Kansas was the cradle of cowboy culture
“The typical cowboy … is a bad man to handle. Armed to the teeth, well mounted, and full of their favorite beverage, the cowboys will dash through the principal streets of a town, yelling. … This they call ‘cleaning out a town.’” — Kansas newspaper, 1882
Sure, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado all have their mountains.
Texas has its big cities and big-name ranches.
But Kansas gave the Old West everything iconic that westerners hold dear:
The Marlboro Man, Matt Dillon, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid.
But while the evolution of the West began from Kansas, it seldom draws the recognition of other states.
“The challenge for Kansas is that we are not the only western state out there,” said Jay Price director of the public history program at Wichita State University.
“Texas can be western, New Mexico is western, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado — all these places claim to be western and in some ways pull it off better than we can and are certainly able to market it more,” Price said. “We are simply not the only jeans in town when it comes to being western.”
Perhaps, after nearly a century and a half, the Old West has become a state of mind.
“Anymore, Kansas seems to be like a border state. When people think of the Old West they think farther west,” said David Flask, director of Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita.
But, Flask said, there are people out there who know Kansas was the cradle of the Old West.
“The international tourist knows exactly where we fit,” Flask said. “They are big Old West fans and have done their research and know we are the Old West.”
Kansans? Not so much.
“The biggest population that we have the hardest time convincing is the people who live here,” he said. “For a long time, if you were western, it meant you were backward. The goal was to promote us as a big, modern place with airplanes as opposed to capitalizing on our history.”
Talk with enough rural Kansans, though, and chances are the Old West still resonates.
Jim Hoy, director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University, remembers the shock he had the first time he gazed at a map of the Old West and Kansas wasn’t included.
“They’d just wiped us out,” he said.
Blame marketing campaigns.
Think about all the old westerns: Dodge City’s Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke” rode with mountains as his backdrop; Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” had Kansas fort names, and even the lead character, Lt. John Dunbar, was a real Kansan, but the movie was filmed in the Dakotas.
And, the Marlboro Man — Wayne Dunafon, from a ranch in northeast Kansas near Wamego and Westmoreland — became an American icon from 1964 to 1978 when he wore a long shearling duster, chaps and a Stetson hat.
“Those icons of the West wouldn’t be without Kansas,” Hoy said. “There wouldn’t be the cowboy, the boot or the hat. The cowboy was born on the dusty Chisholm Trail.”
The world is plenty full of faux and wannabe cowboys.
The 1950s and 1960s brought with them TV shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Bat Masterson” and “Wyatt Earp.” The 1970s brought in the “Urban Cowboy” look. For some Kansans in their 50s and 60s, that look took a permanent hold, Hoy said.
“There are pockets out there, like in Arizona and Utah, where every CPA and dentist wears a cowboy hat and boots but has never been close to a cow,” Hoy said. “But the Flint Hills, Smoky Hills and western cowboys of Kansas don’t make a splash.
“They are the real thing.”
Perhaps no other figure in American history is as romanticized as the cowboy.
He and his trusty horse traversed a handful of trails from Texas to the Kansas prairies with cantankerous Longhorn cattle.
It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the East Coast in particular was demanding quality beef. With the advent of railroads, supplying it became easier.
In Kansas, the heyday of the long cattle drives was from the late 1860s to 1887. The first cattle traversed the Chisholm Trail into Kansas in 1867.
The cowtowns that developed — Abilene, Wichita, Caldwell, Newton, Ellsworth and Dodge City — had rough and rowdy reputations.
In these towns, men such as Bat Masterson, Jack Ledford, Mike and John Meagher and Wyatt Earp developed their reputations as gunmen.
But on the prairies, cowboys lived and breathed.
They still do.
The cowboy way
Look almost anywhere in Kansas and the American cowboy is alive and well.
They wear the clothes. Their faces and necks are tanned and weathered, their hands callused and rough.
They may hang out at livestock auctions, the local co-op, Tractor Supply and Orscheln, but more likely than not they are just out there doing their jobs.
