Most days, Brent Harris wears a baseball cap to work at Boot Hill Museum, where he is the lead woodworker and handyman. But today Harris is wearing a black Stetson.
The hat, combined with his bushy silver handlebar mustache, makes him instantly recognizable as the “marshal” whose steely gaze confronts visitors from billboards and brochures all over town.
From his perch atop a vintage stagecoach in the parking lot of Boot Hill Museum, Harris squints into the glaring white August sunlight at the crowds unspooled like colorful ribbons down both sides of Wyatt Earp Boulevard. Tourists perching on folding camp chairs and locals standing on tailgates have staked out front-row seats for a spectacle: the first cattle drive down city streets in more than a century.
And not just any cattle: a herd of longhorn steers from Chain Ranch near Canton, Okla.
“I think the reason they are here is the same reason why a lot of people go to car races. I suspect everybody showed up to see a crash, but these boys out of Oklahoma know what they’re doing. This isn’t their first cattle drive,” says Harris, whose stagecoach is leading the 2-mile cattle procession.
Still, you never know exactly how livestock will react in an unfamiliar setting.
“A Wal-Mart bag can blow across the road and you’ve got a rodeo,” Harris says, admitting to feeling a little extra alert as he climbs onto the bench atop the stagecoach.
When the 1,600-pound red-and-white-speckled steers spill out through the parking lot arch and onto the boulevard, they are moving faster than you would expect. you’ve got to jog a little to keep up with their walking pace.
The longhorns seem curious but unbothered as tourists lean in with camera phones in outstretched arms. Now and again the steers turn toward the curb and pause, as if posing for Instagramers looking for the money shot of their horns, which span up to 7 feet tip-to-tip.
One woman springs out of her chair when a longhorn strides towards her. The steer takes a long slurp of water from a foam cup in the chair’s cup holder, then rejoins the parade.
Welcome to Dodge City Days.
The cattle drive is a new addition to the 54-year-old event, which combines two earlier celebrations: the Boot Hill Fiesta and the Dodge City Roundup rodeo.
Dodge City Days is already the second largest community festival in Kansas (after Wichita’s Riverfest), drawing 100,000 visitors to more than 75 events over 10 days and generating $3 million for city businesses and organizations.
But Boot Hill Casino, which opened in 2009, is placing a bet that bringing longhorns back into Dodge could boost those numbers significantly. The casino shelled out a cool $100,000 to put on the cattle drive, which included appearances by three Hollywood actors: Buck Taylor, 76, who played Newly O’Brien on “Gunsmoke”; Johnny Crawford, 68, who played Mark McCain on “The Rifleman”; and Overland Park native and Shawnee Mission West grad John Lehr, 46, who stars in “Quick Draw,” a Hulu original series set in Dodge City, now in its second season.
Taylor, O’Brien and Lehr, all costumed in Western gear, entertained crowds at a simulated gunfight at Boot Hill Museum before saddling up to ride in the cattle drive. Lehr had been on horses as a kid when visiting relatives in El Dorado, Kan., but he had a lot to learn when filming started for “Quick Draw,” like how to gallop with one hand on the reins while shooting a pistol.
Still, Lehr doesn’t confuse his new riding abilities with real cattle work. At one point during the drive, as the longhorns approach the 14th Avenue bridge over the Arkansas River bed (the river has been dry for years), several steers veer down a bank when they spy a stand of lush green grass.
“That was where everybody could see very clearly the fake cowboys like me staying back and watching while the real cowboys got down to business,” Lehr recalled later.
It was fitting, in a way, because real and fake cowboys have played about equal parts in Dodge City’s colorful history.
The town of Dodge City was established in 1872 at the foot of a hill on the Santa Fe Trail, 5 miles west of Fort Dodge. Boot Hill Museum’s Harris says the town was not built closer to the fort, where it would have enjoyed greater security, because the fort commander banned alcohol sales within 5 miles of the garrison.
Less than a year later, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad arrived to find a thriving town with quickly slapped up shops selling frontier supplies for settlers on the Santa Fe Trail as well as a saloon and dance hall.
Then real wealth began pouring into the new town from the buffalo trade. From 1872 to 1874, historians estimate, 850,000 buffalo hides were shipped from Dodge City.
“One buffalo hide was a very good week’s wage,” Harris says.
During those first two years, the city had no local law enforcement, and the military had no jurisdiction over it, leading to its reputation for lawlessness and sin. By 1876, the town of 1,200 had 19 saloons.
