You have probably not heard of Abilene, Kansas. It is a small, tranquil town of a little more than 6,000 people in central Kansas. If anyone has traveled on I-70 on the way to Colorado, they would have passed right by it. Otherwise, there is little reason for those outside central Kansas to know much about Abilene unless they have a fascination with the Old West or President Eisenhower.
Towns are defined by their history. From the sweeping metropolises to the smallest villages, history leaves its imprint on towns and their inhabitants. And as the towns age, it influences norms, customs and traditions. Many towns recognize this fact and celebrate their unique history in some way. For most small towns, historical claims are rather modest and local, rather than national.
However, Abilene’s history belies its size. Once apartin the 19th and 20th centuries, Abilene would find itself at the heart of historical moments convulsing the United States.
Founded as Mud Creek in 1857, Abilene would gain its current name in 1860, taking the name from a Bible passage meaning “city of the plains.”
Abilene quickly grew into a destination at the heart of the raucous Old West serving as the end point of the Chisholm Trail and even having a claim to being the first cow town of the West.
Abilene practically epitomized the legends of the West and its famed lawlessness during this period. At one point, the town had one famed sheriff murdered and decapitated, at another it had the notorious Wild Bill Hickok serve briefly as sheriff.
Though the town would calm with the passing of the Old West, the tranquility would conceal an even more momentous role it would play in the 20th century. In that century, Abilene would be the hometown for the Supreme Allied Commander of the D-Day Invasion, five-star general, and 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The general and the town would have lasting impacts upon one another. Ike would pay tribute to his town in a 1945 speech when he proclaimed, “The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.”
This connection would be further evidenced when he launched his presidential campaign from Abilene in 1952 and decided later on to make Abilene home to his presidential library.
Naturally, for a small town with such a rich history, history is pervasively embedded in Abilene. The Dickinson County Historical Society and Old Abilene Town keep alive the town’s heritage from the Old West.
Meanwhile, the shadow of the 34th President is omnipresent in his hometown to this day. Many statues, signs and places honor President Eisenhower, including the Eisenhower Rose Garden, Little Ike Park, the restaurant Ike’s Place, Eisenhower Elementary, and stickers and signs everywhere declaring, “I Still Like Ike.”
Brookville Hotel: As should not be unexpected at this point, the Brookville Hotel is rooted deep in history. The Hotel traces its origins back to 1870. Though limited in its choices to fried chicken and its fixings, Brookville has had over a century to perfect their recipe, and it shows.
Ike’s Place Bar & Grill: A casual, family-oriented dining locale, Ike’s place serves a range of options, from wings to burgers to steak.
M&R Grill: Similar to Ike’s Place in both menu and atmosphere, M&R is a local congregant where it is not unusual to see locals talking cross table at one another or greeting new arrivals as they walk in the door.
The Great Plains Theatre: The Great Plains Theatre (GPT) and the broader community suffered a blow when the theatre’s historic building – which dated back to 1882 – was lost in a fire in 2014. Inevitably, concerns and questions about the future of the Theatre rapidly emerged. Thankfully, in the years since the fire the theatre has fought to rebuild and revitalize with strong support from the community. Now located in a new theatre and in the midst of their 25th season, GPT has looked to regained its footing. With a robust youth program as well as professional shows, GPT is a hidden gem of Abilene. As someone who went to performances of “Pirates of Penzance,” “Disaster!” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” over the summer, I can well attest to their skill and versatility in moving between shows. I highly recommend stopping by to watch any show being performed.
Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home: Of course no list of Abilene could be complete without the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home. One of the 14 presidential libraries that dot the country, the Eisenhower Presidential Library also preserves the home Ike grew up in on their grounds. As well, the burial place for the 34th President, his wife Mamie and their firstborn son Doud is located on the grounds of the Museum. After undergoing extensive renovations, the museum reopened July 29 featuring new interactive exhibits. The museum will be formally rededicated Oct. 12.