Famous Gunfighters Wax Museum
Dodge City, Kansas
What were tourist attractions like in the mid-1960s? If you want to find out, you can visit one in Dodge City.
The Famous Gunfighters Wax Museum opens with a chopped-off head and closes with martyred President John F. Kennedy. These are worthy distractions, but the museum's main focus is on Dodge City during its lawless heyday, when the town tossed its lasso around every celebrity outlaw, hustler, and gunslinger in the Wild West. It's pure wax shoot-em-up star power. Nearly every dummy in this place represents someone so famously notorious that they have additional roadside attractions elsewhere.
Approached with the right attitude, especially if you enjoy the scattershot art of wax dummies, this can be a lot of fun.
The museum's creator was Larry Yost (1923-2008), a Dodge City civic booster and photographer (His work can be seen on many classic Dodge City postcards). In 1957, the story goes, a traveling carnival with a half-dozen Wild West wax dummies came through town. Larry bought the dummies, then built a museum around them on the second floor of his photography studio. Over the next few years he added more dummies until the museum was full (Larry also ran a now-gone mystery spot on the property named Dillon's Slanty Shanty).
When Yost moved out in 1982 the Kansas Teachers' Hall of Fame moved in. The teachers have been cheerfully open-minded about their bloody upstairs neighbors. In fact, the museum remains as it was when Larry stopped adding to it, unchanged for over 50 years.
Clay Allison, for example, is displayed inside his coffin; an accompanying sign explains that he was "KILLED in a fall from a wagon WHILE DRUNK." Wild Bill Hickok's dummy appears to be either splattered with blood or drips from a leaky wax museum roof. Sitting Bull just sits, behind glass, endlessly pondering his reflection in the Dalton Gang diorama across the hall.
Gender equality on the frontier is represented by Calamity Jane, a "rough talking, tobacco chewing, straight shooting Cow Girl," displayed in front of a mural of her spilling booze and breaking a chair; and Belle Starr, "America's number one outlaw woman." Norma the Barmaid was evidently a favorite local Dodge City saloon hostess, "known for her twin 38s."
And of course there's a burial scene in Dodge City's famous Boot Hill cemetery, with a dead cowboy's hands and feet jutting out of a too-shallow grave.
Larry Yost, in a 1985 interview with the Dodge City Daily Globe, offered some insights into the museum's eccentricities. For example, the display devoted to the TV series Gunsmoke -- set in Dodge City -- is missing the show's star, Marshal Dillon, because Larry at first couldn't find a wax dummy tall enough, and then couldn't get permission to use Dillion's image from the Hollywood producers. And why did he include dummies of presidents Lyndon Johnson and JFK in his museum? "There's no real reason," Larry said in 1985. "We've got Dracula and Frankenstein there, too, and there's no more reason to have them in a gunfighters' museum than there is to have Kennedy and Johnson."
We asked Mary Lou Doris, a retired Dodge City teacher and volunteer at the Kansas Teachers' Hall of Fame, if the teachers had ever been tempted to go upstairs and "improve" Larry's museum -- something that we hope never, ever happens. "There are some of those explanations that do need some corrections," Mary Lou said, "but to get to those figures you have to crawl through this little doorway, and I am just not interested in crawling in."
Mary Lou called the dual attractions "an unusual thing" and a "strange marriage" -- but even strange marriages can work with a little give and take, and the Kansas Teachers' Hall of Fame and Famous Gunfighters Wax Museum have been successfully wed for over three decades. No need to change a thing.
"We'll just leave it up there," said Mary Lou.