My trip to Abilene was with Visit Abilene as part of the 2022 Kansas Media Event which means that most of my expenses were paid for and the itinerary was organized for me. As always, I only recommend things that I actually love and always give you the straight scoop. Thank you for supporting the brands that make the Lincoln Travel Co possible.
Abilene, Kansas is pretty much famous for two things: 1) being the end of the Chisholm Trail, and 2) being the hometown of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
And boy have they made a go of it!
The fine folks of Abilene have leveraged their unique place in history to turn their home (population under 7,000 people) into a charming little town that’s been racking up plenty of awards lately like “Best Small Town,” “Friendliest Small Town,” and “Best Historic Small Town.”
When I got an invitation to attend this year’s Kansas Media Event hosted in Abilene, KS I signed right up as soon as I saw the itinerary.
Besides the chance to finally visit Eisenhower’s Presidential Library, they lured me in with promises of a cattle drive through Old Abilene Town, a ride on a historic steam engine train, a spin on a 1901 carousel, and bowling in the basement of a historic mansion with ties to both Thomas Edison and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Gosh, if you know me at all, you know that’s all right up my alley (bowling pun not intended ; )
So saddle up (sorry, I can’t stop) for a rundown on everything I did on my trip to Abilene plus some tips on logistics for how to plan your own trip.
Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum
Okay, let’s start this off with a bang and the whole reason for my trip to Abilene. One of my main personality traits is that I will go out of my way to visit a good history museum ; )
And Presidential libraries are always on my radar. They’re extremely well done, there aren’t an overwhelming number of them, and in addition to learning about that specific president, they usually cover the time period of the presidency pretty in depth. They’re like a time capsule of American history.
They’re usually located in the President’s hometown (or a large city in the state that they’re from), thus how there came to be a Presidential Library in tiny Abilene, Kansas.
Eisenhower famously said “the proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene” so it’s only fitting that the library and museum that honors a man who eventually became such a huge world leader is located in his small hometown.
So first up…what’s a presidential library? Well, the library part is a collection of books, documents, and historical objects from the time period of that President’s life and presidency. It’s a living, working library that scholars and researchers can access (and sometimes they arrange pieces in the collection for the general public to enjoy). The Eisenhower archives are home to 26 million+ pages with an average of 800 researchers visiting the library every year.
But the part that’s relevant to your average joe (you and me) is the museum that accompanies it.
The Eisenhower Presidential Library museum packs a PUNCH.
For starters…the section on life before the presidency…well there was that whole “Supreme Commander of the Allied troops during WWII” thing. Personally planning and coordinating the D-Day invasion and having a heavy hand in the post war reconstruction of Europe…the man had the career of a lifetime before he even became president.
If you’re a WWII history buff, you’ll love the sections about his military career. They’re extensive and very well done.
And then there’s his personal life. Before Jackie, there was Mamie. A Denver debutante, best friend and support buddy to Ike, and eventually a stylishly iconic First Lady. Mamie Eisenhower gets a LOT of screen time in the museum and the parts about her and their relationship are some of the most compelling. It feels like a bit of a sneak peek behind the curtain.
The outfits! The stories! The wedding cake! Yes, a tiny piece of their wedding cake was preserved in a box and you can see it.
I Like Ike! Relive the iconic Presidential campaign which I think is so interesting because it highlights the newly emerging “advertising” industry in the 1950s.
And then there are the events of his Presidency itself. Most notably the beginning of the Cold War and his international policy for peace.
I found the bit about his creating the interstate system pretty interesting given my recent experiences driving Route 66.
There’s plenty to read, plenty to watch, and plenty to just absorb. Plan to spend a couple of hours in the museum itself (more if you’re super thorough).
Besides the museum, there’s a few more sites of interest:
Eisenhower’s Boyhood Home: The home is currently closed for renovations so I didn’t get to see the inside, but tours of the house are normally offered every 15 minutes. The family lived in the home from 1898 until 1946 (when Ike’s mother Ida died).
Place of Meditation: The Place of Meditation is the burial grounds for Dwight, Mamie, and their first-born son, Doud, who died as a small child. Most US Presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt have chosen to be buried onsite at their centers.
Visitors Center: This was also closed during my visit, which is a bummer because the visitors centers usually have incredible gift shops!
Other Things to Do & See in Abilene
Let’s continue on with the turn of the century small town charm vibe…
Tour the Historic Seelye Mansion
Touring old homes, mansions, estates, etc. is one of my favorite things to do. You know I LOVE a good house museum. Well, the Seelye Mansion is a show stopper.
