Abilene's History


The colorful history of Abilene dates from the pioneer cattle days when great herds of longhorns were driven overland from Texas to Abilene, the western terminus of the first railroad through Kansas.  The City of Abilene holds a colorful position in the annuals of the Old West.  Many of the legends and the traditions of the cowboy days had their origin in the Abilene of nearly a century ago.  Unlike so many pioneer boom town, Abilene never lost its fame and character.

The story of Abilene had its beginning in the year 1858 when Timothy F. Hersey and his family chose a spot on the present of the city for their log cabin.  It was named by Mrs. Hersey.  In allowing it to fall open where it might.  It happened to be at the third chapter of Luke, in the first verse of which is the name of Abilene, meaning City of the Plains.  The growth of the city was slow until the Kansas Pacific Railroad was built through Abilene in 1867.  A livestock dealer form Illinois, Joseph G. McCoy, saw the opportunities presented by the railroad in providing a means of transporting Texas cattle to markets in the est.  McCoy came to Abilene with the plan of making it a cattle shipping center and built a stockyard and hotel for the purpose.  The new enterprise prospered until 1872 when newer railroads put Newton, Wichita, and Ellsworth in favored positions as shipping points.

As the end of the Texas cattle trail -- Chisholm Trail -- it rapidly became a wild and "open" frontier town.  Stores, saloons, and gambling houses sprang up to compete for the patronage of the cowboys.  With the prosperity of the cattlemen came an era of lawlessness.  Tom Smith, who had the reputation of being one of the bravest men in the  West, became the first city marshal.  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.  Smith's ability was well enough respected that even the most troublesome cowboys and gamblers obeyed.  In 1870, however, Smith was murdered while attempting to arrest a man near the town of Detroit.

Tom Smith's successor as city marshal was the famous Wild Bill Hickok.  Wild Bill's name was well known in the west before he came to Abilene, but the deadly marksmanship he displayed in keeping the city quiet and orderly throughout 1871 added to his fame.  His reported long record of fatal shots at white men, or of knives sunk in their hearts, whether he acted as a Union Scout in the Civic War, frontier guide, duelist, marshal or gambler, caused the citizens to give him a wide berth.  He figured as the recognized superior among the two-pistol men (meaning ability to shoot straight with either hand or both hands at once.)

Wild Bill's headquarters in Abilene was in the palatial Alamo Saloon.  The town trustees appointed him marshal because of his skilled fearlessness.  He served in this capacity for either months, during 1871.  He prevented murders and the destruction of property through the dread of his twin-pistols, and for this he deserved and received credit, especially because of the increasing cattle trade.  He spent most of his time in the Alamo Saloon, on lusty, gaudy, old Texas Street - center of the town's wild life - not being too friendly with either substantial citizens (who wouldn't be caught dead or alive in the Alamo) or with drunken cowboys (who, without Wild Bill's presence, might often have been found dead in the Alamo, or some other saloon.)    He was a lone wolf, fearing no man. After taking office, he stopped the gun play and convinced the renegade cowboys that he meant business - the law would be enforced.  On the other hand, he made no attempt to cleanup the town, possibly thinking that the whole situation might get out of control is such measures were taken.

Without Wild Bill, the townspeople had been in terror over the prospects of anarchy and chaos; with him, they went about their business calmly and unmolested.  Hickok left that winter; Abilene quieted down by itself the next year when the railroad hit towns further south, and happily, became a peaceful, quiet, law-abiding community.  

Note: Abilene, Texas was named after Abilene, Kansas in 1881.

Fast Facts:

  • The United Telephone Company, which is now Sprint, was formed in Abilene by C. L. Brown.  In 1922, Brown required employees to save 10% of their income for retirement.
  • Dwight David Eisenhower, 34 President of the United States, spent his childhood in Abilene, Kansas and is buried on the site of his Presidential Library, Museum, & Boyhood Home.  Eisenhower was born in Denison Texas but spent his childhood in Abilene.  His boyhood home is located in its original spot on the Eisenhower Campus.
  • Abilene played a key role in the transport of cattle from Texas to U. S. markets.  The Chisholm Trail was 1000 miles long, ending in Abilene, Kansas.  The cattle were then loaded on railcars and taken to markets throughout the U. S.
  • The first white child in Dickinson County was born in a dugout located where the Lebold Mansion stands today.  Timothy & Elizabeth Hersey settled in Abilene, choosing the name of the city after a verse in the bible, “Abilene”, meaning city of the plains.
  • Tom Smith was the first U. S. Marshal killed in the line of duty in the U. S.  He enforced the no-gun law in Abilene and is buried at the Abilene Cemetery.
  • Dr. A. B. Seelye created a patent-medicine company in Abilene, covering 14 mid-western states and carrying over 100 products.  His home was built in 1905 and still holds its original furnishings today.
  • Dickinson County raises more greyhound dogs than anywhere in the world.  Abilene is known at the Greyhound Capital of the World.  The National Greyhound Association headquarters are located west of the city.  The Greyhound Hall of Fame tells the story of the greyhound canine and the racing industry.
  • T. C. Henry was Abilene’s first Mayor.  He introduced wheat to the state of Kansas by secretly planting 5,000 acres.  When he saw that it was a successful wheat crop, he introduced the seed to others.  At one time, Henry owned thousands of acres between Abilene and Enterprise.
  • C. W. Parker began his carousel business in Abilene.  He became fascinated with carousels when he came across one while on a walk with his young daughter.  After purchasing multiple rides for her, Parker decided the amusement business would be a good venture.  He bought his first carousel and soon after, began designing and building his own.  He moved his company from Abilene to Leavenworth, Kansas after the city fathers declined giving him incentives to expand his business in Abilene.
  • Marshal Wild Bill Hickok was the most famous marshal of Abilene.  He left Abilene after accidently shooting a friend.  He settled in Deadwood, South Dakota, where he was killed.
  • Great Plains Theatre is the only live professional theatre between Kansas City and Denver.  GPT is offers live productions and movies.
  • The World’s Largest Spur, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is at Rittel's Western Wear  The spur stands over 27 feet tall and weighs 2,000 pounds.
  • The World's Largest Belt Buckle is in Abilene, Kansas.