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Cow Towns and Men in Frock Coats
The farthermost stations of the railroads thrusting out across the country in the '60s and '70s developed into troublesome towns of great commercial consequence. Money was plentiful: huge payrolls had to be met for the construction workers and the buffalo hunters who supplied their food; skinners were paid for the hides they shipped from the terminals; and Texas cowboys who took months to drive their vast herds to the Kansas railheads were remunerated when they arrived.
The towns shifted westward as the railroads extended, becoming in turn markets and shipping points for the country's cattle. The great trail drives began in 1866 and reached their golden age between 1869 and 1884.
There was no holding back the cowboy after his lonely, monotonous months driving longhorn herds up the Chisholm or the Jones and Plummer trails. When he hit the railhead towns with months of back pay burning in his jeans, he headed straight for the honky-tonks and the thrills of the gambling joints. He patronized the bordellos, packed into the saloons, and rode wild through town banging away with six-shooters for the simple hell of letting off steam.
The cowboys were out to splurge and the gamblers to help them do it. His conspicuous high stepping gave the cowboy a picturesqueness and bad reputation with people who never saw him except in town whoring, drinking, and gambling. As the Topeka Commonwealth put it in 1871: "The Texas cattle herder is a character with but few wants and meager ambition. His diet is principally plug and whisky and the occupation dearest to his heart is gambling."
The cowboys backed their luck with ready cash or, lacking that, anything they could trade in for chips. Ben Thompson, one of the West's deadliest gamblers, who operated the Bull's Head in Abilene, allowed buckaroos from the Texas Trail to trade in their six-shooters on regular valuations: $22 worth of credit for a Colt, $18.50 for a Remington, and $16 for six-shooters of other makes. He sold them on the open market if they were not redeemed within a few days.
Each Kansas cow capital had its moment of supremacy when it was known as "the wickedest town in the West." Abilene first, then Wichita, Newton, Caldwell, Hays, Ellsworth, and Dodge City as the drives veered westward to meet the advancing railroads.
Abilene, though its permanent population was small, had twenty gambling houses and saloons and ten dance halls to one street as against three ordinary business establishments. Some 2500 cowboys - trail bosses, herd owners, and waddies - deluged the town in a single night, with thousands to fling on women, whisky, poker, faro, keno, and monte. During its ascendancy Abilene transacted $300,000,000 business yearly in Texas longhorns.
By 1873 Ellsworth boasted one bank, one newspaper, five hotels, six retail stores, and about thirty gambling saloons and palaces lining the plaza.
The Union Pacific reached Cheyenne in November 1867, and that town was soon the rich but notorious cow capital of Wyoming. The gamblers and backwash of the Northwest called it Hell on Wheels, whereas the stabler elements preferred to think of it as The Magic City of the Plains.
From the middle to the end of the '70s four groups of transients made Dodge City the most prosperous and wildest cow capital: the cow hands up from the Panhandle, the buffalo hunters fitting out their expeditions, the railroad workers paid in Dodge, and soldiers stationed in the territorial forts and outposts who headed to town when they got leave. They constantly clashed among themselves and with the gamblers, in this, the "wildest, the wickedest, the beautiful bibulous Babylon of the frontier."
At Christmas of 1875 Dodge City contained a dozen dance halls, a handful of stores, and forty saloons and gambling houses. By 1878 the money passed hands across the gambling tables as unrestrainedly as in the great mining camps of the past.
Old-timers tell a story about a conductor of a train crossing Kansas who asked a drunken cowboy for his ticket. The man gave the conductor a gold piece and said, "I wanna go to hell."
"Get off at Dodge," said the conductor without batting an eyelash.
The honest gambler in the tough cow towns was such a man of substance and influence that when Law came to the West he frequently became its enforcement agent. (Wyatt Earp got $250 a month as chief deputy marshal of Dodge City in 1876 plus $2.50 for every man he arrested.) These high-toned gamblers and the circuit-riding preachers were the two breeds of men on the frontier who wore long black frock coats, white shirts, dark string ties, and black Stetsons. They were often mistaken for each other, and men in clerical style would cause a great stir and laughter if they proceeded to open faro banks instead of holding prayer meetings when they came to town. The frontier preacher had another thing in common with the gambler - he was quite likely to wear a gun belt and many a man of God could shoot as well as he proclaimed the gospel.
