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Abilene

a city in and county seat of Dickinson County; population (2010 census) 6,844

location of Abilene

History

In 1858 Timothy and Eliza Hersey established a stopping point for the Butterfield Overland Stage Line. More settlers followed, and by 1860 the stage stop had grown into a small town. It was then that Mrs. Hersey randomly opened a Bible to the third chapter of Luke, in the first verse of which is the name Abilene, meaning "city of the plain." Abilene became the seat of Dickinson County in 1861.

Abilene remained little more than a stage stop surrounded by a small town until it was reached by the Kansas Pacific Railroad in 1867. Seeing the opportunities presented by the railroad in providing a means of transporting Texas cattle to markets in the east, Joseph G. McCoy came to Abilene that same year with the plan of making it a cattle shipping center and built a stockyard and hotel for the purpose. By the end of 1867 some 35,000 cattle had been driven to Abilene over the Chisholm Trail and shipped via the new railroad to Chicago. Abilene grew quickly, and was incorporated on June 4, 1870, with McCoy as Mayor.

In 1870 Abilene boasted ten boarding houses, ten saloons, five general stores, and four hotels.
Abilene in 1870

The cattle shipping industry brought prosperity to Abilene, but it also brought a wealth of drunk cowboys, gamblers, and other "assorted criminals." To bring law and order to the city, Thomas J. "Bear River" Smith was hired as the first Chief of Police on June 4, 1870. One of his first official acts was to issue an order that no one would be allowed to carry firearms within the city limits without a permit, an order which he enforced vigorously. Smith had a reputation for subduing assailants with his fists rather than a gun, but on November 2, 1870, he was forced to use a gun while attempting to arrest an accused murderer named Andrew McConnell. McConnell shot Smith, but Smith was able to return fire and wound McConnell before falling to the ground.Smith died of his wound; McConnell survived and was sentenced to twelve years in the state penitentiary for his crimes.

Smith was succeeded by James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, already well known for his marksmanship and gunfighting skills. Appointed on April 15, 1871, Hickok was initially well liked and respected by Abilene residents. The admiration was short-lived, however, as Hickok tended to spend more time at the Alamo Saloon than "on patrol," and he was let go before the end of the year.

"Wild Bill" Hickok as he looked when hired as Abilene's Chief of Police.
Wild Bill Hickok

By 1871 the end of the Chisholm Trail had moved south towards Caldwell and Abilene had ceased to be the largest cattle shipping center in Kansas. Unlike many other "cattle boom towns," Abilene was able to survive the loss of business, thanks primarily to its continued importance as a stop for passenger trains.

A circus parade draws Abilene residents in 1895.
Abilene in 1895

Economy

Cattle are still an important part of Abilene's economy, as are wheat, corn, and other food crops. Tourism is also a major industry.

Sites of Interest

The Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad uses vintage locomotives and cars to take passengers on a 10-mile excursion ride through the Smoky River Valley. It operates out of the historic 1887 Rock Island Railroad Depot. [website]

Dwight David Eisenhower was two years old when his family moved to Abilene, and he called Abilene his hometown for the rest of his life. His boyhood home is now part of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum complex, which also includes his and his wife's graves. [website]

Statue of General Eisenhower at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.
statue of Dwight D. Eisenhower

Famous racing greyhounds are enshrined in the Greyhound Hall of Fame, which is ranked among the top 10 Halls of Fame across the nation. [website]

The Heritage Center depicts life on the plains during the American pioneer movement and westward expansion periods. It features both indoor exhibits as well as an outdoor museum area that includes a cabin, a grocery store built in 1932, and an original 1901 C.W. Parker Carousel. [website]

Three generations of the Jeffcoat family participated in documenting Dickinson County. Their photography and equipment, spanning 100 years can be viewed at the Jeffcoat Photography Museum. [website]

Abilene native, C. L. Brown created the United Telephone Company, which later became the telecommunications giant Sprint. The Museum of Independent Telephony, located inside the Heritage Center, recreates the unique flavor of early independent telephone system history through exhibits of antique telephones, insulators, switchboards and pay stations.

Abilene as it was in the 1860’s is depicted at Old Abilene Town, which includes several log cabins, an 1873 T. C. Henry carriage house, a one-room school house, and the 1860’s Potter Kansas newspaper office. [website]

Seelye Mansion was built in 1905 by A. B. Seelye, a patent medicine entrepreneur. The mansion contains its original furnishings, purchased by the Seelye’s at the 1904 Worlds Fair. The associated Patent Medicine Museum depicts Dr. Seelye's turn-of-the-century medicine business. [website]

OFFICIAL WEBSITES
City of Abilene www.abilenecityhall.com

SEE ALSO
Joseph G. McCoy
Dwight David Eisenhower
Sprint

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: Local History and Description >> The West >> Kansas >> Cities and Towns

This page was last updated on August 25, 2017.