By Brian Jewell
ollywood made cowboys larger than life.
In the movies we all grew up watching, those rugged Westerners were brave, witty gunslingers who could ride a horse, win the girl and save the day, all within 90 minutes. And although those characters created a heroic image in our collective minds, the actual cowboys of the American West might be even more interesting than their fictional counterparts.
It’s all but impossible to travel in the West today without encountering cowboy heritage. Throughout history, the cowboy culture has grown to encompass ranch hands, athletes, poets and entertainers. At cowboy-themed attractions from Texas to South Dakota, group travelers can get to know them all.
A visit to a cowboy museum, a rodeo hall of fame or similar attractions is an essential experience for travelers who want to capture the spirit of the West. Here are some great places to include on your next group tour in the region.
National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum
Perhaps America’s greatest shrine to cowboy culture is the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. The sprawling museum covers cowboys from multiple angles, among them artwork, historic representations, cinematic depictions and a variety of special events.
“A good tour here is one and a half to two hours, but you could spend all day here,” said Aaron Martin, the museum’s director of tourism marketing. “We give you an overview of everything from our world-class collection of art to our Western Performers Gallery. You can see the John Wayne collection and items from ‘Gunsmoke,’ ‘Bonanza’ and ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”
Groups can get a feel for life in the area’s cowboy heyday during a walk through the indoor Old West town. This exhibit features 19 life-size buildings, as well as state-of-the-art sound and lighting effects that add a sense of small-town bustle and vibrancy. In the Western performers gallery, displays feature many of the costumes and props used by the legendary stars of Western film.
One of the museum’s greatest strengths is its collection of Western art and its large annual arts events.
“Our Prix de West brings 100 of the best Western painters and sculptors, who show about 330 pieces,” Martin said. “There’s a piece chosen every year for the museum to purchase, so we have 40 pieces of art in our Prix de West collection.”
Other annual events at the museum include a chuck wagon festival in May, the National Day of the American Cowboy in July, an art event called Cowboy Crossing in October and a cowboy Christmas ball in December.
Hall of Fame
Fort Worth, Texas
No state is as recognized for its cowboy heritage as Texas, where cattle ranching remains a widespread way of life. At the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, visitors learn about the vital role that cowboy culture has played in the state.
“The Hall of Fame honors Texas cowboys and cowgirls that have made a significant impact on the cowboy way of life and the Western lifestyle,” said executive director Jamie Hoffman. “Right now, we have more than 105 people in the Hall of Fame.”
Some of the Hall of Fame inductees are historical figures who are well known throughout Texas. Others are more prominent celebrities, such as George Strait, Tommy Lee Jones and Nolan Ryan, who have proudly embraced the cowboy lifestyle.
In addition to inductees, the museum introduces visitors to many elements of early cowboy life, such as the wagons that performed various functions on long cattle drives along the Chisholm Trail.
“We have over 60 authentic wagons on the museum floor,” Hoffman said. “It’s the world’s largest collection of lifestyle wagons. They’re lumber wagons, milk wagons, a U.S. Mail wagon and a hearse that belonged to a Catholic vicar — wagons that people would have made a wagon with.”
One of the most popular wagons on display is a chuck wagon, which is set up to replicate the scene of cowboys gathering around the fire at dinnertime.
Boot Hill Museum
Dodge City, Kansas
The cattle drive trails led many cowboys out of Texas and into Dodge City, Kansas, where ranching was big business in the 1800s. During that period, Dodge City got a reputation as one of the roughest places in the Old West. Today, the Boot Hill Museum gives visitors a feel for life during that time.
“We’re an Old West history museum, and we tell the story about Dodge City in the 1870s through the early 1900s,” said executive director Lara Brehm. “We have a pretty extensive museum. We’re in several buildings the length of two city blocks, and there are nearly 30,000 pieces on display.”
All of the artifacts on display are of local origin. Some include items that belonged to famous historical figures who spent time in the city, such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson.
The outsides of the gallery buildings feature facades that have been built to replicate Dodge City’s original Front Street, with a saloon, a general store and several other business fronts. Visitors can have a drink of sarsaparilla in the saloon, which features some original paintings from the first saloon in town. Other historic buildings include a Victorian home, a blacksmith shop, a church and the Fort Dodge jail.
The Boot Hill Museum staff help to get visitors into the spirit of the Old West, with country-style dinners, shows and gunfight reenactments.