Historically Speaking: History of Boot Hill Museum

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
The history of Boot Hill Museum

Dodge City has a long and colorful past. And one Museum celebrating this past has a history all its own.

After the cattle drives ended in the mid 1880s, Dodge City “settled down” and people didn’t talk much about Boot Hill Cemetery or Dodge City’s rugged image – this was a respectable city.

By 1932 when the State Rotary Convention came to Dodge, things had begun to change. To liven things up for the attendees, dentist Dr. O.H. Simpson made and placed plaster boots, headstones and other accessories at the cemetery site.

His “decorations” became a tourist attraction. Soon Morris Cannon set up a billboard on Boot Hill and old timers sold curios to visitors.

In 1947, the Dodge City Jaycees started Boot Hill Museum breaking ground for a building at the site of Boot Hill Cemetery.

Its dedication was in conjunction with Dodge City’s 75th anniversary on May 23, 1947. In the 1950s the Jaycees began adding to the Museum. In 1953, they “stole” a small jail from Fort Dodge (by law the State couldn’t donate the structure, so the authorities looked the other way).

In 1954, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway donated the Boot Hill Special train engine and placed where the Great Western Hotel is today.

In 1958, museum administrators built the Front Street replica from Rath General Store to Zimmermann’s Hardware. Soon after, the Long Branch Variety Show began. It is the longest running show of its type in America.

In 1964, the Museum acquired thousands of artifacts from the Beeson Museum when it closed and the Front Street replica was extended to Beatty and Kelley’s Restaurant. In 1969, Boot Hill Museum obtained the Santa Fe Trail rut site near Howell.

In 1970, came the completion of the Front Street replica. Also, Skelly Oil donated and moved the Hardesty House to the Museum. In 1977, a train depot from Sitka, Kansas was placed at Boot Hill Museum.

The Museum expanded further with the construction of Great Western Hotel in 1983. The Museum moved Gift shops, which had been scattered throughout the Museum, into the Great Western; and put the ticket gate, as well as offices, inside this structure.

In 1995, to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Museum built a ramp to allow easier access to the Boot Hill Building and Cemetery.

In 2000, Ball Movers moved the Train and Depot to their current location along Wyatt Earp Boulevard.

In 2002, Ball moved Hardesty House to make room for Applebees Restaurant.

During the 2000s numerous improvements and renovations to exhibits have taken place, including the new gun exhibit in 2001 and the remodeling of the Boot Hill Building in 2003. Staff constructed the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame exhibit in 2006.

In 2004, a family from Bucklin donated an old Catholic church building to the Museum and moved onto its site. The Museum completed renovation of this building as the Union Church exhibit in July 2009.

In 2012, staff refurbished and upgraded the exhibits in Hardesty House.

Around 2015 the last of the "patio glass," which had been in place for 20 years, was removed and exhibits were improved.

The biggest change in decades came just last year with the completion of the large building which holds the new Gift Shop, Mariah Gallery and new exhibits, which have recently opened.

The issuance of STAR bonds and donations from the Mariah Fund made these latest improvements possible.