Why Superman and Wyatt Earp Left Kansas But Still Loved the Place

Q&A with Robert Rebein, author of Dragging Wyatt Earp: A Personal History of Dodge City.

(Page 3 of 3)

Rebein: You won’t find much nostalgia for the “good old days” of farming and ranching in places like Dodge City. That’s more of a Midwest phenomenon. Take my father. He inherited half of 160 acres, including the house he grew up in. By the time he was [in his mid-40s], he had run that up to more than 4,000 acres. The man had seven sons, but he didn’t think any of us should be farmers. Why?  Because it was hard, for one. But also I think he understood that we needed to find our own way in life, just as he had had to find his way. He didn’t like the idea of giving us that life or laying it all out before us. As a result, he’s the last of a breed—at least in our family.

Still, I think there’s a loss of sorts here. I’m not very interested in politics. What interests me is experience. And what I do find a little disturbing about America today is the way that so many people are so ignorant about really basic experiences like growing crops or slaughtering animals for food or fixing a car. 

However, this lack of experience does not equate to a lack of opinions. In one of the essays in my book, “Feedlot Cowboy,” I spend a day in a big commercial feedyard where cattle are being fattened for slaughter. A feedlot is a really interesting place full of all kinds of interesting detail. To understand what’s going on there, you really do have to go there and experience it for yourself. Now that’s not something most people would want to do, and I understand that. What I don’t understand is how someone who has not done that can have so many opinions about things like animal welfare or environmental issues or illegal immigration from Mexico. All of those things are in play in a feedlot in ways that are not predictable or immediately apparent, but because of the way we live now, most people will never get that. They'll still have their opinions about it all, of course, but those opinions will be based, at best, on arguments, not experience.

Reason: You end your book with an account of a trip to the Boot Hill Casino and Resort, a low-stakes gambling operation that seeks to trade on your hometown's storied past. It's a ridiculous place in most ways, though you treat the trip with a mixture of warm feelings and get-a-load-of-this disbelief. Is the casino a metaphor for a town, a state—a country?—whose primary sense of identity comes from the past and that seems incapable of moving fully into the future?

Rebein: The term is “Old West tourism,” and it’s been a part of Dodge City’s economic playbook almost from the beginning. It’s hilarious to witness, but it's also a smart move in many ways. 

If you look at a map, you’ll see that Dodge City is nowhere near a big city or an Interstate highway. To visit the place at all requires a decision of greater magnitude than a decision to visit, say, Chicago. If you’re a business person, you ask yourself, “Why would anyone drive more than a hundred miles come here?” and the answer that comes to you is almost always some version of “To relive the legend of the West.” Given that reality, your next question will always be, “How can we get these people to (a) stay awhile, and (b) spend the maximum amount of money before they leave?” Gambling is a great answer to both of those questions, so it’s not surprising the town has decided to go in that direction.

What is surprising is the other moves the town has made. For example, inviting a semi-pro hockey team to play its home games in the town's newly built Special Event Center. Hockey? In Dodge City?  It’s a little crazy, when you think about it, but I guess there are limits to how far you can go with all the Old West stuff. At the end of the day, if you build a sports arena you’ve got to have a team, and if the only team going is a hockey team, I guess that’s what you’re going to have. 

But you know, it’s things like that that keep the place fresh for me. Dodge City is very aware of its Old West past, but it’s got a present to worry about as well, and I kind of like that in seeking that present Dodge City is still capable of a surprise or two.

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  • The Late P Brooks||

    Why does the wind blow so hard in eastern Colorado?

    Kansas sucks.

  • John||

    No. It is because Missouri sucks and Colorado blows so much. There is so much hot air coming out of Colorado about the mountains and such, and so much sucking going on in Missouri, Kansas doesn't have a chance.

  • sarcasmic||

    “I grew up in Kansas - you can’t get more American than that.”

    So some states are more American than others?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Yeah, sure. Like Kirk is from Iowa. Farm country, you know, America+.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Well, yeah, Hawaii isn't exactly in the Americas Geographically speaking.