Built in 1904 by Dr. A.B. Seelye (an honest to goodness snake oil salesmen who peddled over 80 different “manufactured patent medicines” during his lifetime), the 11,000 square foot home was furnished and outfitted with accouterments from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (they spent an estimated $55K on the interiors which was an absurd amount of money at the time-hello Tiffanys fireplace!).
The Seelye family (mom, dad, and two daughters) were movers and shakers and the home has hosted so many notable people (they’ll let you sit in Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite chair).
The hour-long tour moves fast, not because the guide is rushing you, but more because at every turn there’s some jaw dropping site or story.
The house’s electrical system was personally designed by Thomas Edison and was revolutionary at the time. AND EVERYTHING STILL WORKS.
I think my favorite thing about this house tour is that it’s so hands on. The home was still lived in by the Seelye daughters until as recently as 40 or so years ago when current owner Terry Tietjens bought it with a mind to restore it to its original glory.
He allowed the elderly sisters to continue living in the house until they passed away, and it’s a super interesting story. A bit Gray Gardens.
Anyways, Terry has restored as much as the home as possible and it’s like stepping back in time. But while the home feels like it should be a museum, they don’t really treat it that way. There is no plexiglass or ropes barricading you from entering certain rooms and the tour guides honestly encourage you to interact with the house as much as possible.
Want to play chopsticks on the 1920 Steinway baby grand piano? Go for it. Give Edison’s Cylinder Phonograph a listen. Turn the original light switches on and off (they turn, they don’t flip up and down, which is where the saying “turn the lights on/off” comes from).
It works because the home is only accessed with a tour guide in small groups and also I suspect because a mansion in Abilene, Kansas just doesn’t get as many visitors as say Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate ; )
It’s $10/adult to tour the mansion and it’s 100% worth it JUST TO GO BOWLING IN THE BASEMENT.
Yep, that’s right. There’s a wooden Box Ball alley (like a ski ball precursor) purchased at the 1904 World’s Fair and you. can. bowl. on. it. They think there are only 3-4 of this model left in the world so it’s a pretty big treat. I don’t want to brag, but I bowled a 16 which was high score of the day ; )
Oh, and the bit about Frank Lloyd Wright? We all know him as a renowned architect, but he was contracted to renovate the downstairs of this house, and well…it didn’t go great. I can’t imagine two more radically different design styles and apparently they came back through after the renovations and added back in some of the original details that he scraped.
The tour is chock full of stories and anecdotes and I expect you get different ones depending on how you interact with the tour guide and what questions you ask. This house just has so much history that it’s not possible to cover it all. 10/10 recommend.
Ride a 1901 C.W. Parker Carousel at the Dickinson County Heritage Center
The Dickinson County Heritage Center is a lovely community gem and I expect if you spend the time to comb through the extensive exhibits, you’d come away with quite a few stories. You’ve got C.L. Brown and his telephone company (which eventually became Sprint), Wild Bill Hickok (a former Abilene Marshal), and Joseph McCoy (the man who brought cattle to Abilene and put it on the map) so you can just imagine the scope here.
But I was short on time (always am when I’m trying to see it all) so I made a beeline out back to the carousel. Built in 1901 by C.W. Parker (based out of Leavenworth, KS), I believe this is the only remaining carousel that you can ACTUALLY RIDE.
It was named a National Landmark in 1995, and it thrills me to no end when you can actually experience things like this.
After my ride on the carousel (complete with original organ music), one of the ladies who was also there on the media trip came up to me and said “you just looked so joyful when you were riding the carousel” and well…that about sums it up!
Antique Shopping Downtown
Small towns are usually treasure troves for antique shopping and Abilene sure didn’t disappoint. I carved out a couple of hours to mosey on through Abilene Downtown Antiques (there are actually two antique malls next door to each other here that are sister stores) and Countrypolitan.
And of course, I had to stop and do some damage at Rivendell Bookstore. They’ve taken the mystery book concept and really ran with it.
Relive the Wild West in Abilene, Kansas
So remember the bit about the Chisholm Trail? Abilene was the end of the line as far as the big Texas cattle drives were concerned. Cowboys drove cattle up the Chisholm Trail from Fort Worth to Abilene where they loaded them on trains to be shipped across the country.
So there’s a fair bit of western history in Abilene. Heard of Wild Bill Hickok? He was the Marshal in Abilene for a spell and you’ll find nods to the town’s western heritage everywhere.
Visit Old Abilene Town
Your best one stop shop for a good ol’ western time is Old Abilene Town. Stroll down the old boardwalk past the general store, saloon, and jail and you’ll get a glimpse of what Abilene was like in its heyday.
The first night of the media event was hosted at Old Town and boy they did it up right. Full transparency though…while Old Town is open every weekend during the summer and there’s a lot to see, they usually add more festivities for special events like Chisholm Trail Days (over Labor Day weekend) and some of this was arranged just for the media event. I’m telling you this because if you’re looking for the full blow western experience at Old Abilene Town, then you may want to watch the calendar and plan your visit on a special date when there’s more going on.
