Cowtowns then and now
Cowtowns were midwestern frontier settlements that catered to the cattle industry. The prosperity of these areas was heavily dependent on the seasonal cattle drives from Texas, which brought the cowboys and the cattle that these towns relied upon.
Found at the junctions of railroads and livestock trails, these rough and tumble towns served as hubs for the cattle enterprise. Cattle would be bought and shipped off to urban meatpackers, midwestern cattle feeders, or to ranchers on the central or northern plains.
While these cowtowns look a little different today, their western legacy lives on!
Dodge City can trace its origins to 1871 when rancher Henry J. Sitler built a sod house west of Fort Dodge to oversee his cattle operations. Conveniently located near the Santa Fe Trail and Arkansas River, Sitler’s house quickly became a stopping point for travelers.
Dodge City became the major cattle town in 1876, and Caldwell joined it in 1880, but both towns were closed to the cattle trade in 1885 when Kansas outlawed the importation of Texan cattle.
Today the city’s pride and heritage bleed into the atmosphere with historic buildings, museums, and a recreated Old West street. The Dodge City Roundup Rodeo hosts numerous events throughout the year. The PRCA Rodeo marks the culmination of Dodge City Days, the second-largest annual community festival in Kansas, which celebrates the town’s rich history and western heritage.
Ogallala finally took its place as the cowboy capital of Nebraska in 1873. It was known as a relatively rough and tumble town, as many of the cattle towns were, and became known as “Gomorrah of the Plains.” The tiny town became the mecca for the trail herds of Longhorn cattle. The scrawny longhorn cattle driven to Ogallala were considerably bonier from the long drive by the time they reached the end of the trail. But once in Ogallala, they were purchased by local buyers and ranchers, fattened up on Nebraska’s good grasses over the coming year, and shipped back east or sold to the local army posts and Indian agencies. According to Ogallala historians, approximately seventy-five thousand head of cattle were driven to Ogallala in 1875 and increased to over 100,000 the next year (1876). The 1880 census showed the permanent population of Ogallala to be 114 people.
Today Ogallala is the home of historic Haythorn Land & Cattle Company, one of the most prestigious cattle and quarter-horse producers in the world. Haythorn Ranch is the home of Figure Four Events Center, which preserves the traditional cowboy allowing its guests to step back in time and experience the western lifestyle.
Front Street and Cowboy Museum keeps Ogallala’s western heritage alive through its Front Street Crystal Palace Revue. This theater production reenacts an old west shoot-out every Summer.
Cheyenne, with its easy access to the railroad, became the center of the Wyoming cattle trade. It differed from the usual cattle towns in that it was also a social and cultural center. Known for its opera house, Atlas Theatre, Cheyenne Club, Inter-Ocean Hotel, and a large number of businesses and mansions. Some of its best-known residents were Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane. Unlike other cattle towns, Cheyenne had a diverse economy. They did not rely solely on the cattle trade, which allowed it to prosper through the offseason and recover from economic fluctuations.
Cheyenne remains a diverse and prosperous town that boasts its western legacy through historic buildings, museums, and western events. Home of Cheyenne Frontier Days, dubbed “The Daddy of ’em All,” the Wyoming town still brings thousands of cowboys, cowgirls, ranchers, and western lifestyle enthusiasts to its city limits every Summer.