as a pauper cemetery.
- Circa 1872: The land on the outskirts of town was converted into the town’s first cemetery to inter the penniless, drifters and victims of the rather common bouts of gunfighting in the streets of Dodge City. Many of the graveyard’s residents met sudden violent ends, literally “dying with their boots on,” thus earning the cemetery the moniker Boot Hill. Coyotes dug up many of the remains soon after their burial.
- 1878: The cemetery was used for six years. The expanding town recognized the commercial value of the land and transferred most of the remaining bodies to a new privately owned cemetery in January 1879.
- 1890: The new cemetery closed and the remains were returned to Boot Hill.
- 1890s: A school was built on the site of Boot Hill Cemetery. Rumor had it children found bones during recess.
- Late 1920s: The town erected a city hall on the site.
- 1947: The Dodge City Junior Chamber of Commerce built the current museum, taking up most of the cemetery’s land area.
The site’s buildings and exhibits hail the gritty history of the area. They include:
- Guns That Won the West, an exhibit of more than 200 rare and historic firearms, including Winchester, Colt and other guns used by frontiersmen, buffalo hunters, gamblers, lawmen and outlaws. The exhibit also displays an extensive collection of handcuffs.
- Blacksmith shop, dated to the 1870s, fully equipped to forge horseshoes and tools and fix wagon wheels.
- Santa Fe Depot, a 1930 Sitka, Kan., structure moved to Boot Hill in 1970.
- The “Boot Hill Special,” a locomotive built in 1903 that has logged more than a million miles.
- First Union Church, the most recent transplanted building, originally used as an oil drillers shack in the early 1900s.
- Hardesty House, a kit-built Gothic Revival-style home built in 1879. The interior decor denotes an upperclass Victorian lifestyle.
Nine miles west of Dodge City lies the longest and best preserved section of the Santa Fe Trail. The ruts etched by thousands pioneer wagons have never been plowed over. At the behest of the local Jaycees, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the “Santa Fe Trail Remains” as a National Historical Landmark in 1963.
Yearly themed festivals include the Boots and Beer Auction, Old Fashioned 4th of July, Bull Fry and Bash, High Noon Big Gunfight with more than 50 reenactors and the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
Honorary marshals have been chosen annually since 1952. Among the honorees: Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, John F. Kennedy, Johnny Cash, Paul Harvey, Victor Borge, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Lawrence Welk, Reggie Jackson, Richard Petty and Martina McBride.
The museum complex is open year-round, except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.