John Schmidt of Pawnee Rock was 5 years old when he broke his first horse.
“He was a colt. I was messing around with him, sitting on him, rode him in the creek without a bridle,” said Schmidt, now 57. “My folks saw that and decided it was time to break the horse. They brought out a cowboy. He saddled him up and rode him and said ‘this horse is already broke.’”
When he was a kid, Schmidt outgrew plenty of cowboy hats and boots.
Five decades later, his wardrobe hasn’t changed much.
He wears the hat, the chaps, the spurs and boots with cow manure on the toes and heels. He drives a pickup truck whose front seat is so littered with the tools and medicines he needs to doctor cattle that no other human can fit in.
More often than not that mud-splattered pickup has a livestock trailer connected to it and his favorite horse, J Bar, saddled, waiting inside.
Schmidt farms, but his preference is being a cowboy.
“It’s just freedom,” he said. “People talk about when you are on the back of a Harley going out and riding as freedom; but for me, freedom comes when you are on the back of your horse and checking cattle. It’s early morning and the grass is still damp. It gives you a peace of mind. It’s a way of life.”
Any cowboy knows, there are different breeds of cowboys.
There are feedyard cowboys — and cowboys that still ride the open range and are rodeo champions in their spare time.
By the time he was 6, Randy Peterson was herding cattle from the back of his horse. His daughter started going with him when she was 3.
He’s a third-generation Flint Hills cowboy. He runs several thousand cattle on the Buck Creek Ranch near Cottonwood Falls.
This year, Peterson is once again vying to be the world champion in Ranch Rodeo events. His team has qualified the last eight years in a row.
Being a cowboy is what he knows.
“That was just what we did,” said Peterson, 45. “The thing about it is you learn to be somebody who is going to get the job done with whatever it takes to do it. When we go doctor a calf, you don’t leave until it is doctored. I’ve seen some people go out and the calves will start running off — and they don’t get them. We’re not like that.
“There’s not enough hours in the day,” he said. “I always see these people who live in town, who always seem to got a lot more money than I do. They go to work at 8 and get off at 6. And we are always working from dark to dark. I never did think that part was very fair, but that’s life.”
On a recent Thursday morning when rain clouds swept over parts of Kansas, Peterson was out moving hay.
He was wearing wet clothes as he talked into his cellphone.
He’d stayed up late the night before baling. His jeans, boots and hat were all drenched.
“I did take my spurs off to haul the hay,” he said.
He got the job done.
What would the Old West be without music — without Roy Rogers, the Sons of the Pioneers and Gene Autry?
“Tennessee” Jim Farrell grew up in Tennessee, but moved to Kansas. He owns his own recording studio and is the harmony vocalist and rhythm guitarist for the Diamond W Wranglers.
He says the mystique and work ethic of the American cowboy started in the 1860s on the cattle trails to Kansas.
The cowboy way, Farrell said, was and still is all about integrity, doing your job and staying independent.
“It’s about doing the right thing when no one is looking, knowing what you are supposed to be doing and sacrificing your time, desires and goals to make it happen,” Farrell said. “The true cowboy code has to be that way or nothing would have gotten done.”
When the first cowboys traversed the trails, Farrell said, those virtues were quickly branded into their mindset.
“A lot of these kids had never been away from mom. Dad may have been killed in the (Civil) War and the boys had to be the breadwinners,” Farrell said.
“They saw that if you worked hard, you could be successful and you could make $50 to $75 when $200 would buy you a house and land. One of the things that freed the cowboy was that he could be on his own, away from society and still be okay.”
When he was growing up, Farrell said, he was drawn to the cowboy way first by its music, and then by its simple, philosophical code of conduct.
Every day he wears the clothes, hat and boots of a cowboy.
He believes in the cowboy philosophy and way of life.
“The cowboy way is like a force of nature,” he said. “If you have integrity and do the right thing, treat people well and take care of your job to the best of your ability, then that is what I think the cowboy is still admired for.”