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Relive legend of the Old West in Dodge City

History mixes with Hollywood in Dillon's town

Dressed in a period costume, Barry Metcalf waits to greet visitors at the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City, Kan. The museum has about 11,000 artifacts on display about Dodge City's Old West heritage.
Dressed in a period costume, Barry Metcalf waits to greet visitors at the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City, Kan. The museum has about 11,000 artifacts on display about Dodge City's Old West heritage.
Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

DODGE CITY, Kan. — It's a scene familiar to "Gunsmoke" fans — Marshal Dillon faces the gunslinger in the middle of a Dodge City street. Guns are drawn, shots are fired.

Dillon wins and another show begins about life in Old West Dodge City, or at least the Hollywood version.

But to find out what life was really like in the Old West, spend some time where the likes of Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday really did walk the streets.

"We like to attract visitors with the romance of the Old West and show them the real history of what Dodge City and the Old West was like," said Andy Stanton, director of the Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Many of the 100,000 visitors each year arrive with a preconceived idea of what the west Kansas town should be. They come from just about every state and many foreign counties, particularly Germany and the United Kingdom.

"It's amazing. People are disappointed that the streets aren't dirt and we don't ride horses to work. But when they see there is a lot of history, they're surprised by all that's here," Stanton said.

In its Old West heyday, Dodge City gained fame as a buffalo hunter's trade center and then as a cowtown, some say a lawless cowtown. Cattle were driven from Texas on the Western Trail for railroad shipment back East. The town still thrives on meatpacking plants and feedlots where on any given day visitors can see all the cattle they want.

One attraction is the Boot Hill Museum that includes an 1876 replica of Front Street, based on journals and photographs of the time.

Founded in 1947, the museum has 11,000 artifacts on display out of 28,000 it has gathered over the years from around Dodge City.

The inside of old stores is replicated, complete with furnishings, in what almost seems like a trip back in time. The hardware store includes tools and nails used back then and the print shop has a press and type that Earp would recognize.

"It takes you back to relive the legend. We're trying to preserve the history for the public. We love to entertain people, but our main purpose is protecting that history," said Gloria Barngrover, the museum's general manager.

While the characters were fictional, "Gunsmoke" did make Dodge City known to just about every American household.

The museum pays tribute to the show with a display including furniture from the 1960s and an old television tuned to the show. On the walls are numerous signed photographs from the show's actors and other memorabilia.

"The 'Gunsmoke' exhibit is a big attraction. Dodge City has a lot of history, but 'Gunsmoke' brought it into their living rooms," Barngrover said.

Barngrover said she actually gets questions from people about Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty and the other characters.

"They don't separate the fictional from the real life. Some thought they were real people from the past," she said. "We've had people call and ask if Matt Dillon still had relatives in town."

There's a section of the old Boot Hill Cemetery where visitors can walk and read reproduced grave markers with actual epitaphs. It served as a cemetery for about six years before the bodies were moved in 1879 because the land was needed for the expanding town.

Also on display is an old one-room schoolhouse, a Victorian house built in 1878 and filled with period furnishings and a blacksmith shop where a smith works during the summer showing how it was done back then.

Fort Dodge is five miles east of town. Built in 1865, it's now a home for retired veterans and has a self-guided walking tour and a library-museum. Nine miles west of town is the Santa Fe Trail where deep swales caused by the constant use of wagons still are visible and the wind still blows across the prairie.