CALDWELL, Kan. — This “border queen” nestled near what is now the Kansas and Oklahoma state line was born 150 years ago thanks to the Chisholm Trail.
And to celebrate the driving force of the town’s economy between 1871 and 1891, the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce is hosting a cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail along with a town festival May 3-8.
“Honoring the significance of this historic and monumental trail in America’s history will be a highlight to drive the 150 head of cattle up Main Street Caldwell, reminiscent of our rowdy Wild West youth,” said festival director Jill Kuehny. “Caldwell exists because of the cattle drives up the old Chisholm Trail.”
The chamber has designed the cattle drive and festival to encourage interactive history, she said.
They are offering an experience of a lifetime: People can sign up to actually ride on the 30-mile cattle drive, either as guest drovers or day riders. The cattle drive starts through downtown Pond Creek, goes onto Jefferson, along the east side of Medford, into Renfrow’s pastures, up to the state line and ends with a parade through downtown Caldwell.
Portions of U.S. 81 will go down to one lane during the cattle drive, since much of the highway follows the original Chisholm Trail. Coordinators have closely worked with Oklahoma Highway Patrol, local law enforcement and railroad companies to ensure safety for all.
During the five-day, six-night drive, drovers will ride in the herd, sort cattle, set up camp, take night shifts to watch the herd, enjoy chuck wagon food around the campfire and either sleep under the stars or in tents. Cost to sign up as a drover is $750, which covers food for rider and horse, equipment and insurance. Day riders can follow along to enjoy the view as many days as they sign up for — without work or camping. One day is $50, two days is $75 and three or more days is $100.
Every afternoon during the cattle drive, visitors can stop by the campsites free of charge and converse with drovers and chuck wagon cooks, photograph the longhorns and learn a little history, Kuehny said.
‘Doing what our ancestors did’
Ramrodding this cattle drive is longtime Medford resident Carmen Schultz. She said her mom put her on a horse at the age of 2 and she’s stayed in the saddle ever since.
Schultz started joining cattle drives in the 1980s. She was a drover for the 1993 Cherokee Strip Centennial Drive and served as trail boss for the 2007 Oklahoma Centennial Drive, the 2011 Kansas Sesquicentennial Drive and the 2017 Chisholm Trail Sesquicentennial Drive.
One of 10 kids who grew up on a farm in Pond Creek, Schultz has friends and family in Caldwell. She’s looking forward to being out on the trail away from modern technology and everyday distractions.
“It’s an amazing thing doing what our ancestors did,” Schultz said. She credits her team of drovers, cooks and wagon drivers for making cattle drives successful. “It’s definitely a team effort.”
She said she hopes the next generation of riders will keep cattle drives like this one going.
“It’s our heritage,” Schultz said, adding the reason she does this is to educate others about the Chisholm Trail.
Following the longhorn parade on Main Street Caldwell at 11 a.m. May 8, those attending also can celebrate with birthday cake, music, vendors, food trucks, special speakers, a western art show, cowboy and buffalo soldier campsites, opera house shows, gunfights and saloon shows.
Kuehny said the May event is meant to be highly interactive and educational, as Caldwell has such a rich history during its 150 years.
“This shanty town sprung up to cater to the herds and crew passing through,” she said. Nicknamed the “Border Queen” due to the location on the border of what was then Indian Territory, the dusty little trail town gave respite to Texas cowboys in her saloons, gambling halls, general supply stores and more.
According to Kuehny, barbed wire and range wars brought the Chisholm Trail to a crawl by 1875, before the railroad sparked interest and revived the old trail five years later. The Atchison-Topeka-Santa Fe Railroad extended a rail line to Caldwell in 1880 to tap the cattle market and to get needed supplies into Indian Territory and onto Texas. For 10 more years, a million herd of cattle were loaded onto cattle cars from load-out pens south of town in the Cherokee Outlet grazing lands.
“Shanties were replaced by substantial brick and stone buildings, and this original three-block town still serves as the hub of activity for Caldwell today,” Kuehny said, adding by 1887 there were four more railroads, two of which had depots and passenger trains, and dozens of merchants, including a lumber yard that hauled lumber to Indian Territory to build towns.
With the opening of Cherokee Outlet in 1893, thousands of pioneers and immigrants flocked to the border town “to take a chance and start a new life out here on the prairie,” Kuehny said. In fact, she commented, descendants of many families remain in the Caldwell area and will be recognized during the festival.
During Caldwell’s early years following the Civil War, buffalo soldiers played a pivotal role in the town’s history, too, Kuehny said.
“Six all-black cavalry and infantry regiments were created to capture cattle rustlers and thieves; protect stagecoaches, wagon trains and railroad crews; and help control violent outbreaks between settlers and American Indians,” she said. The chamber is hosting a buffalo soldier encampment to provide insight at the festival.
Kuehny excitedly said the icing on the proverbial birthday cake will be the announcement about making the Chisholm Trail officially a National Historic Trail (NHT).
“After years of dedicated work by Enid’s own Bob Klemme placing Chisholm Trail markers and advocating naming the trail a National Historic Trail before his death, Sen. Jerry Moran and Rep. Ron Estes of Kansas are re-introducing to Congress a bill to secure a national historic trail status for the Chisholm Trail,” she said. Kuehny expects the bill to go before the House and Senate sometime this April.
The International Chisholm Trail Association has been advocating for the Chisholm Trail to become a national historic trail since 1995. Then-President Barack Obama signed a bill on March 30, 2009, allowing the secretary of the interior to study the perceived national importance of two routes — Chisholm Trail (also known as Abilene Trail) and Great Western Trail (also known as Dodge City Trail) — for possible historic designation.
Following a NHT Feasibility Study and Environmental Assessment generated between 2010 and 2016 and the National Park Service (NPS) determining the trails meet NHT criteria in 2019, Estes and Moran originally introduced the bill in November 2020 with the intent to amend the National Trails System Act to designate the Chisholm National Historic Trail and the Western National Historic Trail.
House co-sponsors included Oklahoma’s own Reps. Tom Cole and Kendra Horn. The bill unfortunately died on the Senate floor when it didn’t receive a vote.
Designating these trails as NHT will permit NPS to partner with landowners, communities and state and local governments to maintain, conserve and promote the trails.
If this Chisholm Trail bill is indeed passed by Congress this session and signed by President Joe Biden, it will join 19 other NPS historic trails across the nation such as the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail.
Learn more about the upcoming activities and attractions in Caldwell at caldwellkansas.com.