Big gunfight on Front Street. Even the ladies are packing.
Big gunfight on Main Street. Even the ladies are packing.

Boot Hill and Museum

Field review by the editors.

Dodge City, Kansas

"Why should Dodge City be ashamed of Boot Hill? Have we become so goody goody that the days of the primitive, elemental West offends our fine sense of right and wrong?" - Dodge City Daily Globe, February 9, 1932

Vintage two-cell jail was literally stolen by Dodge City and added to its roster of attractions.
Vintage two-cell jail was literally stolen by Dodge City and added to its roster of attractions.

Dodge City is famous for being infamous. In the 1870s it was the wildest town in the Wild West, and probably the most dangerous place in America. When its scoundrels and drifters died, they were buried on Boot Hill.

The frontier gradually moved elsewhere and Dodge City became respectable. For 50 years it tried to bury the memory of Boot Hill. Then in 1932 a retired local dentist, Oscar Simpson, who'd made a cowboy statue for Dodge City, sculpted cement faces and boots and stuck them into Boot Hill's graves. He also made fake tombstones with mirthful epitaphs and Wild West names, such as "Toothless Nell" and "The Angelface Kid," a formula that would eventually be imitated by countless fake Boot Hills at roadside attractions (and one real graveyard).

Simpson did it as a joke, and fans of the Wild West loved it. Boot Hill, to the horror of some locals, became one of the hottest tourist spots in Kansas.

Fake Wild West town beckons behind Boot Hill gates.
Fake Wild West town beckons behind Boot Hill gates.

In 1947 Boot Hill opened its own museum. In 1951 a hole was cut through its floor, and the ground beneath was dug out to reveal one of Boot Hill's skeletons; the "Open Grave" was a huge hit. In 1953 an old two-cell jail was added to Boot Hill by simply stealing it at night from nearby Fort Dodge while its government caretakers looked the other way. In 1958 Boot Hill opened a full-size replica of Dodge City's Wild West main street, including a saloon with can-can girls, and imported a "Hangman's Tree" -- a gnarled dead cottonwood with three nooses slung from its drooping branch. In 1964 fake gunfights became a regular feature on the fake main street.

Showcase of relics from Gunsmoke, the TV series that made Dodge City famous.
Showcase of relics from Gunsmoke, the TV series that made Dodge City famous.

Each new addition brought more tourists to Dodge City. By the early 1970s Boot Hill was pulling in almost a half-million visitors a year.

Some of those people came because of the popular TV series Gunsmoke, which was set in old-time Dodge City. After the show was cancelled in 1975, fewer people came. Seizing the moment, Dodge City's anti-Boot-Hill faction blamed the decline on the attraction's grisly charm. The Hangman's Tree and the jolly headstones were removed, and a floor was put over the Open Grave. Boot Hill hired a professional director and an academic curator. In 1985 it was accredited by the American Association of Museums, capping the crusade to reign-in Boot Hill and -- once again -- rescue Dodge City's reputation.

The old jail, can-can dancers, and gunfights are still at Boot Hill, but its museum now has sections devoted to homesteading, Victorian fashion, and Native Americans. They're nice exhibits, but they're also topics that could apply to a lot of other Western towns. Instead of peering through the floor at a skeleton, visitors stand on the floor and are jiggled by an imitation buffalo stampede. It's as if Dodge City is saying, "See? We weren't just dead outlaws." That's true... but dead outlaws were what made Dodge City special.

Boot Hill in the 21st century. Too respectable?
Boot Hill in the 21st century. Too respectable?

The Boot Hill graveyard -- one of America's early Roadside wonders -- has been lulled into a sleepy version of its former rootin'-tootin' self, with trimmed lawn, restrained natural wood headstones, and a conspicuous lack of upturned boots and dangling ropes. You can find more amusing Boot Hills almost anywhere else in the West.

The original's new, laid-back style is weird when you consider that old newspaper accounts of the attraction often chastised it for not giving visitors enough Boot Hill at Boot Hill, an approach that clearly has fallen from favor.

However, the dangling corpse of public opinion swings both ways, and Boot Hill has proven harder to kill than the desperadoes of Dodge City. The museum features a rebuilt 1950s knotty pine Gunsmoke TV room that hints at something special, and has an exhibit of vintage, bawdy Boot Hill souvenirs that shows how the old boneyard inspired greatness when given a chance. It may never recapture all of its lurid glory, but one day a skeleton arm will push up a loose board in the museum floor. Dodge City folks should think twice before hammering that board back into place.

Boot Hill and Museum

Address:
500 W. Wyatt Earp Blvd, Dodge City, KS
Directions:
Downtown. Entrance is on the east side of 5th Ave. just north of its intersection with US Hwy 400/W. Wyatt Earp Blvd.
Hours:
Summer daily 8-8, fewer hours off-season. No gunfights or can-can dancers off-season. (Call to verify)
Phone:
620-227-8188
Admission:
Adults $11.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Kansas Teachers' Hall of FameKansas Teachers' Hall of Fame, Dodge City, KS - < 1 mi.
Famous Gunfighters Wax MuseumFamous Gunfighters Wax Museum, Dodge City, KS - < 1 mi.
Play Poker with Doc HollidayPlay Poker with Doc Holliday, Dodge City, KS - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Time Zone Sundials, Dodge City, KS - < 1 mi.

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