What do you think of when someone mentions Kansas? A rock group from the 1970s and early 80s or maybe Dorothy, Toto, and tornadoes? Or something more along the lines of the state's signature features like wheat fields and sunflowers? Really, though, it should be something else because Kansas played a vital role in feeding the eastern part of this country in the late nineteenth century and provided a lot of material for Hollywood. And now, thanks to people like Deb Sanders – owner/operator (along with her husband, Tim) of the Windmill Inn – we're being reminded of and learning a lot more about the role this state played in a romantic part of our past and in providing steaks and roasts to all those hungry folks back East, after the Civil War.
But, first, let's set the
stage by taking a look back at the aftermath of that internecine war
that cost the lives of 620,000 Americans and resulted in at least
The Post-Civil War
The Civil War ended in 1865
and was the bloodiest, deadliest war we've ever been engaged in. It
left the South ravaged – men killed, infrastructure destroyed,
economy collapsed, and an aristocratic agrarian culture and way of
life gone. But this war also wrought a lot of destruction farther
north and all along the eastern seaboard.
Farming and raising livestock had taken a back seat to fighting for several years. Most of the available food supply had been consumed
and little had been replaced,
especially beef. And General Sherman's scorched-earth march had begun
actually farther north than most of us realize, destroying by fire
everything in its wake, including farmland, crops, and livestock. In
addition, both Union and Confederate armies lived off the land when
they could and when forced to, thus using up much of that free food
So people in the Northeast
were hungry, and those with the means were willing to pay handsomely
for a beefsteak.
But in southern Texas, chiefly
from San Antonio on south, while the men were away fighting in the
war, the cattle just kept on eating and breeding, many of them having
wandered off to grow and reproduce unchecked. And in Texas where
those cattle were plentiful and the people were few, they were worth
only about two dollars per head – but in those Eastern markets,
they could bring as much as forty dollars (or more) per head.
So there were plenty of cattle
in Texas and a hungry consumer market in the Northeast. The
logistical challenge, of course, lay in conveying the cattle all
those miles in order to make a very tidy profit.
Jesse Chisholm led the way . .
The Chisholm Trail
Texas, then, was nearly
bankrupt, but they had the cattle, while back East they had both the money
and the appetites. The problem was, though, that, at that time, the
land west of the Missouri was just in the beginning stages of being
settled. The railroad was just then pushing westward. It had,
however, made it as far west as Abilene, Kansas.
A cattle buyer from Illinois,
Joseph McCoy, saw and seized the opportunity here. He made a trip to
Abilene, where at the time there were just five dugouts making up the
town, and bought up a sizable portion of land. He then made a deal
with the Kansas Pacific Railroad to haul the cattle to the Eastern
markets from the railhead at Abilene.
Now all that remained was to
get the cattle from Texas to Kansas . . .
Jesse Chisholm first marked
out what became known as the Chisholm Trail in 1864. He didn't drive
cattle, but established this route in order to haul supplies by wagon
to his trading posts. He traded primarily with the U.S. Army and the
Indians from a trading post southwest of Oklahoma City and another
near Wichita, Kansas. The cattle trail spanned Texas south to
north, crossed the Red River and then Indian Territory (Oklahoma),
and wound up at Abilene, Kansas. (There is some debate, though, whether the Chisholm Trail began in south Texas or at the Red River Crossing on the Texas-Oklahoma border. It all depends on whether you're talking to a Texan or an Oklahoman.)
"building pens and loading facilities," in 1867 McCoy "sent
word to Texas cowmen that a 'new' cattle market was available. That
year, some 35,000 head of cattle were moved northward along the
Chisholm Trail to Abilene, and McCoy's stockyard became the largest
west of Kansas City. The number doubled each year until 1871, when
600,000 head glutted the market. Over the years an estimated five
million head of Texas cattle reached Kansas over the Chisholm Trail"
course, all good things end eventually or even within a few years.
Abilene, Kansas, from about 1867 to 1871 was the all-important Cattle
Town at the end of the Chisholm Trail. But (as we mentioned) the
market was glutted, and, besides, the railroads were pushing south,
so the cattle drives began taking other routes like the Great Western
Trail. In addition, Abilene had grown into a real town from a cluster
of dugouts, and the citizens had grown tired of the cowboys'
rowdiness – who wanted, naturally, to
loose after months on the trail pushing thousands of cattle through
all kinds of weather. The good citizens of Abilene didn't want the
But there was a time . . .
