Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Grand Central: Cowboy attractions

By Londell McKinney, courtesy Kansas Travel and Tourism

Tip your hat, shine your spurs, and knock the dust off your cowboy boots: When you visit America’s central states, you’re walking in the footsteps of Western legends.

Although we now consider them squarely midcontinent, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma were all once on the rugged western boundary of the United States. As explorers and settlers went to these areas throughout the 19th century, the ethos of the Wild West came of age.

Now more than a century later, the iconic West still holds a central place in American culture and consciousness. And the trails and tales left by explorers, cowboys and the like have made an indelible mark on the central states, giving groups touring the area wonderful opportunities to live out their Wild West fantasies.

The member states of Grand Central USA have put together a Hats, Boots and Spurs itinerary that highlights the best Western attractions throughout the region.

In Missouri, groups can see the beginnings of westward expansion at the trailhead in Independence and learn about the legendary Pony Express at a museum in St. Joseph.
Fort Smith, Ark., preserves its heritage as a wild frontier town, as do Kansas’ Boot Hill Museum in Dodge and Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita.

And in Oklahoma, many of the greatest Western legends are honored at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

So saddle up, partners; it’s going to be a wild ride.

National Frontier Trails Museum
Independence, Mo.
If you were a pioneer settler headed west in the 1800s, chances are you would have made one last civilized stop in Independence before heading out onto the trail. Although the town is now essentially a suburb of Kansas City, in the early 19th century, it was the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails.

“Independence was right along the Missouri River and was perfectly situated on the boundary with the Indian lands,” said John Mark Lambertson, director of the Frontier Trails Museum. “People would raise livestock and sell it to trail travelers or set up a blacksmith shop here. It was the outfitting point for people that wanted to travel west.”

The museum tells the story of Western migration, using many artifacts that settlers took on the trail. Visitors will see an authentic Conestoga wagon from the period, as well as furniture tossed out along the trail and a leather-bound chest that was reportedly sent back to Missouri from California full of gold nuggets.

Exhibits throughout the museum also include text from letters, journals and diaries found along the trail describing the arduous journey west in the words of people who took it.

Visitors to the museum can also see some direct physical evidence of the migration’s impact on Independence.

“Right across the street from us, there are some swales still visible in the grass from early Santa Fe trail movement,” Lambertson said. “It’s pretty remarkable that these bits of trail ruts have survived these 175 years.”

Pony Express Museum

St. Joseph, Mo.
By the middle of the 1800s, continued westward migration and the California gold rush had led to a burgeoning West Coast population, hungry for quick mail and news from back home. In 1860, the Pony Express was formed in St. Joseph to meet that demand.

“There were a half-million people in California who wanted communication,” said Cindy Daffron, director of development at the Pony Express Museum. “It was taking four weeks for them to get newspapers. So the idea here was to do it with a horse and relay it.”

Visitors learn all about the history of the short-lived but legendary Pony Express at the museum in St. Joseph. The museum is housed in the stable building that served as the eastern terminus of the route.

The opening exhibit re-creates the beginning moments of the Pony Express with a sculpture of the first messenger departing the stables on horseback.

Museum exhibits include re-created wheelwright and blacksmith shops, as well as a tack room. A diorama displays all of the terrain that riders would encounter on their trip west, as well as lightening strikes and Indian encounters. A map shows all of the various exchange stations along the route, and visitors can also see a life-size re-creation of one of these outposts.

“We have an actual relay station built here on the property that looks similar to what the real stations did,” Daffron said. “You can get up on the saddle and carry the mochila [the pouch used to carry the mail].”

The museum’s final display depicts the telegraph, which ultimately put the Pony Express out of business in 1861.

Fort Smith National Historic Site
Fort Smith, Ark.
In 1817, the U.S. Army established Fort Smith on a bluff overlooking the Arkansas River on the border between Arkansas and the Indian Territory to promote peace between warring Indian tribes.

A town of the same name soon sprang up around the fort, which was abandoned after a few years. A second fort was built in 1838 near the site of the first one. Its barracks was converted to a federal courthouse in the 1870s and was the headquarters for federal marshals who kept order in the area in the latter part of the 19th century.

The Fort Smith National Historic Site preserves the two fort sites and helps tour groups learn about the history of justice on the frontier.

“At the National Historic Site, groups will see the courtroom, the gallows and the old jail,” said Carolyn Joyce, sales manager for tour and travel for the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They’ll learn all of the history of Judge Isaac C. Parker, who was known as the hanging judge.

“They have an opportunity to have a trial re-enactment in Judge Parker’s courtroom. It’s a re-enactment of an actual trial that took place in that courtroom.”