The city’s next chapter saw order restored by lawmen such as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp, keeping the popular image of Dodge City alive.
By 1875, the buffalo were gone but dollars began hoofing into town from Texas. From 1876 to 1885, 5 million head of longhorn cattle — shunned in eastern Kansas because they carried a tick that devastated domestic herds — were driven up from Texas to the rail head in Dodge City for shipping to beef-hungry Eastern cities.
By the time the cattle drives ended in the 1890s because railroad lines had expanded into Texas, Dodge City had cemented its reputation as “Cowboy Capital of the World.”
Hollywood helped maintain and enhance that image with several films and especially “Gunsmoke,” the popular TV series set in Dodge City that aired from 1955 to 1975.
“Gunsmoke” made Dodge City an international phenomenon. Harris estimates one in three visitors to Boot Hill is from outside the U.S. “People come here from all over the world — Australia, Japan, Russia, France. When non-Americans think of the U.S., they think of two cities: New York and Dodge City. I hear that every day.”
Even though the series was canceled almost 40 years ago, reruns still air around the world. And Kevin Costner’s film “Wyatt Earp” introduced younger generations of Americans who never saw “Gunsmoke” to Dodge City’s Wild West legacy.
The longhorn cattle are a physical and thematic link between kitschy, Hollywood-influenced Boot Hill and the uber-authentic cowboy heritage of the Dodge City Roundup, one of the richest and most popular rodeos on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit.
By mid-afternoon the day of the cattle drive, tickets have sold out to the evening’s rodeo performance.
Roundup Arena is an open-air venue with a covered grandstand on one side and bleachers on the other three. The dust in the air as the sun sets creates a Technicolor backdrop for the world’s top steer wrestlers, team ropers, barrel racers and bronc riders.
In addition to having the richest purse (more than $310,000 in 2013) in Kansas, the Roundup is home to the Miss Rodeo Kansas competition. Throughout Dodge City Days, contestants compete in fashion and public speaking events and mingle with the crowds, with the winner announced at the Saturday night performance.
In 2008, Time magazine picked the Dodge City Roundup as the Kansas entry for its list of “50 Authentic American Experiences,” calling it the “greatest show on dirt.”
Another first at Dodge City Days, along with the cattle drive: a newly completed permanent Live Buffalo and Longhorn Exhibit. The corral, on a stand of native Cimarron grassland near the casino, holds four American bison and four Corrientes longhorn cattle. Large signboards explain how both animals contributed to the development of Dodge City and southwest Kansas.
Along with the marquee events, more than 75 community events crowd the schedule over 10 days. Many locals say they try to attend different activities each year, but the free community breakfasts and dinners are universally popular.
Dodge City residents Brisa Cruz and her husband, Jose, took their children Anthony, 6, and Tristan, 9, to a free barbecue hosted by Cargill and National Beef, two packing plants that are among the city’s largest employers. For the city’s Hispanic majority, the cookouts are a bridge between culinary cultures.
“They served smoked chicken, sausage, hot dogs, hamburgers and brisket. That’s not how we cook our meat, so it was nice to enjoy the different flavors,” Cruz says.
The Cruzes also enjoyed the rodeo and the new longhorn and bison exhibit, but the kids’ favorite thing was the cattle drive.
“The kids were really surprised to see cattle on the street, so close up. They couldn’t believe how huge the horns were,” she says.
A spokesman for the Boot Hill Casino, Ryan Deutsch, says 25,000 people watched the cattle drive, which the casino plans to make an annual event.
Harris, of Boot Hill Museum, says the museum continues to update and expand its collections because with or without live longhorns, Dodge City’s appeal is timeless.
“Dodge City is all about the cowboy. Paul Harvey used to say about cowboys that nobody ever lived that either wasn’t one or didn’t want to be one. And by cowboy, I include women. Kansas had a lot of famous women who rode and worked cattle.”
John Lehr of “Quick Draw” brought his co-producer, Nancy Hower, with him to the cattle drive so she could see the town. His ultimate motive is to bring production of some episodes to Dodge City if the series is renewed. If that happens, however, don’t be looking for any longhorns in scenes.
“I wanted to use longhorns when we did a cattle drive scene in California, but after seeing them live in Dodge City, I’m glad we didn’t,” he says. “I had no idea how big their horns are and how much room they take up.”
So if you want a longhorn closeup, you’d better get the heck into Dodge.