The Great Cattle Drives
all have at least some idea of what cattle drives were like from
watching moves, especially ones like Lonesome
A typical drive involved around 3,000 head pushed hundreds of miles
(the Chisholm Trail being about a 1,000 miles total) by a crew of ten
to twelve cowboys and taking two to three months at a pace of about
25 miles a day. The trick was to move the cattle fast enough to beat
bad weather, but no so fast that they lost significant weight, which
meant money lost.
And it sure wasn't no picnic .
of all, the majority of the cowboys were just that . . . boys. Some were freed men or vaqueros, some were barely men, but they all needed the work after the devastation
of the Civil War. The rivers were always a terror where any number of
things could go wrong (which you know from Lonesome
and the Chisholm Trail crossed several major rivers, the Red and the
Arkansas among them. The horses weren't really broke either, many of
them little more than broncs – that was a job to be taken care of
along the drive and during the course of work. And there was always
the danger of stampedes.
These cattle that moved up the
Chisholm Trail were Texas longhorns, not the placid Herefords and
Angus we're used to seeing grazing by the roadside. They were more
like wild animals than cattle – lean, mean, and skittish. Here's
what the cowboys had to deal with, according to one from that era . .
things threw the cattle into confusion and then a hurly burly scene
followed. A horse wearing his saddle lies down to roll; when he rises
the stirrups fall, and striking him in the sides give him fright; he
springs to the length of his tether, snaps it and dashes into the
herd. Up jump the steers in alarm; every one
that comes to his feet causes a dozen others to bound to theirs; and
now, as if by electric impulse – quick as lightening – the whole
herd is shaken with terror, plunges in one direction. . . . The alarm
has brought every man to his feet. Stopping for nothing, caring for
nothing but the one supreme object of overtaking. Following, and at
the first practicable moment turning and controlling the stampede,
those quickest to think and act seizing their saddled horses"
And that brings us to another
major hazard of the trail, which was dust – yes, plain old dust.
And here's why . . .
cowboys on a cattle drive were divided, based on experience and
demonstrated skill, into definite classes and jobs accordingly
assigned. The best of them would "ride point." That is,
they were at the front of the herd, slightly to each side, drawing
the cattle along and directing them to the next watering hole, river
crossing, or camp site. It was a point of pride to be "pointing
of the cowboys would ride flanking the herd, keeping them from
spreading out laterally or running off. Those low down the totem pole
would be assigned the task of 'riding the drags.' They rode in the
rear of the herd, pushing the cattle along, keeping them from
stopping and simply grazing. And that spot in the rear, because
12,000 hooves were kicking up dust, was a dusty, choking place to be.
what the cowboy bandana was for. The cowboys bringing up the rear
would pull those bandanas up over their noses, just like the bank
robbers, to filter out some of that dust so they could breathe. In
some situations, without the bandana, suffocation would have been a
And that, cowboys and cowgirls, is the real reason why cowboys always wore a bandana around their neck" (From "The Cowboy Bandana,"
was tough job, then, one fraught with both danger and hardship. And
though we've romanticized it quite a bit, it remains part of our past
and big part of who we are as Americans. That cowboy life on the
cattle drives epitomizes the American thirst for freedom. We all at
least dream of that kind of life free from the limiting constraints
of so-called civilized life – a freedom achieved today probably
only by rodeo cowboys and bikers.
it's important to keep that important part of our American past
Enter Deb Sanders
Like Odysseus, we're all
trying to get back home – back to some idyllic, Edenic place
or state of being or relationship. It's just the way we're made, so
we spend most of our lives on that circuitous journey. A few of us,
though, pull it off better than the rest. Deb Sanders is one of those
The Windmill Inn
Deb Sanders started life in
Wichita, Kansas. She later graduated from Kansas State University
with a degree in zoology, intending to go into marine biology. But
oceans are pretty scarce in Kansas. So after getting married, Deb
entered the corporate and business world, living in various places,
but finally landing in San Francisco.
Deb's grandfather owned a
600-acre farm near Chapman, Kansas, only thirteen miles from Abilene.
Her husband, Tim, had always wanted to farm. So when Deb's grandfather
passed away and the farm became available, they sold their home and
business in San Francisco and headed back home. There was only one
catch, though. Job opportunities are pretty slim in a small town in
the Kansas Flint Hills. So they decided to turn the farm house and
grounds into a Bed and Breakfast.