If you can plan your visit on a day when they do a cattle drive through Old Town, you won’t be disappointed.
I’ve seen cattle drives at the Fort Worth Stockyards (LOVE), but this one was special because they drive the cattle onto the TRAIN. I’ll spare you the embarrassing squeal I let out when I realized this was going to happen ; ) Anyways…super cool!
Okay, so the cattle drives usually only happen for special events, but everything else I’m going to tell you about is stuff that happens either every weekend in the summer or at least several times per season:
Drink a Cold Sarsaparilla in the Saloon: That’s root beer for you modern folks. And if you’re lucky they’ll have the self playing piano going.
Watch the Can Can Dancers: We got a mini show at the media event, but I bet it’s pretty cool when the whole group gets together.
Check out the Chisholm Trail Museum and Interpretive Center: Located in the Way Station, this is the best place to learn about the history of the Chisholm Trail and the cattle trade in Kansas.
Take Cover During a Gunfight: Every weekend they stage mock shoot-outs in the middle of the street.
Listen to Cowboy Poetry: I didn’t know this was a thing, but I really enjoyed listening to “Cowboy Poet Lariat” Ron Wilson.
Ride in a Stagecoach through Town: Wild Heart Carriages was out giving stagecoach rides when I was there and it was pretty fun!
Ride a 100-Year-Old Steam Engine
This was the highlight of my trip to Old Abilene Town and I think it’s a must do if you’re in town. The Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad’s 1919 Baldwin 4-6-2 steam locomotive is the only operating steam engine in Kansas and really only one of a few left in the US.
The train runs every weekend May to October and makes a 10 mile round trip between Abilene and Enterprise (the next town over). They were doing abbreviated rides during the media event so we just went a few miles out and turned around and came back, but on their regular schedule they stop in Enterprise and you can get off the train to see the Hoffman Grist Mill.
Definitely spend a bit of time inside the old railroad depot at Old Town as there’s a pretty good museum.
I seriously loved doing this and I’m not really much of a train enthusiast (hey, I know it’s a big thing) so if you ARE a train enthusiast, I would imagine it would probably be worth coming quite a ways just to experience this.
Have Chicken Dinner at Legacy Kansas in the Historic Brookville Hotel
Some of my fondest childhood memories involve going to the Kentucky Fried Chicken with my grandparents – the one that had the buffet – and I’m not even kidding.
I love a good chicken buffet so this place was right up my alley. Fried chicken dinners (a whole family style home cooking affair) have been a staple at the Brookville Hotel for 125 years and after a COVID related closure, the Brookville is back open under new ownership.
Since everything is served family style, it’s better to go with at least a few people because it is SO MUCH FOOD. It’s all mouth wateringly good.
Wild Bill Hickok PRCA Rodeo
What kind of western town would this be if there weren’t a rodeo?? Thankfully, we don’t have to find out. I was pretty bummed that I had to head out of town before the rodeo started, but I made a trip out to the rodeo grounds to check it out earlier in the day and it looks like a bona fide big time rodeo.
The rodeo is usually held the first few days in August.
See the World’s Largest Spur and Do Some Western Shopping
It’s not a midwest road trip if you don’t see a “world’s largest” something. At 28 feet tall it’s something to see. And while you’re standing in front of it, go ahead and walk on through into Rittel’s Western Wear and get ya a rodeo outfit.
Plan Your Trip to Abilene, Kansas
I know SOMETHING I’ve mentioned struck your fancy so if you’re itchin’ to get to Abilene, here’s some good stuff to know:
Abilene is about 1:30 from Wichita and 2:15 from Kansas City. If you’re flying in from somewhere afar, both have good airports: Wichita (ICT), Kansas City (MCI).
If you’re planning to stay overnight, there aren’t a ton of options, but there’s a Holiday Inn Express (I stayed there) which was clean and good for a quick stopover. There’s also Abilene’s Victorian Inn where a few on the media trip stayed and they liked it.
Otherwise, try your luck with Vrbo and Airbnb.
Where to Eat
Besides Kansas Legacy at the Brookville Hotel, I had lunch at Amanda’s Bakery & Bistro (8:30AM-3PM) downtown for lunch (good chicken salad sandwiches) and stopped by Donut Palace (4:30AM-2PM) one morning for a donut and sausage roll. I was super impressed by their sprinkle selection.
I’d also read good things about Joe Snuffy’s Old Fashioned (6AM-2PM), but it was closed the day I was going to try it and Ike’s Place (11AM-9PM Closed Tuesday) also looks good.