DODGE CITY, Kan. — It was history made and history lovingly remembered in the heritage rich frontier town of Dodge City, Kan.
Earlier this month, the Old West, cattle and cowboys were on display and celebrated in a grandeur befit the American spirit. Organizers, wanting to bring even more visitors to town, took special pride in this year’s version of Dodge Days titled “Get the Heck Into Dodge.” Dodge City, a western Kansas town of approximately 27,000, spiced up its annual Dodge Days celebration with a cattle drive on their major street appropriately named Wyatt Earp Boulevard. Thousands lined the road to watch a parade of 59 longhorns. It was the first major cattle drive in Dodge City since the 1880s.
Both the drive and number of longhorns were significant as noted in a proclamation from Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. The declaration mentioned the millions of head of cattle driven in the 19th century from Texas to Dodge City and its railroad in the post-Civil War era.
The life of the drover was a lot harder and dirtier than romanticized later in film. Still that bit of history enshrined the cowboy in the American psyche and spawned countless Westerns, showcased on television and movie screens for most of the 20th century. Under a bright sun it was remembered and revered again.
There was also a reason for the 59 longhorns. It symbolized the 59th anniversary of the start of one of the longest running television programs ever, “Gunsmoke.” The Old West drama was fiction but became real to its millions of fans.
One of the “Gunsmoke” actors found the Dodge Days opportunity impossible to resist.
Buck Taylor had the role of Newly O’Brien, from 1967-1975 portraying a deputy and gunsmith. During the cattle drive, and as an honorary drive marshal, he was widely recognized and respected. Afterwards Taylor sat down and talked about being in the real Dodge City as opposed to the fictional Dodge City on a set in California.
“It’s great to be here,” he said. “I realize that without the real Dodge City there would have never been a ‘Gunsmoke.’ And ‘Gunsmoke’ was so good to me.”
“Gunsmoke” started its run in 1955. Taylor graduated from high school in 1956 and a little more than 10 years later was a regular cast member.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I had watched the show for years and there I am in the Long Branch Saloon with Doc, Matt, Miss Kitty and all of them. It was great.”
Taylor, who later would meet his wife in Oklahoma City at State Fair Park, still watches the program although he finds it a bit bittersweet.
“Just about all of us are gone now,” he lamented. Surviving cast members with major recurring roles include Burt Reynolds (as Quint Asper) and Roger Ewing (as Thad Greenwood).
Taylor, whose late-actor father Dub Taylor graduated from Classen High School, has many fond memories. In one episode he was married, only to have his wife die shortly after the wedding. Finding a girlfriend for Newly seemed to be a common storyline of his time on the show. In a few episodes, there was a simple country girl named Merry Florene who made no secret of her huge crush on the man she called “Mr. Newly.” One fan of the program met Taylor and couldn’t understand why he didn’t respond romantically to Florene. That fan was the nation’s first lady, Lady Bird Johnson.
“She told me Merry Florene would be so good for me,” he laughed.
Taylor, these days also known for his art, continues to act — including an opening scene in the 2011 movie “Cowboys & Aliens,” where Daniel Craig’s character, Jake Lonergan, kills Taylor along with his on-screen and real-life sons, Matt Taylor and Cooper Taylor. Taylor, a fan of the Old West, named Matt after Dodge City marshal Matt Dillon and Cooper after Western movie star Gary Cooper.
Another star basking in the Wild West attention was Johnny Crawford, better known to millions as Mark McCain, son of Lucas McCain in the television series, “The Rifleman.” He was a child actor when the show aired from 1958 to 1963. Today at 68, he looked back at his time as an actor.
“It (‘The Rifleman’) was a good show,” he said. “There was lots of action, but always good lessons in bringing up a child.”
In the first season, 40 episodes were filmed. As with “Gunsmoke,” the appeal of the show was wide. During the 1970s, former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was a huge fan of the “Rifleman” character, played by Chuck Connors. He warmly greeted Connors at an airport. Crawford remembered another fan.
“I was at a sporting event in Los Angeles and saw Richard Nixon,” he recalled. “He saw me, said hi and made the motion of firing the rifle.”
Crawford speculated on the show’s ongoing popularity as well as the continued interest in the Old West.
“It was a special time in American history, a romantic time, which still appeals to people,” he said.
Concurring with that opinion is Sharon Stroburg, general manager of what some might consider the modern-day Long Branch Saloon, the Boot Hill Casino & Resort. She was also chair and chief organizer of the cattle-drive activities. Helping her was a small army of staff from the huge casino on the west side of Dodge City.
“This is going very well,” she said. “The folklore (Old West) continues to engage the imaginations of people around the world. This is our way of commemorating the city’s heritage as the largest of the cattle-shipping towns in the late 1800s.”
Kari Casterline, of the casino, said tourism was the No. 3 business of Dodge City and that its reach was international.
“Germans still watch ‘Gunsmoke’ and come here,” she said.
Travel and accommodations provided by Boot Hill Casino & Resort.