The hard-riding, gun-toting preachers aimed to corral straying souls by coming to the places where Sin was strong. In high-class gambling saloons proprietors tried to make their men feel at home. They were welcome to collect their mail, write letters, read newspapers, and swap rumors as well as drink and gamble. Since this was the only place where the adult male population foregathered, court sessions were held here - and religious services.
When a preacher appeared, the bar was closed out of courtesy, the roulette wheels stopped whining, the faro box was covered, and the poker players threw in their cards and pocketed their chips. Men removed their hats and listened and the proprietor himself usually passed the hat when the service was over.
An old tradition of cards serving as the Bible originated in Europe and was reincarnated in our own Civil War when a private soldier, Richard Lee, was brought before a mayor for playing cards during divine service. Asked to account for this, he explained that he had been six weeks on the march, without Bible or common prayer book, with, indeed, nothing but a pack of cards. Spreading them before the magistrate he began with the ace, giving an explanation like the one in the preacher's rhyme above, and continued to account for all the cards except the knave, which, when pressed, he identified with the constable who had brought him to book.
Gamblers came in time to take a poor view of the sin-conscious, fault-finding clerics who arrived with civilization, but they felt that the old-time; saddle-sore circuit riders were men of the Lord who could savvy and justify the honest gambler and his life. In at least one case an eloquent preacher declared that a right gambler deserved a place in heaven. The Reverend W. H. Knickerbocker was an individualist who had resigned from the fashionable Methodist Trinity Church of Los Angeles to go out among the miners. When Riley Grannan, a gambler noted for his generosity and honesty, died in Rawhide, Nevada, Knickerbocker stood by the crude coffin of raw wood where his friend rested in state in a dinky little vaudeville theater behind a saloon. His farewell sermon brought tears to the eyes of cowmen, prospectors, gamblers, and other hardened adventurers.
It was taken down in shorthand by a reporter from a California newspaper who had turned up because Grannan was a celebrityone of the greatest plungers on horses who ever frequented the major American tracks. In the course of his heartfelt eloquence Knickerbocker said of Grannan: "He was a `dead game sport.' I say it not irreverently, but fill the phrase as full of practical human philosophy as it will hold, and I believe that when you say one is a `dead game sport' you have reached the climax of human philosophy.
"I know that there are those who will condemn him. There are those who believe today that he is reaping the reward for a misspent life. There are those who are dominated by medieval creeds. To those I have no words to say about him. They are ruled by the skeleton of the past and fail to see the moral beauty of a character lived outside their puritanical ideas. His goodness was not of that type, but of the type that finds expression in a word of cheer to a discouraged brother; the type that finds expression in quiet deeds of charity; the type that finds expression in friendship, the sweetest flower that blooms along the dusty highway of life; the type that finds expression in manhood.
"He lived in the world of sport. I do not mince my words. I am telling what I believe to be true. In the world of sport-hilarity sometimes, and maybe worse - he left the impress of his character on this world, and through the medium of his financial power he was able with his money to brighten the lives of its inhabitants. He wasted it so the world says. But did it ever occur to you that the most sinful men and women who live in this world are still men and women? Did it ever occur to you that the men and women who inhabit the night-world are still men and women? A little happiness brought into their lives means as much to them as happiness brought into the lives of the straight and the good. If you can take one ray of sunlight into their nightlife and thereby bring them one single hour of happiness, I believe you are a benefactor.
"Riley Grannan may have wasted some of his money this way. . . .
"I say to you that the man who by the use of his money or his power is able to smooth one wrinkle from the brow of care, is able to change one moan or sob into a song, is able to wipe away one tear and in its place put a jewel of joy - this man is a public benefactor. "I believe that some of Riley Grannan's money was `wasted' in this way."
Riley Grannan was a prototype of the ace frontier gambler who relied on knowledge and instinct to win. Shallow short-card swindlers seldom got beyond dealing stud on small salaries for the house, and tinhorn cheats usually had brief careers that ended under Boot Hill earth. A Boot Hill cemetery, reserved for men who tried to trim the cowboy and were less quick on the draw, could be found on the edge of most Western towns.