This is not collectible.
While I have lived in Texas for nearly 50 years, I was born and grew to an adult in Kansas. When I tell someone of my origins, they almost always respond in one of two ways: “I have been there but I don’t remember much about it” or “that 400 mile drive across the state on Interstate 70 is really boring.” There is more to the state than that. The wheat grown there feeds the world, and the people are nice, but I will focus on the sometimes lawless history of the state.
Kansas achieved statehood in 1861, but it was far from civilized. From 1850 until 1900 the region was a frontier, and at the center of important events in US history: there was the westward movement of pioneers from Europe and the eastern US and the subsequent conflicts with Native Americans; the Santa Fe Trail crossed the state and the Pony Express and the Oregon Trail passed through a corner; there was a border war because Kansas was a free state and a center of the abolitionist movement, whereas neighboring Missouri was a slave state; and finally the several new railroads were extending westward into hostile territory and furthermore some of the railheads were the destinations of cattle drives from Texas. Each trackable in this series of metal travel bugs is named for towns with interesting histories (at least to me), some of which have connections to my youth.
Long before Ellsworth began to dominate the cattle market, it was already a turbulent place. The Smoky Hills region had long been home to the Cheyenne and other Indian tribes. When the Santa Fe and Smoky Hill Trails came through, the Indians began to raid wagon trains and stagecoaches, prompting the building of nearby Fort Ellsworth, which later changed its name to Fort Harker. As with other forts, a town soon sprang up nearby, some four miles to the northwest of the post, just beyond the military reserve. With the railroad completed to Fort Harker in July of 1867, the new town quickly overflowed with frontiersmen of every kind, soon boasting more than 2,000 people.
When the railroad extended its line to Ellsworth, the town quickly developed into a thriving cattle market. It dominated other Kansas cowtowns from 1871 to 1875. With the flood of cowboys, also came gamblers, outlaws and the inevitable "unruly” women, and a bad reputation. Ellsworth businessmen, anticipating the shift in the cattle trade from Abilene, moved the Drovers Cottage to Ellsworth in 1872. It could accommodate 175 guests and stable 50 carriages and 100 horses. Numerous other businesses also sprang up, profiting immensely from the cowboys.
Like other Kansas cowtowns, Ellsworth quickly gained a reputation as a wild and wooly place, becoming the scene of numerous killings following shootouts between drunken cowboys. In its early days, the area was besieged by a gang led by two men named Craig and Johnson. Making frequent robberies and bullying the townspeople, the citizens finally organized a vigilance committee and hanged the two near the Smoky Hill River. I remember once having a “hanging tree” pointed out to me as we crossed the bridge into town. What follows is an improbable narrative of events during the most unruly period of Ellsworth’s history.
In 1873, Ellsworth geared up for the largest drives of Texas Longhorns to date. Expecting trouble they hired additional police officers to control the rowdy cowboys. They would be needed when a dispute arose on August 15, 1873, between Texas gambler, Ben Thompson, and another player named John Sterling in Nick Lentz’s Saloon. When City Marshal, "Happy Jack" Morco sided with the other player against Texan Ben Thompson, a known gunfighter, Ben and his drunken brother Billy, moved out into the street and called out to their opponents to meet them.
Instead of Marshal Morco, Ellsworth County Sheriff, Chauncey Whitney stepped into the street. He soon convinced the Thompsons to have a drink with him at Joe Brennan's Saloon. However, before they could get there, Marshal Morco charged down the street guns drawn. Thompson then wheeled and fired his rifle at Marco, narrowly missing him. The drunken Billy, on the other hand, stumbled and discharged his shotgun mortally wounding peacemaking Sheriff Whitney.
Ben and an army of Texans held off the town as Billy escaped. Ben was later arrested by Deputy Ed Hogue but was not tried and soon left Kansas. Billy Thompson was able to avoid authorities until 1876, when he was returned to Ellsworth, stood trial, and was acquitted when the jury ruled that the shooting was an accident.
After the original shooting, all hell broke loose in Ellsworth. City Marshal Morco was fired and replaced by a man named Ed Crawford, who pistol-whipped a Texas cowboy named Cad Pierce to death two days later. Obviously not completely confident in their law officers, and tired of the Texas cowboys, vigilantes began to roam the streets issuing "affidavits” to Texans to "get out of town or else." Morco was gunned down in the streets by J. Charles Brown, who later became the third City Marshal. The second City Marshal, Edward Crawford, was also gunned down by a Texas cowboy, who was thought to have been Cad Pierce’s brother-in-law.
Ellsworth maintained its wicked reputation until the shipping pens were finally closed in 1875. In its peak year of 1873, approximately 220,000 head of longhorn cattle were driven through the town. During its turbulent heydays, some of the colorful Old West characters who found their way to Ellsworth include George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, and Ben and Billy Thompson. One newspaper said it best: "As we go to press, hell is still in session in Ellsworth."
With the cattle trade gone, the town then settled down into a peaceful ranching and farming community, which continues to be its mainstay to this day. Ellsworth now has a population of almost 3,000.
Ellsworth was and is 14 miles from Lorraine, the community where I was born. In my youth only about half of those miles were on improved roads. My paternal grandmother was a reluctant driver because she was raised in Chicago and didn't learn to drive until later in life. After I received my driving learner's permit at age 14, it became my job to chauffeur her to Ellsworth for her appointments. When she was finished we would go to the fountain in the drugstore where she would order an ice cream float and I would get a cherry phosphate. This was before it was learned that phosphate drinks rotted teeth. Not exactly a wild and wooly episode, but it was as crazy as I ever saw my strict grandmother get.