Old Cowtown Living History Museum in Wichita, Kansas
By Jaclyn Schrock
Central City’s Wild Bunch was honored to be invited to the 5th “Age of the Gunfighters” demonstration, September 28 and 29. Meeting other groups from 10 states and sharing the historical experience in the Old Cowtown’s dusty streets in Wichita, Kansas is a living history experience for all who were there.
The Wild Bunch are grateful to give thanks for support and appreciation to the City of Central in Colorado for housing the Wild Bunch. Dramatic skits and gunfights are held between noon and 4 on the hour most summer Saturdays on historic Main Street, in Central City.
The Wild Bunch represents the Gilpin Historical Society (GHS), so are dependent on this organization to perpetuate the heritage of our western mining community. This nonprofit has supported the approximately 7-member, volunteer group for the past 11 years. The Wild Bunch teams up with GHS to facilitate fun historical events in our community.
The trip to Wichita could not be funded solely by tips received on the streets of Central City. We are so appreciative of the fund-raising opportunity we received from Roy’s Last Shot in August. Funds were also donated to Gilpin Historical Society for The Wild Bunch performances in the City of Morrison, and Golden’s Buffalo Bill Days. Monarch Productions paid for the finale gunfight in Cody’s Wild West Show, a re-enactment for the Buffalo Bill Days at the end of July, by The Wild Bunch and other friends.
The Wild Bunch portrays characters that came to our mountains after the 1859 discovery of gold. Local history is documented, with the help of our well preserved historic buildings and the Gilpin Historical Society.
There are stories of carriage rides, investments in narrow gauge steam trains being constructed, mining claims, gambling, and disputes. Lou Bunch Day in June is when the Wild Bunch begins the summer shoot-outs, in remembrance of those who found ways to spend their earnings in the towns in the area, cowboys, gamblers, railroad workers, saloon gals, business men and women, Rough Riders, as well as bored and sore miners all added color to the post-Civil War development of the west. Dignity was desired by the experienced Cornish, Welsh, and English miners and engineers who came here to demonstrate underground mining, so we still have a sure structure and continued use in the Teller House and our Central City Opera House.
Old Cowtown Museum
Wichita, Kansas originated as a trading post on the Chisholm Trail to drive cattle from Texas after the Civil War. Incorporated as a city in 1870, it became a destination for the abundance of free range cattle. The Kansas rail lines shipped cattle to American cities in the east and west.
Wichita’s Museums on the River include: The Wichita Art Museum, Old Cowtown, Mid-America All Indian Center, Exploration Place, and Botanica – The Wichita Gardens.
Wichita was known as “Cowtown” so the museum district along the Arkansas River is the home of Old Cowtown, the largest living museum west of the Mississippi. Of the 41 buildings on the six streets in historically re-created Old Cowtown, thow-thirds of them are the original Kansas structures relocated to the museum.
The wide dirt streets, board walks, homes, saddles, music, photos, shops, post office, general store, bank, doctor’s office, livery stable, train depot, grain elevator, hotel, salon and farm make remembering the life of the western frontier clearly possible. The school, church, and mortuary have pump organs, two of which were heard being played. Each building is its own museum, with all the period correct objects and narrative signs.
Period correct interpreters work in the blacksmith shop, carpentry shop, the print shop for the paper, the dress shop, and the farm. There are interpreters that tell their stories in a park area. There are coach rides given daily. Twice a day every day in the summer are gun fights, and the Dixie Lee Saloon Girls do a can-can show in the saloon with a piano player.
Special events throughout the whole year are common, as are school trips. Most of the daily events are found in the summer season with the largely outdoor museums.
It is on these dusty streets that the Age of the Gunfighter demonstrates the stories and shoot-outs that keep the history and life of the frontier development of the western United States. These experiences help us realize how the life we live in 2019 developed from events after our Civil War.
Age of the Gunfighter
Wichita’s gathering of gunfighters has been considered a primer event in the Midwest. Many years previously, the event was a competition with very strict requirements regarding only absolutely period correct clothing, fire arms, vocabulary and actions, to represent the 1870’s. This year the event was a little less restrictive, but provided a location to keep non-period correct accessories for the volunteer gun-fighting groups.
Friday evenings in Old Cowtown had never been seen by the Wild Bunch, so it knocked our socks off with real living history. We couldn’t possibly take in all the historic community events that evening. We were so thrilled to walk the dirt roads with a horse and rider passing through.
A warm welcome was extended to this Colorado group, being new to the scene. We did meet up with many who were setting up old canvas tents and had a fire going for the gun fighters who were camping there for the weekend. The Wild Bunch stayed in more futuristic lodging conditions.
The holding area for the volunteers provided back door access to a kitchen for beverages, restrooms and on into the hall where food vendors and tables were set. The Wild Bunch unloaded the Century Casino decks of cards and dice to be passed out. Also, the casket for photographs, and table and chairs were kept here. Goods were not exactly kept dry in the fenced area, there was much humidity, heat, and even rain. There were almost 30 vendors offering their wares, some inside buildings and some on the streets with tents.
