Dodge City, Kansas is the first town that we spent an entire day exploring. Why? Well, my father Jerry attended St. Mary’s of the Plains College for a little over 18 days. He also insisted we find a “small restaurant on the hill that served Schooners and had really good tacos!” We could not locate this establishment that he could not remember the name of, because that was 35 years ago.
There are other reasons someone may stop in Dodge City; one being it has historical significance as the Santé Fe Trail ran just west of town. Many wagons stopped in town to resupply as they pushed farther west to explore. Dodge City was once a hub for cowboys and outlaws, the cattle industry saw as many as 20,000 head driven into town in the early 1900’s. They still have two meat packing plants that supply the town with most of its economy.
As we walked down Gunsmoke Street, a small man in full cowboy ensemble, including 10-gallon hat and boot spurs, stopped us. He informed us that he was Charlie Meade, the one and ONLY US Marshal in the Dodge City territory since 1965, and current town historian. If we had a few minuets he would give us the full rundown of the city. It’s not everyday you can get this kind of quality information so we perked our ears up.
In 1865 Dodge Fort was established as a safe haven for wagons headed west on the Santé Fe Trail. The Fort provided refuge from Indian attacks and acted as a resupply station. A few years later the Santé Fe Railroad came to town turning it to a hot bed for travelers, buffalo hunters and outlaws. “Historic Front St. was built soon after, a person could damn near get anything they needed! Buffalo hunters were killing upward of 400 head a day!” Charlie told us with some excitement. “In 1885 fires swept through downtown turning it to ashes. The city rebuilt with brick and the city survived.” Charlie told us that front street thrived until 1970 when the city received a grant for $2 million to revamp Front Street and make improvements under the governments “Urban Renewal” program. To the dismay of many citizens, including Charlie Meade, instead of revamping the city the buildings on Front Street were demolished. The blocks that contained these historic buildings were used for road expansion and parking lots.
We walked down the street a couple more blocks and popped into Dodge City Brewing to end our day. The owners were kind and allowed us to sit on the patio with Olive. The beer was unbelievably good in the 90-degree heat but the pizza was even better, we split one and considered ordering another.
On the ride back to our campsite we thought about what Dodge City was, and what it is now. It’s the age-old story of a Boomtown to modern day struggling American city. Most of what used to be the prominent downtown of the “Gateway to the West” now consists of rundown buildings and parking lots. There’s still hope for Dodge, but it’s hard to believe it will ever return to the 1900’s no nonsense, real deal, cattle driving, outlaw chasing, western hub, that Charlie Meade can still picture.