True Western Towns

Top Ten True Western Towns of 2012

top_ten_western_towns_true_west

True West Magazine’s annual award given to towns that have made an important contribution to preserving their pasts and to sharing their town’s historical relevance to our nation.

10. GRAPEVINE, TX

“We’ve got two gunfighters. Y’all want to buy them?” Mayor William D. Tate asked the Grapevine City Council last summer.

The mayor had just finished his pitch for a gunfight re-enactment that would take place every day at noon and 6 p.m. to draw people to downtown during mealtimes. Usually a proposal to host gunfights would not be surprising for a historic Western town, but this one had a twist: the train robbers would be animated. Even more, only the computer designed by LifeFormations of Bowling Green, Ohio, would determine whether Sam Bass or the other robber bit the bullet, as they shot it out in the 120-foot clock tower being built for the new Convention & Visitors Bureau.

We won’t find out until this year if these robot gunfighters make a bang with Grapevine’s 50,000 residents and its visitors, but the quaint town has proved its charms in other ways.

The 1859 farm started by Thomas Jefferson Nash is still the place to go to learn about beekeeping and hand cranking ice cream. But the acquisition last year of two buildings may allow the Grapevine Heritage Foundation to keep the farm open five days a week. The soil conservation building and 1890s Estill cottage could provide the 5.2-acre farm the entryway it needs to control access. Kudos to David Kemplin, the city’s historic restoration coordinator, for stepping in to save the petite, 732-square-foot cottage from the wrecking ball.

The biggest change was the more than $1-million restoration of the former offices of the Grapevine Sun newspaper, which 19-year-old Benjamin R. Wall had started in 1895. With its welcoming brick parapet, the 1897 building restored by Phil Berkebile is now home to the only art gallery in Texas that focuses exclusively on Western Art. Hanging on the walls of the Great American West Gallery these days are works by Bill Anton, Martin Grelle and Roy Anderson.

One of the best parts about living here is that residents can head southwest to Fort Worth in true Victorian style, via the Grapevine Vintage Railroad, with its operational diesel and 1896 steam locomotives.

With the cattle drive at Stockyards Station a train hop away, folks might make it back home in time to catch the 6 o’clock robot gunfight.

 

9. BISMARCK, ND

At Sandbag Central, on Tuesday, May 31, 2011, a 40-mph-plus gusting wind chilled the 52-degree air around 16-year-old Bismarck High School student Liz Mizell. Shoveling next to Mizell were 43-year-old Waylon Hedegaard and his 13-year-old son Reilly; these two had been filling 30-pound sandbags in eight-hour shifts, seven days running. Their home by the Capitol was safe, yet both felt they had to pitch in. “This is our community,” Hedegaard, a union boilermaker, who took a vacation to work at the site, told The Bismarck Tribune. “We strongly believe it’s time to pull together.”

He was right. The Missouri River was on its way. Time was just about up.

The next day, for the first time since Garrison Dam was built in 1953, the dam’s spillway gates opened to release water from the bulging Lake Sakakawea, which had risen precipitously due to Montana rainfall. Just a few days earlier, the residents of Bismarck, North Dakota, had found out that the Missouri was expected to crest to 20 feet—four feet above flood stage.

For hundreds of Bismarck homeowners, and thousands of others in the region, a rushing river of tears was spilling out of those gates.

Bismarck’s neighbors along the Missouri also raced against time to fight this onslaught of water. Staff emptied Fort Mandan of its guns, uniforms and buffalo robes, while sculptor Tom Neary moved his 1,400-pound steel canine, Seaman, away from the riverbank to rest by the steel feet of Lewis & Clark.

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park closed, postponing its Custer celebration to August. Its Lewis & Clark Riverboat did not make any trips down the Missouri. By November, the boat was still stuck in a sandbar and the foundation was trying to recoup its lost $375,000 revenue by scheduling 2012 cruise reservations for earlier than usual. The foundation fears it may not survive.

As water ravished destruction all around him and beyond on one June day, Mark Armstrong, the Burleigh County commissioner, stood on the shore of Bismarck’s Centennial Beach, filming the latest victim: a building floundering in the river. It was the 1911 Northern Pacific Railroad depot, which former Mayor “Hawk” Haakenson had moved to these shores from nearby Wilton. It later became Captain Meriwether’s Landing Restaurant, serving food to folks taking a trip on the Lewis & Clark Riverboat. The restaurant had been out of business for about three years.