  • John||

    There was a whole world that grew up in the early 20th century of really prosperous farmers and ranchers and communities. That world is gone. It didn't go away because of the dust bowl. It went away because of the advent of larger, more efficient and more expensive equipment. IN the 1950s you could have a 2000 acre ranch/farm out there and do really well if you were smart, didn't spend too much in the good years, and loved the work so much you were willing to do it every day for your whole life. Now, a place that small could never justify the cost of the equipment. Only an operation of tens of thousands of acres can make any money and it won't need many people to run it. So there just isn't much of a reason for people to live out there. The only thing that has kept the population from really going south is that the economics also drove the meat packing plants out of Kansas City and Chicago and into the small towns where the cattle are.

  • sarcasmic||

    That's why we have farm subsidies and ethanol mandates.

  • B.P.||

    Dude, set up your 2000 acres within striking distance of a city and partner with a snooty farm-to-table restaurant. That way, "Locavore 21" can trumpet "organic, locally raised beets/quinoa/grass-fed, free range sasquatch grown on John's Farm" on its menu, and a herd of the smart set can feed their egos on eye-dropper portions of high-priced gruel before stopping at KFC on the way home.

    /pessimism

  • kinnath||

    Kansas is one of the only places on Earth that makes Iowa look exciting.

  • SIV||

    the great cosmopolitanizing (for lack of a better word) of the country

    The whole nefarious plot was sketched out on a cocktail napkin.

  • LibertyMark||

    //defensive_sensitivity_start

    I grew up in Iowa, and one side of my family comes from wheat farmers in central Kansas. My mom was actually born in the house on the original homestead. Now I live in the suburbs of Houston.

    Every time there is an article about Kansas, or Iowa, or similar places, in about any publication, the comments are filled with condescension and insults. Many of the people making the comments probably live in in big cities and think of themselves as very sophisticated and cosmopolitan. However, I suspect that the vast majority of them have never been to the places they're dissing, and have no idea how things are there. They're just as closed off and isolated in their place as they think the people they're insulting are.

    The suburbs of Houston really have no more to offer than the places I grew up in.

    Just because it's not the lifestyle hipsters think is cool does not mean that they are not good places with good people.

    //defensive_sensitivity_end

  • John||

    I agree with you Mark. Fuck the hipsters. And there is nothing special about a city. One of the best lines I have ever read came from PJ O'Rourke I think but I can't quite remember. Anyway some smugh asshole on TV had said something to the effect of "what do the people Iowa know" and the response was "I don't know, just how to fly planes, build buildings, do brain surgery, and about a million other things douche bags like you will never know how to."

    I thought it was pretty good.

  • MattJ||

    I grew up in Kansas. I still like going back, though I wouldn't if I didn't have family there.

    Nice place to live / wouldn't want to visit, I guess.

    Most animosity I've encountered towards Kansas from non-Kansans centers around people who have driven across it, East-to-West. That's a miserable drive.

    Most people who have to do it drive on I-70. As bad as that is, it's MUCH nicer than driving across it in the south part of the state.

    My girlfriend still thinks Dorothy/Toto jokes are funny after the 200th time.

  • Robert||

    Is that where the expression "get out of Dodge" comes from? I'd like to know more about its deriv'n.

  • Copernicus||

    The expression is "get out of THE Dodge" and it is properly followed by "Fuck you that's why".

  • Curtisls87||

    I'm another who grew up in Kansas, and still have relatives, there. There are no family farms left, though, as older generations have waned away and agribusiness has stepped in to replace them. I still enjoy going back.
    I've lived in California, now, for almost 20 years. I've also lived in Florida, Texas, and for a brief period, Munich. I've traveled the world, and this country, as well. My experience is much the same as others posting here. It amazes me how provincial people can be in places where they believe they are sophisticated. Frankly, I'd take an average Kansan over an average Californian from the Bay Area, where I now live. The Kansan will most likely be more considerate.

  • Objective Historian||

    Haven't read this yet; you're great on TV, Mr. Gillespie. You were awesome on one of the Maher shows.

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