Coming to share in the fun, other groups arrived to perform, but the schedule was full so they just watched and cheered the action. Scheduled gun-fighting groups performed every 18 minutes from 10:30 a.m. Saturday until 4:30 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. until the grand finale group show at 4:15 p.m.
Saturday morning began with breakfast at the gunfighter’s campsite. There was a safety talk in the roped off street where the gun fights would be held. This was between the marshal’s office, blacksmith shop, and grain elevator on the west side of the street, with shops, the saloon, and hotel on the other side of the street. The train station was at one end of the cross street and the bank and shops at the other cross street.
Even though they are shooting blanks, each black powder gun had to be tested to not splatter any residue or wadding on a paper plate at a distance of 15 feet. Safety is always of utmost importance, including talking safety to the crowds. Guest began filling the living museum at 10 a.m.
Clip-on microphones were available for groups to amplify their speaking parts.
The Central City Wild Bunch was the first up on Saturday morning. Museum guests had begun lining both sides of the street and other gun fighters watched, too.
Bad guy Mike Keeler harassed money man, banker and undertaker Ed Harris (Tom Matthews) when he saw his elegant wife, (Jaclyn Schrock) coming to town. Outlaw Keeler out-drew Harris in the gunfight, bringing much anguish to his wife when he was left lying on the ground. The winner snagged her purse, taking the cash she was bringing to her husband’s bank. Over confident, Keeler was showing off how easy it was to get the cash while the wife retrieved her purse to try and shoot at the thief with her hidden pistol. Marshal Glass (Jonas Schrock) came to the rescue and shot the thief. Keeler never heard the shots coming at him, but the smoke was seen. Dark clouds had moved in and thunder rolled through the show.
Up next, the Marlow Gunfighters from Duncan, Oklahoma traveled 230 miles for the event.
Then came the Morrow Bone Gunfighters, traveling 787 miles from Morrow Bone, Texas to complete.
They were followed by the Caldwell Regulators, who traveled about 70 miles in Kansas.
The notorious Dalton Gang from Coffeyville, KS traveled more than 100 miles to show off their train robbing technique.
Images of the American West was an artfully performed large troupe with members from North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, traveling over a 1,000 miles.
The Holden Posse included Wyatt and Josephine Earp from Holden, Missouri traveling nearly 200 miles.
The Indian Territory Pistoliers came 234 miles from Fort Smith, Arkansas
The Flint Hills Outlaws gathered in Wichita from east Kansas, hailing from Lawrence, Topeka, Emporia, Gardner, Perry, as well as Platt City, MO.
The Guthrie Gunfighters come from Oklahoma City, 150 miles away.
There was a break in the action of gun-fighting groups for some gun fighters to entertain with music and song with traditional instruments.
Simultaneously, many historical characters were heard telling their personal story in the park area both days. Some who spoke were Mattie Silks, Billy the Kid, Bat Masterson, Buffalo Bill Cody, three of the Dalton boys, Wyatt and Josie Earp, Patrick Murphy, and Madam Fannie Porter. Most characters were played by volunteers from the gun fighting groups.
Early afternoon the Central City Wild Bunch began the rotation of groups repeating their show until evening. The Wild Bunch, who traveled 550 miles, did a skit where Outlaw Mike tries to impress a lady from the audience with the gifts he offers her. She is taken out of the scene when all the gifts are given, and then the gunfight begins.
Sunday was not as wet as the previous day, nor as hot. The schedule didn’t begin until after a traditional church service was held for all who wished to attend. Church was near the main entrance to Old Cowtown in Wichita’s First Presbyterian Church, built 1870. The message given by William Kenney was on the Lord’s prayer. Organist Dakota Bennett pumped the organ with his feet while playing, as we sang some hymns.
Beginning the gun fights later in the day and with only one skit per group, allowed us time to tour through the historical museum town. The individual buildings and town as a whole had much to be seen. Everywhere folks could be seen visiting with new and old friends.
At their Sunday performance, the Wild Bunch gave some Gilpin County history and introduced each of the members who traveled to Wichita. They did a skit including a wanted poster for bad guy Mike, making undertaker Ed Harris dance, and involving Lou Bunch with the saying “it isn’t over until the fat lady sings.”
The Images of the American West group had the most entertaining skits. We all learned from them! They did one skit on Horace Tabor gaining and losing deeds to a mine. They did another as a frontier version of Romeo and Juliet with the rival sides having a gunfight and no one getting hurt, except Rufus and Julianna attempting to run away. So the two sides were sorrowful for the loss of each of their family members, but decided the fight was over. They decided to celebrate the end of their differences in the saloon. When the gunfighters were all inside, the love birds who had faked their death, got up, grabbed their bags and headed to the train station, to live happy ever after one would hope.
On Sunday there was also a quick-draw contest, which was very entertaining to see which gunfighters’ balloon popped first.
The finale show had a great story line and used cast members from all the groups. It involved a bank robbery with our Outlaw Keeler as one of the robbers, and so much more to the story. Everyone enjoyed the whole day!
There is too much to retell of the many events of the weekend for the Central City Wild Bunch. History really comes alive when those who love it can share it.