Nearby, the Fort Smith Visitors Center is housed in Miss Laura’s, a former bordello that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Joyce meets motorcoach groups dressed as Miss Laura and tells them about the history of the house, which was one of seven houses of ill repute in town during the frontier period.

Many groups staying overnight will also spend an evening with Miss Laura’s Players for the “The Medicine Show on Hanging Day.” This musical comedy combines elements of the town’s history with songs and audience participation.

Old Cowtown Museum
Wichita, Kan.
Kansas has long been a large producer of beef cattle, and during the middle of the 19th century, the railroad helped young Wichita become a boomtown for cattle ranchers. Today, Old Cowtown Museum re-creates the city’s streets during its Old West heyday.

“Cowtown is 60 years old, one of the oldest living-history museums in the Midwest,” said director of marketing Angela Cato. “It really focuses on giving visitors an experience of Wichita in the 1870s.

“We have a mix of 70 historic buildings and re-created buildings on site. We give hands-on and real-life experience through the costumed interpreters that stroll the grounds.”

Old Cowtown was the passion of a wealthy local businessman who helped gather the historic buildings from the area into one place in order to keep Wichita’s heritage alive.

Visitors can explore structures such as an early settler’s cabin, an 1874 middle-class home and an 1870s Presbyterian church. Re-created buildings include a saloon, a drugstore with artifacts from a dentist’s office, and other offices and businesses of that period.

Group members may want to look at additional artifacts on display inside the museum’s exhibition space or visit the working farm, which features a period farmhouse and livestock, including horses and cattle.

Along the way, interactions with costumed interpreters make the experience memorable.

“They stroll the grounds in the dresses, bonnets and aprons, and they really portray how people acted,” Cato said. “They’re great in character, and they’re so knowledgeable about the time period, which is 1865 to 1880.”

Several annual events highlight particular aspects of the area’s history, among them Civil War Days in April, Celebrate America in July and the County Fair in October.

Boot Hill Museum

Dodge City, Kan.
At the height of the cowboy era, the west Kansas town of Dodge City was known as one of the wildest places around. Although the town has been tamed since then, the Boot Hill Museum gives groups a look at some of the people and traditions that made history there.

“We’re probably best known for the lawlessness in the community in the early 1870s through 1900,” said Lara Brehm, the museum’s executive director. “Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson all spent time here.”

The museum takes its name from the infamous Boot Hill Cemetery, where vagrants, outlaws and other troublemakers were said to be buried with their boots still on.

The plot of land was a cemetery for only seven years; today, the museum’s main exhibit building sits there, with its collection of some 30,000 artifacts from Native American communities, local military outposts and famous Western figures who spent time in Dodge City.

The museum complex has several original structures from the period — a Victorian home, a blacksmith shop, the First Union Church and the Fort Dodge jail — complemented by two blocks of re-created buildings along historic Front Street.

Visitors can drink beer or sarsaparilla at the Long Branch Saloon or watch gunfights in the street at high noon.

“We have the ‘Long Branch Variety Show’ with Ms. Kitty from ‘Gunsmoke,’ cancan dancers and singing bartenders,” Brehm said. “We can also do a country-style dinner for groups, with beef brisket, potatoes and onions, hot biscuits and apple crisps.”

National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum
Oklahoma City
A journey through the Western history of the central states comes to a head in Oklahoma City, where the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum enshrines the most iconic of characters and images from the Old West.

Upon entering the museum, visitors first see an 18-foot sculpture called “End of the Trail,” a depiction of a tired Native American on horseback created by artist James Earle Fraser. The sculpture is a perfect introduction to the museum’s large exhibition of Western art.

“We have one of the premier permanent collections of Western art in a 15,000-square-foot gallery,” said Shayla Simpson, director of public relations and museum events. “We have everything from Charles Russell to Frederic Remington.”

Click here to watch a video interview about new Oklahoma attractions.

The museum augments its art collection each year by hosting the Prix de West, a Western art exhibition that features 300 works by the country’s foremost artists. Each year, one piece is chosen as the winner and is purchased by the museum to exhibit in its Prix de West gallery.

There’s much more than art to see at this museum, however.

“We have a firearms gallery, a Native American gallery and the Western performers gallery,” Simpson said. “That’s all about spaghetti Westerns to John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. It goes clear on up to newer actors such as Tom Selleck.”

One of the major attractions at the museum is Prosperity Junction, a two-story indoor re-creation of a 1900s Western prairie town.

Visitors also enjoy the museum’s outdoor sculpture and landscape garden, the rodeo gallery and the gallery of the American cowboy, which deals with the history of cowboys across the country.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.