"Through this world it has been my fortune or misfortune to wander at considerable distance. Never has this town been outside my heart and my memory."
Dwight D. Eisenhower
The quiet, country character of Abilene hides a rich history. To those who search its past, they will discover how big this little city on the Plains is.
The drive for a transcontinental railroad link across the breadth of the land brought the Kansas Pacific Railroad through Abilene in 1867. It took a businessman from Illinois, Joseph G. McCoy, to see the opportunities presented by the railroad in providing a means of transporting the vast numbers of Texas cattle to huge beef markets back East. Quite by accident he chose Abilene (his luggage was lost there, really!) and with his brothers, bought the entire town for $2,400. He built a stockyard with a large barn, a three-story hotel and the Chisholm Trail was in business.
The code of the trail hand was strict: No drinking, gambling or cursing during the drive north. After a bath, haircut and whisker trim, a new set of clothes, the town belonged to them. The wild west image of saloons, brothels, gambling and gunfights on a street called Texas Street was born at the terminus of the long, hot drive north. Abilene soon acquired its colorful reputation as the capital of the Wild West type of cow towns.
In 1869, the city of Abilene incorporated, formed a formal government and selected T.C. Henry as the first mayor. With some difficulty, a stranger by the name of Tom Smith was hired as the new town Marshall. His first order of business (which most thought of as suicidal): All citizenry, local or transient will surrender their weapons within the city of Abilene.
Miraculously, within a few days, without ever having to use his guns and standing up to several protestors later, the town surrendered their weapons with full respect to Marshall Smith and the law. Ironically, five months later at age 31, he was gunned down outside of town by two Scotch homesteaders fighting over stray cattle.
His notorious successor, James Butler Wild Bill Hickok, served for eight months during 1871 before being fired. One of the most colorful personalities to roam the West, he was recognized as the fastest draw anywhere on the plains. Despite his gun slinging style, he did continue to hold law and order on Texas Street during the heaviest year of cattle trading in Abilene.
The cattle trade came to an end in 1872 when the railroad moved south to Wichita. As one boom came to an end, another one quietly started. In 1871, in a field outside of town, T.C. Henry secretly, for fear of ridicule, planted five acres of Minnesota winter wheat to see if it would grow on this Great American Desert. Within four years after that first and very successful solid stand of wheat, he became Abilene's first millionaire with thousands of acres planted throughout the county. The Union Pacific lines for miles on either side of town were flanked by golden grain and became knows as the Golden Road. With the additional introduction of the Mennonite's Red Turkey Wheat, Kansas rapidly became the breadbasket of the world.
During the late 1870's, after scouting several western possibilities, Jacob Eisenhower and his family moved a Mennonite River Brethren colony from Pennsylvania to a 160 acre farm just south of Abilene. In 1885, Jacob's son David married Ida Stover of Virginia while they were students at nearby Lane University. David and Ida would settle in Abilene and face many challenges in raising six mischievous boys to all become men of character.
"The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene..."
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Abilene, June 22, 1945
of a President
The life of Dwight Eisenhower epitomizes the American Dream.
From family bankruptcy at birth he rose to be one of the most admired men in the world. From a poor farm boy he achieved his wealth in character, integrity and world wide friendship and respect.
Dwight's parents, David and Ida Eisenhower rented a very small house in Abilene on South East Second Street. As the family grew in size and number, they were able to move into an uncle's larger, more comfortable house at 201 South East Fourth Street. Here they not only had much more room inside for six boys but plenty of room outside for vegetable gardens, farm animals and chickens to supplement the much stressed family food budget.
Poor Side of Town
Unfortunately, both of the Eisenhower addresses were just south of the railroad tracks, which divided the town of Abilene into the proverbial right and wrong side of the tracks. The south side where the cattle industry grew was, of course, the wrong side to be on. This north-south rivalry would always be a part of the growing up years of the six Eisenhower boys.
