Road Trip: The Chisholm Trail
Western Experience expert Ted Streuli travels U.S. 81 from Waurika to Enid, following the path countless drovers used to get longhorn cattle from Texas to Kansas.
|Photo: Ted Streuli|
One thing is certain when driving the Chisholm Trail: there are still plenty of cows. And that’s one of the trip’s many charms. Driving the Chisholm Trail through Oklahoma is a leisurely one-day trip in my Passat wagon, considerably faster than the 10 miles per day that was possible with a herd of longhorns. It’s easy to imagine traveling the trail in the original sort of wagon because much of the route remains undeveloped, and even the towns U.S. 81 passes through offer a sense that the Old West was really there – and not very long ago.
Start of the Trail – Waurika
The official start of the Chisholm Trail in Oklahoma is in Terral, near the Red River on the Oklahoma-Texas border, but I began my journey 20 minutes north in Waurika. This part of Oklahoma has vast grasslands, big sky and trees that are visible from miles away. I think about Jesse Chisholm, who established the Chisholm Trail with a wagon of buffalo hides he took through Indian Territory to his Kansas trading post. This pathway soon became the preferred route for herding cattle from Texas to Kansas. Originally called the Abilene Cattle Trail, it didn’t become known as the Chisholm Trail until two years after Jesse’s death in 1868.
Duncan Store Historical Marker
One of the best stops on the trail is the city of Duncan, about 30 minutes north of Waurika. The city got its start with William Duncan’s store, an important provisioning post for cattle drovers.
I take a drive east of town to visit the spot where the store stood on East Chestnut Street – it was the first of many historical markers I chase en route. There are visible ruts in the ground from the millions of hooves that passed. I look east and get my first inkling of what it looked and felt like here before modern conveniences.
Good thing I had a camera, because while in Duncan I discover a 30-foot plastic steer on a trailer, which provides the perfect photo opportunity. The steer, a leftover advertisement for a former barbecue joint, reminds me of the area’s history. Plus, giant plastic cows just don’t come along every day.
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
Standing between me and lunch is Duncan’s Chisholm Trail Heritage Center, which turns out to be the star of the drive. Seeing the life-size bronze sculpture of cowboys driving longhorns on the trail just outside the museum is worth the trip by itself, but the center is so well done it’s the kind of place you’re likely to spend more time than intended – as I do.
The museum also offers a Chisholm Trail path that lets visitors walk the trail, which gives me a sense of the trail’s geography and the critical nature of river crossings.
I'm drawn to several pieces in the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center’s Western art gallery, including a resin relief sculpture of an Indian warrior by John Coleman and a delightful little watercolor by Olaf Carl Weighorst.
Exiting the art gallery, I’m engaged by an open diorama that displays native species and suggests some of the joys and trials drovers on the trail faced. The museum has a walk-in mockup of William Duncan’s store, where young visitors can try their hands at designing a brand or pose for Mom’s camera on a mechanical pony while wearing Western clothes borrowed from a nearby box.
The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center’s Campfire Theater treats guests to a conversation between Jesse Chisholm and one of the first cowboys to work along the trail. The life-size animatronics are staged at a campfire and real enough to make suspending disbelief easy.
The highlight, however, is the Experience Theater. I wasn’t expecting to feel galloping hoofbeats through my seat or the wind kick up or smell the cook's bacon and coffee. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the surprise when the on-screen cowboys go splashing through the river.
If Philondra is in the gift shop, ask her about Bud and Me. She’s a storehouse of local history and tells a darn good story.
Outlaw Fun – Redbud Park and Outlaw Cave
Marlow is only 12 minutes north of Duncan, and my curiosity was piqued because almost everything in town includes an “outlaw” moniker. The meaning becomes clear when I chase down another historical marker and discover Redbud Park and Outlaw Cave.
The town is named after the Marlow brothers, whose story of being falsely accused of cattle theft has been told in every medium, most famously in the film The Sons of Katie Elder. The park, with its Western-themed playground, is the kind of place an 8-year-old boy would don a cowboy hat and bandana, put a six-shooter cap gun on his hip and let his imagination run wild.
The towns U.S. 81 passes through offer a sense that the Old West was really there – and not very long ago.
