Old Abilene Town leaders are making plans to turn the “modest cowtown” back into a dynamic tourist attraction, starting with enhanced programming in 2020.
“We want to move ourselves from not just a tourist destination, but a tourist attraction and all the great things that can happen down in that district,” said Michael Hook, president of the Historic Abilene, Inc., board of trustees.
Hook and seven other Historic Abilene board members met with Dickinson County commissioners Thursday during a work session to talk about short-term and long-term plans for Old Abilene Town (OAT) and ask for any financial support the county might be willing to give.
Hook outlined a series of education programs and events planned in 2020 and explained maintenance needs and future building projects.
Old Abilene Town dates back to 1957, when it was built by a group of “civic-spirited businessmen” whose goal was to recreate an authentic replica of the cattle capital as it was during the roaring heydays of the Chisholm Trail, according to published reports.
While several buildings were original structures moved to the location (including the log structures, old schoolhouse and others), most were replicas.
“Our facility is now coming into the age of antiquity itself,” Hook told commissioners. “Our buildings that were supposed to recreate the original buildings of the cowboy days are now 60 years old and in desperate need of repair and update.”
Hook said Historic Abilene was seeking county assistance to help pay for brick and mortar projects, renovations and rebuilding.
Building repair is an immediate need, thanks to termite damage affecting buildings mostly on the north side of the town.
“We hope to work with local builders to put the damaged buildings back to structural security,” Hook said. “The two-story cabin is in desperate need of work. It will require us to rebuild completely, but with the great history dating back to 1857, it is one of the earliest homes in Dickinson County.”
Referring to a fire that destroyed the former General Store and Wild Bill’s Hangout — creating a gap on the west side of OAT, plans are to build a new building that will fill the area between the restrooms and the Merchant’s Hotel.
“We’ve also discussed bringing in the National Old West Trails Museum to this building that (Dickinson County residents) Deb and Tim Sanders have in storage,” Hook said. “It’s a first rate museum; it’s been designed by professionals. They just need a place to house it.”
In March, Deb Sanders and representatives from the National Old West Trails Foundation sought to house a temporary Chisholm Trail exhibit in the Abilene Civic Center, but that was met with some community opposition.
However, locating it at Old Abilene Town would be the “perfect fit,” Hook said.
“And to excite the kids at heart, we hope to build the fun house (Wild Bill’s Hangout) once again,” Hook added.
HVAC systems are needed to allow for year-round programming.
“We hope to find a central option over the window units and floor heaters we are using now,” Hook said.
Several educational programs are planned in 2020, including a Cowboy Camp in July, hosted by OAT and the Community Foundation of Dickinson County.
For youths ages 7 to 12, the camp will allow participants to “live the way of the cowboy” with horseback riding, roping, building a campfire, cooking in a Dutch oven, branding, leatherwork and blacksmith lessons.
The camp will include a historic ride to Enterprise and back on the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad during which campers will learn trapping skills necessary for early survival, Hook said.
“We have an opportunity to work with many people in the county to help educate and bring forth a first class summer camp experience for students throughout Dickinson County,” he said.
Old Abilene Town and Astra Bank will co-sponsor a “living town” where students ages 12 to 16 take on the jobs of townsfolk.
“So they will be the mayor, the store owners, the drovers, the ranchers,” Hook said. “The kids are going to be running the town.”
The experience will also include a “modern look” at finances and budgeting.
“They will learn to write checks, budget, learn what insurance policies are all about,” Hook explained. “We are pairing up with different businesses in town to teach these kids and ultimately, they’ll put it to use out there in Old Abilene Town. It’s got a historic backdrop but they’ll be learning about modern finances.”
Hook said OAT hopes to be open more and offer a variety of events with other tourist attractions, including the Dickinson County Historical Society, National Greyhound Hall of Fame, the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad and Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.
Some events planned for 2020 include:
• First Friday of the month: karaoke, bingo, live music, etc., creating a nighttime entertainment venue
• Movie night showing classic westerns and movies that paid homage to Abilene
• Blacksmith classes (building on the popularity of a History Channel TV show)
• Historic carnival games for kids, old-time photos, homemade ice cream, scripted gunfights that exemplify the history of the cowtown, ranch rodeos, Wild West Shows and numerous other ideas, along with artisans creating merchandise.
“We want to bring this back to life like a miniature Silver Dollar City,” Hook said. “We want to make it a destination and have people want to do multiple things in this town beyond just (visiting) the Eisenhower (Presidential Museum & Boyhood Home).”
Commissioner Craig Chamberlin asked about OAT’s financial goal. Hook said it was set at $20,000 to start.
One board member noted that Hook has been successful in obtaining grants for OAT and that the Community Foundation of Dickinson County has been a “huge partner,” but noted that many grants do not provide funds for “brick and mortar” projects.
Most donors are not interested in giving money for “two-by-fours,” the board member said, although $40,000 was donated by a local family to install a fence around the perimeter of Old Abilene Town.
Board member Greg Wilson said having the fence means admission can be charged once enough attractions exist to make it feasible.
County Finance Director Janelle Dockendorf told commissioners the county budget has about $4,500 remaining in a line item dedicated to events.
Chamberlin commented that the commission would need to discuss how they want to spend the money and “either put it all in one place or spread it around.”
Hook said Historic Abilene would appreciate any type of support.
Commissioner Ron Roller complimented the Historic Abilene board for all the work it has accomplished. He mentioned that Old Abilene Town played a big part in his life from an early age and he is interested in helping out the group.
“We’re not the ‘fairy guy’; this is taxpayer money, but I think we all benefit from the rodeo area, our museums and historic Old Abilene Town,” Roller said. “We sure want to be on board with backing and support.”
With Commission Chairman Lynn Peterson absent from the work session and regular meeting, no further discussion was held on the topic.
Contact Kathy Hageman at firstname.lastname@example.org.