The legendary fight that took place between Ike and north-sider Wesley Merrifield is recounted by Eisenhower in At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends as a largely inflated story by armchair historians and barroom biographers. Ike remembers the occasion as mob pressure forcing two chosen opponents to duke out the rivalry between the opposing north/south factions. Neither lad had any good reason to dislike the other but were forced by their peers (warriors who loved to watch a battle from sideline safety) to defend their respective geographic pride and honor. Ike further recounts: The only thing that made the fight notable was its length. We weren't skillful, but we were stubborn, so we kept pounding away, with occasional pauses for breath, for well over an hour... In later years, both participants would recall the incident with friendly amusement.
In high school, Dwight and his older brother Edgar were both in the same grade because illness forced Edgar to drop back in schooling. Both were above average students and Ike even excelled in some subjects. Avid and competent athletes, they excelled in football and baseball. This teamwork on the field led them to use teamwork in furthering their education after Abilene High School. They decided that while one went to college, the other would work at home and send the financial support needed to continue their college careers. By alternating years, both would eventually finish with degrees.
The first year of this plan, by lot, Edgar went to school and Dwight continued to work at the Belle Springs Creamery. It was here that Swede Hazlett, a former classmate and Annapolis appointee, convinced Dwight of the advantages of getting an education at a service academy. The biggest factor was, of course, that it was free. So Ike took the challenge and studied hard for both the Annapolis and West Point exams. He scored first for Annapolis and second for West Point. As fate would have it, he had turned 21 and thus was too old for entrance in the Naval Academy, The boy who scored first on the West Point exam accepted the appointment but later failed the physical exam and the appointment fell to Dwight.
The rest, they say, is history.
"To Sen. J.L. Bristow, Salina Kansas:.... I take this opportunity of thanking you for my appointment to West Point. I have been ordered to report at West Point, June 14, this year." Dwight D. Eisenhower; March 25, 1911
Molding A Hero
When Dwight departed for the United States Military Academy in the early summer of 1911, the only truly disappointed person in Abilene was his mother. As a Mennonite, her deep religious conviction of pacifism was outweighed only by her love for her son. Yielding personal beliefs and authority to her young Dwight, she said: It is your choice. Brother Milton later told Ike that it was the first time in his life he heard their mother cry.
Morning. June 14, 1911. West Point, New York. Amid the noisy clamor and bewildering chaos of a strange railway station were 285 confused young men wondering what they had gotten themselves into. For many, this day was to be the beginning of a long and dedicated career. For Ike the next four years at the Academy had to be endured to achieve a free education. It was his calm and sensible approach to life along with his physical endurance that allowed him to pass off a lot of the regimented expectations of his superiors. At the Academy demerits were to dot his record as frequently as the accolades were to dot his subsequent career. At graduation he would rank 61st of 164 academically and an unconcerned 125th in conduct.
End or Beginning?
While a sophomore, his love of sports would continue to play out on the gridiron and on the diamond where he made an impressive showing. During a game against Tufts University, an ignored knee injury in one football game would jeopardize his destiny. A further injury in another game hospitalized him. Then, in cavalry exercises, a jump from his horse collapsed his leg, which not only ended his athletic career but also brought him perilously close to discharge without a commission. With professional reservation and doubt, medical officers granted him the commission of Second Lieutenant in the Infantry. Their only stipulation was that he must never serve in the mounted service.
In the early fall of 1915, Ike was assigned his first duty station at Fort Sam Houston near San Antonio, Texas. Within a month he was introduced to the popular and attractive Mary Geneva Doud. Eisenhower was instantly intrigued by Mamie's saucy look and she thought he was just about the handsomest male she had ever seen. Brushing aside several fellow junior officers who were also suitors, Dwight and Mamie began a whirlwind courtship, were engaged the following Valentine's Day and married July 1, 1916.
Ike and Mamie's first child was born in San Antonio in 1917. Doud Dwight, known as Icky, was the family's center of attention for three full and delightful years. Sadly, just before Christmas of 1920, Icky caught scarlet fever and died a week later. The death affected Dwight for years to come and years later wrote: This was the greatest disappointment and disaster of my life. A second son, John Sheldon Doud, was born in 1922 who would grow up and attend West Point in his father's shadow. On June 6, 1944, John Eisenhower threw his white hat high into the Hudson River sky. In attendance at his West Point graduation were his mother, her parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Sheldon Doud, and numerous dignitaries and the press.
