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Monday, May 18, 2020

Old Cowtown Museum - an Insider's Perspective

I conducted this interview by telephone with Old Cowtown volunteer reenactor and photographer Niki Pauline Conard back in early March.  For obvious reasons, I've postponed this blog post several times, wanting to wait until they might be opening up for the season.  Since things are still so uncertain, and since I think we all need to daydream about future travels, I'm going ahead with it this month.

Old Cowtown Museum, located in Wichita, Kansas, was founded in 1950.  It's the largest living history museum west of the Mississippi, at 23 acres.  While the buildings in Old Cowtown have been transported there, 95-98% of them are actual historical buildings, from all over Kansas.  The way the museum is set up, you move forward in time, beginning around 1868-70 with the Heller cabin, trappers cabin, and Munger house.  By the time you get the the farm further along, you're in the 1880s.

Under normal circumstances, Old Cowtown is open year-round, for limited hours in the winter season (normally November 1 through April 1), and with a fuller schedule from April through the end of October. 

While school tours make a substantial amount of their business, events and tourism are also a significant part of what Old Cowtown does.   Living historian re-enactors volunteer for events centered around the Civil War and gunfighters, but there are also Once Upon a Time fairy tale events, Halloween events, and steampunk events, to attract a broad range of visitors.

Ghost tours are among the most popular events at Old Cowtown, with the Wichita Paranormal Society regularly involved, and from a bit further away, the Tennessee Wraith Chasers having visited as well.  Several of the buildings on the site are believed to be haunted, and quite a few of the volunteers have stories about strange experiences they've had in these buildings.   Foremost among these is the Murdoch House, which was the residence of Marshall Murdoch, founder and editor of the Wichita Eagle newspaper from 1872 until his death in 1908.  Murdoch's 8 year old daughter haunts it, and sometimes Murdoch himself has been seen there.

Last year, Niki was the committee head for the Age of the Gunfighter event.  150 re-enactors who specialize in Old West gunfighting came from as far away as Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina to participate.  Most of them camped on the grounds, historical style.  This June, a new event, the Women of the West 19th Amendment Celebration was scheduled to debut.

With only seven employees, Old Cowtown relies on its volunteers.  Some of the re-enactors play roles like Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, or Buffalo Bill Cody, and stay in characer.  Others play skinners (fur traders), Buffalo soldiers, and Victorian ladies.  They don't have tour guides at Cowtown -- rather, people wander around and investigate on their own.  During season, the museum also hires interpreters who have specific skills that allow them to play roles like carpenter, blacksmith, or printer.  Re-enactors in museums hold themselves to high standards -- the clothing must be exactly right, and there must be a reason for what each character does.  At the same time, they also need to entertain the visitors.  The Cherokee Light horse Civil War re-enactors are regulars, as are the Dalton gang of Coffeyville, Kansas and the Gunfighters at Flint Hills, with the Guthrie Gunfighters turning up for special events as well.

Niki got involved with living history reenactments when she was living in Oklahoma in 2000, and when she moved back to her hometown of Wichita, sought out a place where she could get involved.  Niki herself usually presents a Cattle Queen look, a gunfighter outfit that mixes long skirts with some menswear elements.  The ladies in proper Victorian dress snub her, as part of the play.  She does have some Victorian dresses for events like Victorian Christmas.   When we spoke back in March, she was looking forward to a Dress Reform outfit that she'd be able to wear to ride her horse.  While women during that time period actually rode side saddle, very few re-enactors go that far.

I learned about Old Cowtown when Niki became an Internet friend, and I'm certainly hoping to make a visit out there someday.  For the Prairie Roses who live closer than I do, it's a great opportunity to immerse yourself in real Western history.  Have you been there already?   Please share in the comments.

To find out more about Old Cowtown and about Niki's photography:
Old Cowtown website
Old Cowtown on Facebook
Cowtown through the Lens of RedRock & Friends
Niki's portfolio on Instagram

And to read my Prairie Rose debut, Courting Anna,

Connect with me online:
Website & Blog:
Twitter: @CateSimon3


  1. It sounds really interesting and your description has made it a place I would really love to visit. Maybe one day ......

    1. I love old historic homes and etc., but they so often show us how the wealthy lived. I love the idea of immersing myself in a whole town like this!

  2. It looks like a fabulous place to visit. You're right. It is time to start looking forward to future trips.

    1. Yes -- we need to start thinking about the future, even if definite plans can't be made for awhile.

  3. I would love a place like this. We have a living history museum here, 'Rock Ledge Ranch' that takes you through the native, mountain men up to 1907.

    I can understand the fascination and so thankful you did the interview and shared it with us. True re-enactors are passionate about authencity and those who see them are the beneficiaries. Thank You. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris. Niki is an internet friend and I've long been intrigued by her photos and stories of Old Cowtown. Someday!

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  5. I like that they used actual historical buildings to create Cowtown. It must be a fascinating place to explore. I was surprised that it was open year round, but glad to know a visitor could see it any season. Sounds like a fun for holidays like Halloween.
    These are some crazy times with places like Cowtown being closed because of the virus. I hope they can devise a plan to reopen it safely so that people can visit it once again. I had not heard of Cowtown until I read this article.
    Congratulations on your debut novel in your series, Courting Anna. All the very best to you, Cate...

    1. Sorry I didn't see this before. It looks like they've reopened now; makes sense, since a lot of it is outdoors.