Abilene, Kansas

The proudest thing I can say is that I am from Abilene!” These were the words of former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who spent his boyhood in Abilene and always called it his home. Abilene is a small town in the US state of Kansas. Founded in the mid-19th century, the town became a key transit point for livestock. In fact, it was eventually given the nickname, “Queen of the Cowtowns”. Abilene was typical of a frontier town in what was once the Old West, complete with cowboys and gunfights. Today, the town is still very much part of the cattle industry, though fortunately, the lawlessness that characterized the Wild West is long gone.  

Geography Of Abilene

Aerial view of Abilene Kansas
Aerial view of Abilene, Kansas. Image credit: Ichabod via Wikimedia Commons

The town of Abilene is located in north-central Kansas, on the northern side of the Smoky Hill River, in the Flint Mountains region of the Great Plains. Mud Creek, which is a tributary of the Smoky Hill, flows south through the town. The closest major city to Abilene is Topeka, located about 153 km to the east. Kansas City is located further east, 224 km from Abilene. Wichita is located 151 km to the south, and Salina is located 43 km to the west. Abilene is situated at an elevation of 352 meters, and is 12.12 sq. km in area.

Population Of The Town

The population of Abilene is estimated at just over 6,000 residents, more than 94% of whom are classified as white. The town’s population has declined significantly over the last decade. According to the 2010 census, Abilene once had 6,844 residents, which works out to an 11.94% decline from 2010 up until today. More than 99% of Abilene’s population speak only English, and nearly 94% were born in the United States. Just over 70% of the town’s population were born in the state of Kansas.

Economy Of Abilene

The average household income in Abilene is $67,806, while the town’s poverty rate stands at 9.4%. Poverty disproportionately affects the town’s small Native American population. Native Americans make up just 1.52% of the population, but more than 25% of them live below the poverty line. In keeping with its history, Abilene is primarily a cattle yard town, where grain and livestock is transported to market on the railroad network.

History Of Abilene

The story of Abilene begins in 1858, when Timothy F. Hershey and his family settled in the area and built a log cabin. At first, the town’s name was Mud Creek, but the name was changed to Abilene, in reference to a verse in the Bible. The name meant “grassy plains” or “City of the Plains”. Although Hershey is credited as the founder of Abilene, the town was not laid out until 1860, after a man named C.H. Thompson built what was to be called “The Hotel” in the area. The growth of the town was initially slow, but it took off after the railroad was built through it in 1867. At this point, a livestock dealer from Illinois, Joseph G. McCoy, believed that with the railroad in place, Abilene would be a good site for a cattle shipping center to transport cattle from Texas to markets in the east. As a result of McCoy’s efforts, Abilene became a key livestock shipping point at the end of the so-called Chisholm Trail. The town was incorporated on September 6, 1869.

For the next two years, Abilene thrived as a frontier town, complete with stores, saloons, and gambling houses. As was typical of the so-called Wild West, the town was a site of lawlessness. In an attempt to bring law and order to Abilene, Tom Smith, who became the town’s first marshal, issued an order prohibiting people from wearing firearms in the town. Smith’s efforts to reduce the lawlessness in the area, however, were cut short when he was murdered in the nearby town of Detroit (not to be confused with Detroit, Michigan) trying to arrest someone.

Abilene
Gravestone of Albert Sizer, a horse thief hanged in 1859. Historical records indicate 93 horse thieves were lynched in Kansas from 1850 -1880.

He was succeeded by a man named Wild Bill Hickok, who gained notoriety and respect for his skilled marksmanship. When he served as marshal in 1871, he was very effective in preventing murders and the destruction of property. The townspeople felt they could count on him for protection. Hickok’s term as marshal came to an end, however, shortly after the so-called Hickory-Coe Gunfight, when the marshal exchanged fire with a man named Phil Coe. After this incident, Abilene’s founding fathers banned Texas cowboys from driving cattle through the town. At around the same time, newer railroads were built in the nearby towns of Newton, Wichita, and Ellsworth, making them more preferable as shipping sites.

Nevertheless, by the turn of the century, Abilene was still an important shipping center, as it lay at the juncture of several rail lines. Large shipments of cattle and grain transited through the town on an annual basis. The 20th century also saw the diversification of Abilene’s economy. The town became home to several manufacturers, including flour mills, creameries, foundries, an organ factory, carriage factories, ice factories, and more. In 1922, a telephone company called the United Telephone Company was founded in Abilene. This company went on to become Sprint. Abilene would continue to serve as an agricultural community and shipping port for cattle and grain up until the present time. 

Attractions In Abilene

Abilene
The house where President Eisenhower used to live when it was a little boy. Editorial credit: spoonphol / Shutterstock.com

Abilene boasts several attractions, including the boyhood home of former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower and his family moved to the town in 1892. The former president’s home now serves as a museum and the home of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library. Another interesting site in Abilene is the Seelye Mansion. The Georgian-style mansion was built in 1905 to be the home of Dr. A.B. Seelye and his family. Dr. Seelye, was one of the town’s foremost entrepreneurs, making his fortune in patent medicine as the owner of the Seelye Medical Company. In fact, to the rear of the mansion is where the Patent Medicine Museum is now situated. All of the mansion’s furnishing date back to the time it was built.

Abilene attraction
Entry sign at Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. Editorial credit: Barbara Kalbfleisch / Shutterstock.com

Want to get a taste of the Old West? Then you would be wise to visit the Old Abilene Town, which is a re-creation of the original, Wild West Abilene. Visitors to Old Abilene Town can see live cattle drives and re-enactments of gunfights. Other attractions in Abilene include C.W. Parker Carousel, Great Plains Theatre, the Greyhound Hall of Fame Museum, Big Spur, Dickenson Country Heritage Center, Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum, and the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad.

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