Notably absent on that day was his father, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. That very day he had just landed the largest allied fighting force ever known to the world on the stormy beaches of Normandy.
"My ambition in the Army was to make everybody I worked for regretful when I was ordered to other duty." Dwight D. Eisenhower
For General Eisenhower, the invasion of Western Europe had not begun on the morning of June 6. His life-long personal experience molded his approach to these decisive battlefields. Even as early as his childhood, a lesson learned from a contentious gander taught him never to challenge an enemy you couldn't whip. From that early lesson on tactical strategy, he would study for a lifetime methods of warfare for peaceful purposes.
Ike Pays His Dues
Through most of two decades between the Great Wars, Ike would fulfill several dull desk jobs with his highest professional effort. As a staff officer, he would serve for 15 long years without a promotion from the rank of Major. He would serve under Generals George Patton, Fox Conner, John Pershing and Douglas McArthur. With these men he would redefine tank warfare, study war history and strategy, catalog European battlefields and help form a new and independent government for the Philippines. Between these assignments, he would accept the honor, challenge and prestige of attending both the Command General Staff School in Leavenworth, Kansas and the War College in Washington, D.C. He would graduate first in his class from both schools.
While in Panama in 1924, General Fox Conner gave Eisenhower some prophetic advice: Be prepared for another world war and know that it will be fought with allies. He also encouraged Ike to seek assignment under Colonel George C. Marshall for he was already quite adept at arranging allied commands.
For two decades, the end of the War to end all wars yielded to an overconfidence in peace. In 1939, Hitler's invasion of Poland soon escalated into six years of another world war. In the U.S., the peacetime military had been drastically cut back in manpower and supplies to a force that was only a small fraction of what it was in World War I.
...A day which will live in infamy.
December 7, 1941 suddenly, America was at war. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Eisenhower's quarter-century of preparation was to be put to the maximum test. First given responsibility to try and save the Philippines that were also attacked, Ike knew the conditions there and could only forestall the inevitable loss of the islands. The first priority was on the European Front and defeat of the Nazi and Fascist regimes of Germany and Italy. Given the assignment to design an allied command, Eisenhower was subsequently placed in command to execute his own directives.
The allied campaign first meant driving the German forces of the Mediterranean perimeter. From Gibraltar Ike commanded Operation Torch forcing the Germans from occupied Northern Africa, then from Sicily and finally Italy itself.
Moving headquarters back to southern England, Operation Overlord was to amass the largest assault force ever gathered. For eleven months from June 6,1944, the massive allied forces under the command of General Eisenhower would crush the Third Reich and liberate western Europe (and the world) from its oppression. Ike humbly announced the end of the Second Great European War with these few, precise words:
The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241 local time, May 7, 1945.
"...In the strongest language you can command, you can state that I have no political ambitions at all. Make it even stronger than that if you can..."
Dwight D. Eisenhower Homecoming Speech, Abilene, June 22, 1945
Abilene's Favorite Son
It can be said of few American presidents that the office sought the person and not the usual vice versa. But a clear public mandate in the campaign of 1952 would show Dwight Eisenhower that he was public property. Forced to change his mind from his personal aversion to politics, his overwhelming popularity would sweep him into candidacy and ultimately the White House.
Eisenhower entered his first term with an immediate and acceptable solution to the Korean War. Looming in its wake were the twin threats of growing world communism and the nuclear armament of opposing world powers. The red scare was brought to a peak with Senator Joseph McCarthy's personal witch-hunt against hundreds of alleged card-carrying communists throughout the U.S. Government. I really believe that nothing will be so effective in combating his particular kind of troublemaking as to ignore him, Eisenhower wrote. This he cannot stand.
The Eisenhower Administration generally held a popular mainstream philosophy on world and domestic events. Economically, the U.S. enjoyed a period of prosperity with low inflation and the people of the country were enjoying the new, carefree bebop music. In the months ahead of re-election, he would successfully face the potential of war with the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Revolution. Either carried with it the potential of conflict with the Soviets.