Armstrong kept his camera aimed at the depot, as the Mighty Mo thrashed against it. Not all history can be saved. But one Bismarck man still took the time to pay his tribute.

 

8. DODGE CITY, KS

Dodge City knows how to get you out of a rut.

It’s no secret that this Kansas town is home to the longest clearly identifiable section of the Santa Fe Trail, but now visitors can truly grasp the context of what they are seeing as they stare out at the deep gouges cutting this vast prairie.

Updated and new signs at the ruts help visitors make the choice Santa Fe traders did: should we travel the Mountain Route (and view sites such as Bent’s Old Fort) or the Cimarron Route (and visit sites like McNees Crossing, in New Mexico, then Mexico)? Another sign shares Dodge City area trail sites, such as the 100th Meridian Marker and the 1865 Fort Dodge.

Santa Fe Trail Association President Jim Sherer and Boot Hill Museum Director Lara Brehm were on hand for the unveiling of their pride and joy last September. Fittingly, the first people to visit the new ruts exhibit were trail enthusiasts in town for the Santa Fe Trail Symposium.

Yet Dodge City certainly was not in a rut last year. The town’s 28,500 residents and its visitors had plenty of Old West events to attend (who could miss a Bull Fry?). They also got healthy helpings of Harvey Girl history at the Santa Fe Depot from author Steve Fried, and of the 1878 “drive-by” shooting of Dodge City’s saloon singer Dora Hand from authors Chris Enss & Howard Kazanjian.

Coming soon to Dodge: a life-sized statue of Doc Holliday at a card table, with three empty seats, to give folks a fun photo opportunity. He’ll join the statue of Wyatt Earp, who the dentist helped defend from some bloodthirsty cowboys, thus cementing their lifelong friendship.

 

7. ST. LOUIS, MO

Everyone knows why St. Louis is the nation’s Gateway to the West (Cliff Notes version: it’s where Lewis & Clark began the nation’s first transcontinental expedition to the Pacific Coast).

But in 2011, this city reminded us why St. Louis is also Baseball’s Gateway to the West. In October, two brilliant batches of baseball games were played. The first, on October 15, took place beneath the Gateway Arch, home to the impressive Museum of Westward Expansion.

Wearing bib front shirts with a large U, the Union nine utterly destroyed its competitors. One match was close (Unions got 7 against the Brown Stockings’ 6), but the other one was brutal: Unions scored 19 runs against the Perfectos’ 5. Shawn “Pebbles” Beach topped them all with his four runs, while Jim “Noodles” Stockglausner followed with three. By the end of the game, every Union player had scored at least one run.

The Union vintage base ball team takes its name from the Union team that played here as early as 1860. Merritt W. Griswold, who had moved to St. Louis the year before, started up what most credit as the city’s first ball club, the Cyclones. The July 9, 1860, match at Lafayette Park between the Cyclones and the Morning Stars is said to be the first match game played west of the Mississippi River according to the rules of the National Association.

One member of his Cyclones team, Frederick Benteen, would even teach baseball to his 7th Cavalry troops, which is how Gen. George Custer ended up watching ball games while touring the Black Hills in 1874. Fast forward to 2011, and the Cyclones are still playing at Lafayette Park.

Two other vintage ball teams playing St. Louis these days are the Brown Stockings, founded in 1875, and the Perfectos, founded in 1899. Actually, historically, the Perfectos used to be the Brown Stockings. When owner Chris von der Ahe’s ballpark burned down during an April 1898 game with Chicago, he lost the team to the Robison brothers, who owned the Cleveland Blues. The brothers changed the name of the St. Louis team to the Perfectos and switched the team’s brown color to red. In 1900, the players earned a new nickname: Cardinals.

Fast forward to 2011 and the next big batch of games in October: the Cardinals play a seven-game stretch against the Texas Rangers and win their 11th World Series.

St. Louis is truly a town that celebrates its heritage—even when it comes to baseball.

 

6. SANTA BARBARA, CA

At the Santa Barbara Courthouse, Laurie Rasmussen’s harp processional bounces joyously off the terra cotta floor tiles as she plays Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.” About 75 wedding guests chat happily beneath 1,000-pound wrought-iron chandeliers, a hand stenciled ceiling and the room’s showstopping mural: 6,700 square feet of Spanish Colonial history hand painted by Dan Sayre Groesbeck, from Vizcaino’s visit to the coast in 1602 to John C. ...

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