The house itself is, according
to their website, a "1917 Prairie Style four-square home . . .
by acres of rich, fertile farmland and nestled in the grassland
region of the Flint Hills, just moments from historic Abilene,
Kansas. The home was built by Deb's grandfather Henry Delker as a
wedding gift to his bride Emma. They raised their family here and
occupied the home until 1989."
that kind of history and beauty, there was only one thing to do. Deb
and husband set
to work restoring the house. "Special attention has been given
to every detail of the restoration, down to the beautiful egg and
dart trim and brilliant stained and beveled glass in the common
two years of remodeling, Deb and her husband, Tim, opened the doors
of the Windmill
in 1991. Their main offering at the time was serving meals to
overnight guests and other diners. It wasn't long till they were
seating people every night, sometimes as many as 50.
After 23 years of this, Deb and Tim wanted to slow this pace down. They took back
the living room, putting it to other uses for B&B guests, and began to
concentrate on other B&B-related services. Deb also realized that
Abilene's tourism needed some work. People were coming, but they
weren't staying overnight. Abilene's Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home was certainly
a big draw, but the day tourists just weren't staying over.
From her involvement with Abilene's Convention & Visitors Bureau, Deb realized that the Chisholm Trail, with all its fascinating local history,
could be and
should be another big tourist draw. So she discussed it with her
husband. Then they hopped into their car and headed down the trail to
check it out – to Wichita at the confluence of the rivers, across
Oklahoma, and down through Texas.
Deb's next step was to start a Visionary Committee to determine if a museum at the end of the Chisholm Trail was a possibility. After that came a Kansas CT 150 Group made up of the towns along the trail - Caldwell, Wellington, Clearwater, Wichita, Newton, and Ellsworth - and so named because 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of the first Chisholm Trail drive to Abilene. The group promotes the Chisholm Trail and Abilene's historic place in it as the terminus. This group is also working to get a National Parks bill passed (which has been in the works since 2007) to have the Chisholm Trail, along with the Western Trail, designated as National Trails.
The Abilene CT 150 Group's success can
also be seen in the return of the Chisholm Trail Days to Old Abilene
Town. This celebration features longhorns paraded through Old Abilene
Town and then loaded onto rail cars just like they used to be, along
with many other events and activities. Period costumes and
accoutrements make the celebration complete and authentic.
But Deb's efforts reach even
further . . .
Trail Rides and Bandanas
What would a remembrance of
the Chisholm Trail and a revival of Abilene's part in it be without a
trail ride? This year marks the first for a commemorative trail ride
following a portion of the Chisholm Trail in Kansas. The riders, 125
of them so far, will start off at Caldwell, Kansas. They'll ride for
four days and finish up their ride south of Wichita following the
same path as the Chisholm Trail. This event will even be covered by
Word got about and enthusiasm
grew for this trail ride without any marketing at all. That's what
sparked Deb's interest. As a result, she has been negotiating for
Abilene segments on the planned RFD_TV program. It also caused her to
conceive her bandana-distribution idea as a way to get the riders to
see and possibly ride more of the Chisholm trail. She would like them
to see, for example, the natural waterfall at Elm Springs, fifteen
miles south of Abilene, where the cowboys took their "showers"
after the long, dusty drive before heading into town for a little
well deserved fun.
So Deb and the other members
of the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) began discussing what they could get for the riders
as a souvenir and an enticement to come to Abilene. Deb wanted to get
specially designed bandanas (that essential piece of cowboy apparel)
to distribute to the riders at Caldwell. So she got a budget from the
CVB director, and the thing was set in motion.
But she still needed to find a
and printer for the bandanas . . .
So Deb contacted Dan Weaver at
Everyone. (She did contact other suppliers, but they didn't
respond.) Dan, she said, willingly worked with her on colors and size
and helped her hammer out delivery logistics. Here's what she had to
say about Dan Weaver and Wholesale For Everyone: "Dan was really
helpful. He worked hard with me to get the artwork where it needed to
be. And he promised on-time delivery."
So problem solved: well
crafted cowboy bandanas for the Chisholm Trail trail riders and a way
to promote Abilene's pivotal role in a part of our past.
And Even More
Now, Deb Sanders has added
another component to her plan to promote tourism in the Abilene area.
And that is a Chisholm Trail-centered museum to be supported by the
National Old West Trail Foundation (NOWT). She has some quality exhibits ready to go
and is currently looking for a location. NOWT is set up as a 501
(c)(3), and they are welcoming donations or stories, artifacts, and (of course) money. Monetary support would be greatly appreciated. For more information,
contact Deb here.
And don't forget the Windmill Inn, a premier B&B in the uniquely beautiful Kansas Flint Hill country. Located seven miles south of
Chapman, Kansas, the Windmill Inn offers:
Windmill Inn - a place where the owners truly care about your
experience and the well being of their community and home area.