The first real domestic test came in Little Rock, Arkansas at the beginning of the 1957-58 school year. In 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled that it was unconstitutional to maintain segregated public schools. When Little Rock school officials resisted this, Eisenhower boldly but reluctantly sent in armed National Guard troops to escort black student and from classes.
During 1958 and 59, Ike's administration saw increased popularity. Alaska and Hawaii became states, diplomatic visits at home and abroad were productive, the St. Lawrence Seaway opened for operation, the Interstate Highway system was well underway, space exploration began and the Good-will Tour to Europe, Asia and Africa preceded him being voted as the World's Most Admired Man.
In January of 1961, America's oldest President turned the powers of the Executive branch of government over to the youngest American President at the eve of the troubled 60s. Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower were, at last, able to drive to the farm in Gettysburg for retirement. For eight years, Ike was to pursue golf, painting, fishing and just plain relaxing. He died on March 28, 1969 at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital and was buried in Abilene next to his first-born son in the Place of Meditation adjacent to his boyhood home at 201 South East Fourth Street.
"Abilene provided both a healthy outdoor existence and a need to work. These same conditions were responsible for the existence of a society which, more nearly than any other I have encountered, eliminated prejudices based upon wealth, race, or creed, and maintained a standard of values that placed a premium upon integrity, decency, and a consideration for others."
Dwight D. Eisenhower
It is the very Heart of America.
Amidst a sea of prairie, this City on the Plains is the home of many people that have shaped the future for millions of people worldwide. In its early days, Abilene was an important focal point of westward expansion for a young America. Most notably, it nurtured a world leader that destined the future freedom of entire continents and nations. But even with these accomplishments, Abilene has always retained its proud heritage of a small, friendly Midwestern town of integrity and character.
Today, Abilene is a clean and quiet community located on Interstate 70 about an hour-and-a-half drive west from Topeka, the state's capitol. Nearby Salina is a half hour drive to the west on I-70.
Places To See
The center of attraction in Abilene is the Eisenhower Center. Located on the acreage surrounding the boyhood home of Dwight, the campus also includes the Eisenhower Library, Museum, Visitor Center and Place of Meditation. Administered by the National Archives Administration, the Eisenhower Library houses millions of documents and photos surrounding the life of Dwight David Eisenhower.
Adjacent to the Eisenhower Center is the Greyhound Hall of Fame and museum. Here, greyhound history is traced back some 5,000 years and features a live greyhound as mascot and host. Also close by is the Dickinson County Historical Society Museum and the Museum of Independent Telephony. Both are well worth touring and show excellent displays of pioneer life in mid-America and the unique flavor of early independent telephone systems of the period. Also exhibited here is a completely restored C.W. Parker steam-driven carousel with rare, hand-carved horses. A must for every grandparent to take their grandkids to see.
Live the Wild West
To finish your walking tour in and around the Eisenhower Center, to the south side of the grounds is the recreation of Old Abilene in its cow town days of the 1860s and '70s. See cancan girls in the Alamo Saloon, a gunfight on Texas Street, take a dusty stagecoach ride or get thrown in Hickok's jail. You don't even have to bring any cattle along. In addition to the attractions of Old Abilene, there is the Western Museum and also the hall of Generals inside the Chisholm Trail Souvenir Shop.
Beautiful Mansions to Visit
The early success stories of Abilene are exquisitely reflected in three mansions open for guided tours. The Thomas Kirby mansion built in 1885 is now an elegant restaurant with eight separate dining rooms. The Lebold-Vahsholtz mansion, a twenty-three room Victorian was built by banker and entrepreneur, C.H. Lebold in 1881. The A.B. Seelye mansion is a twenty-five room Georgian mansion built in 1905 by the patent medicine entrepreneur. This fine home was considered as a residence for Ike's western White House.
With so much for everyone to see and learn, you must stop-by-and-visit in Abilene. Complete information and hours of operation on these and other attractions with a calendar of Abilene's events places and people can be obtained from the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau, 201 N.W. 2nd, Abilene, Kansas 67410. (785) 263-2231.
Webpage Copyright ©2000 Jerry Bacon