Going to the Chapel
Just west of the park is the photo-worthy Redbud Chapel, built in 1904. The chapel wasn’t there when the Chisholm Trail was in use, but its presence adds to that sense of pioneering so prevalent along the route. Local banker Tom Wade donated land for the church, which was built as the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. The congregation outgrew the historic building and built a new church on the site, donating the original structure to the city in 1997. Citizens raised enough money to save the building, move it to Redbud Park and rename it Redbud Chapel.
The Chisholm Trail divided just south of Tuttle, when the drovers traveled east through Yukon for an easier river crossing and the wagons journeyed west through El Reno. There’s a preserved watering hole from the cattle drive days at the Kirkpatrick Farm in Yukon, which is also home to the Chisholm Trail Park. The park has a trail marker and a collection of life-size bronze sculptures, including longhorn and bison. But I opt to stay west through El Reno and check out Fort Reno.
Fort Reno has an eventful past that stretches from the Indian Wars through its use as a World War II prisoner-of-war camp. Only Fort Reno’s first 13 years overlap with Chisholm Trail history, and Fort Reno’s officers’ quarters, chapel and cemetery – though not directly related to the Chisholm Trail – are open and worth a visit. I decide to continue my drive by going farther west.
Jesse Chisholm’s grave is near the town of Geary, and it occurs to me that I should have a photo, so I set out in search of the marker. The lesson is that it’s better to know exactly where you’re going, which is why cattle drovers wiser than me had the sense to follow the established trail.
Geary is a ways out on Interstate 40, then up U.S. 281. I was certain there would be directional signs once I arrived. There weren’t. And there aren’t too many people around who can point you in the right direction.
I decide that “about seven miles northeast of town” is adequate and drive for it.
I take a chance on following Chisholm Road to the east, thinking perhaps Jesse had some property along there. Chisholm Road is all gravel and rather long. To my knowledge, it doesn’t lead anywhere except back to I-40. If you find the grave, please send me the photo.
The Oldest Bar in Oklahoma – Eischen’s Bar
My dinner stop is at Eischen’s Bar in Okarche. It’s the self-proclaimed oldest bar in Oklahoma, established in 1896, and most agree it also has the best fried chicken on the planet. Don’t let the name stop you; it’s safe to take the kids. Eischen’s doesn’t take reservations, so it’s grab-your-own seat. And by grab-your-own-seat, I mean race for it when you see an open table. It’s survival of the fittest – or hungriest. Arrive after 4:30 p.m. and you’ll be waiting a while, sometimes as long as two hours.
Chisholm Trail Museum
The second of two museums is in Kingfisher, where the Chisholm Trail Museum is across the street from the A.J. Seay Home. Both attractions are in the middle of a residential neighborhood, but directional signage is good. The museum has a good timeline of the Chisholm Trail and a nice artifact collection, including a horse-drawn hearse. But the real treat is the pioneer village, which includes a cabin that belonged to the Dalton gang’s mother and other preserved buildings.
Really impressive is the life-size bronze of Jesse Chisholm on horseback high on a rock smack in the middle of downtown Kingfisher, one of the pleasant surprises along the trail.
Red Fork Ranch
The separated trails rejoin at Dover for the Cimarron River crossing. There’s a small park and historical marker alongside the highway, but the real roadside attraction is a granite monument two blocks south that marks the site of the Red Fork Ranch, where drovers were able to stop for supplies. The marker would be less interesting if it wasn’t right in someone’s front yard. I’m tempted to ring the doorbell, but realize my only question is “How many people ring your doorbell?” Well, that and, “Why did you agree to have this monument in your front yard?”
End of the Line – Bull Foot Park
I stop at Bull Foot Park in Hennessey, where there’s a terrific outdoor sculpture garden. Life-size cowboys are pushing the herd toward the river, and it’s one of those meditative stops where I can feel it all – the adventure, the dust, the fear, the boredom and the pull of the wide-open space.
I finish the drive in Enid, although U.S. 281 continues on through Medford and into Kansas. The drive home from Enid has me noticing how much open space remains in Oklahoma and wondering if those drovers had lived in our time what they would have chosen for careers.