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The Chisholm Trail, Bandanas, and Abilene, Kansas – How the Windmill Inn Is Keeping Our Past Alive

The Chisholm Trail is now being revived.

The Windmill Inn, bandanas, the Chisholm Trail. Do do you think of those when someone mentions Kansas? Probably not.

It’s more likely some along the lines of a rock group from the 1970s and early 80s or maybe Dorothy, Toto, and tornadoes. Or the state’s signature features like wheat fields and sunflowers?

Really, though, it should be something else because Kansas played a vital role in feeding the eastern part of this country in the late nineteenth century and provided a lot of material for Hollywood.

And now, thanks to people like Deb Sanders – owner/operator (along with her husband, Tim) of the Windmill Inn – we’re being reminded of and learning a lot more about the role this state played in a romantic part of our past and in providing steaks and roasts to all those hungry folks back East, after the Civil War.

But, first, let’s set the stage by taking a look back at the aftermath of that internecine war that cost the lives of 620,000 Americans and resulted in at least 1,030,000 casualties.

Chisholm trail


The Post-Civil War Situation

The Civil War ended in 1865 and was the bloodiest, deadliest war we’ve ever been engaged in. It left the South ravaged – men killed, infrastructure destroyed, economy collapsed, and an aristocratic agrarian culture and way of life gone. But this war also wrought a lot of destruction farther north and all along the eastern seaboard.

Farming and raising livestock had taken a back seat to fighting for several years.

Most of the available food supply had been consumed and little had been replaced, especially beef. And General Sherman’s scorched-earth march had begun actually farther north than most of us realize, destroying by fire everything in its wake, including farmland, crops, and livestock.

In addition, both Union and Confederate armies lived off the land when they could and when forced to, thus using up much of that free food supply.

So people in the Northeast were hungry, and those with the means were willing to pay handsomely for a beefsteak.

But in southern Texas, chiefly from San Antonio on south, while the men were away fighting in the war, the cattle just kept on eating and breeding, many of them having wandered off to grow and reproduce unchecked.

And in Texas where those cattle were plentiful and the people were few, they were worth only about two dollars per head – but in those Eastern markets, they could bring as much as forty dollars (or more) per head.

So there were plenty of cattle in Texas and a hungry consumer market in the Northeast. The logistical challenge, of course, lay in conveying the cattle all those miles in order to make a very tidy profit.

Jesse Chisholm led the way . . .

The Chisholm Trail

chisholm trail map

Texas, then, was nearly bankrupt, but they had the cattle, while back East they had both the money and the appetites.

The problem was, though, that, at that time, the land west of the Missouri was just in the beginning stages of being settled. The railroad was just then pushing westward. It had, however, made it as far west as Abilene, Kansas.

A cattle buyer from Illinois, Joseph McCoy, saw and seized the opportunity here. He made a trip to Abilene, where at the time there were just five dugouts making up the town, and bought up a sizable portion of land.

He then made a deal with the Kansas Pacific Railroad to haul the cattle to the Eastern markets from the railhead at Abilene.

Now all that remained was to get the cattle from Texas to Kansas . . .

Jesse Chisholm first marked out what became known as the Chisholm Trail in 1864. He didn’t drive cattle, but established this route in order to haul supplies by wagon to his trading posts.

He traded primarily with the U.S. Army and the Indians from a trading post southwest of Oklahoma City and another near Wichita, Kansas. The cattle trail spanned Texas south to north, crossed the Red River and then Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and wound up at Abilene, Kansas.

(There is some debate, though, whether the Chisholm Trail began in south Texas or at the Red River Crossing on the Texas-Oklahoma border. It all depends on whether you’re talking  to a Texan or an Oklahoman.)

After “building pens and loading facilities,” in 1867 McCoy “sent word to Texas cowmen that a ‘new’ cattle market was available. That year, some 35,000 head of cattle were moved northward along the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, and McCoy’s stockyard became the largest west of Kansas City.

The number doubled each year until 1871, when 600,000 head glutted the market. Over the years an estimated five million head of Texas cattle reached Kansas over the Chisholm Trail” (Legends of America).

Of course, all good things end eventually or even within a few years.

Abilene, Kansas, from about 1867 to 1871 was the all-important Cattle Town at the end of the Chisholm Trail. But (as we mentioned) the market was glutted, and, besides, the railroads were pushing south, so the cattle drives began taking other routes like the Great Western Trail.

In addition, Abilene had grown into a real town from a cluster of dugouts, and the citizens had grown tired of the cowboys’ rowdiness – who wanted, naturally, to cut loose after months on the trail pushing thousands of cattle through all kinds of weather. The good citizens of Abilene didn’t want the cowboys anymore.

But there was a time . . .

The Great Cattle Drives and Cowboy Bandanas

chisholm trail cattle drive

We all have at least some idea of what cattle drives were like from watching movies, especially ones like Lonesome Dove.

A typical drive involved around 3,000 head pushed hundreds of miles (the Chisholm Trail being about a 1,000 miles total) by a crew of ten to twelve cowboys and taking two to three months at a pace of about 25 miles a day. The trick was to move the cattle fast enough to beat bad weather, but no so fast that they lost significant weight, which meant money lost.

And it sure wasn’t no picnic . . .

First of all, the majority of the cowboys were just that . . . boys. Some were freed men or vaqueros, some were barely men, but they all needed the work after the devastation of the Civil War.

The rivers were always a terror where any number of things could go wrong (which you know from Lonesome Dove), and the Chisholm Trail crossed several major rivers, the Red and the Arkansas among them.

The horses weren’t really broke either, many of them little more than broncs – that was a job to be taken care of along the drive and during the course of work. And there was always the danger of stampedes.

These cattle that moved up the Chisholm Trail were Texas longhorns, not the placid Herefords and Angus we’re used to seeing grazing by the roadside. They were more like wild animals than cattle – lean, mean, and skittish. Here’s what the cowboys had to deal with, according to one from that era . . .

“Slight things threw the cattle into confusion and then a hurly burly scene followed. A horse wearing his saddle lies down to roll; when he rises the stirrups fall, and striking him in the sides give him fright; he springs to the length of his tether, snaps it and dashes into the herd.

“Up jump the steers in alarm; every one that comes to his feet causes a dozen others to bound to theirs; and now, as if by electric impulse – quick as lightening – the whole herd is shaken with terror, plunges in one direction. . . . The alarm has brought every man to his feet.

“Stopping for nothing, caring for nothing but the one supreme object of overtaking. Following, and at the first practicable moment turning and controlling the stampede, those quickest to think and act seizing their saddled horses” (

And that brings us to another major hazard of the trail, which was dust – yes, plain old dust – and bandanas. And here’s why . . .

The cowboys on a cattle drive were divided, based on experience and demonstrated skill, into definite classes and jobs accordingly assigned.

The best of them would “ride point.” That is, they were at the front of the herd, slightly to each side, drawing the cattle along and directing them to the next watering hole, river crossing, or campsite. It was a point of pride to be “pointing the herd.

Other of the cowboys would ride flanking the herd, keeping them from spreading out laterally or running off. Those low down the totem pole would be assigned the task of ‘riding the drags.’ They rode in the rear of the herd, pushing the cattle along, keeping them from stopping and simply grazing. And that spot in the rear, because 12,000 hooves were kicking up dust, was a dusty, choking place to be.

That’s what the cowboy bandana was for. The cowboys bringing up the rear would pull those bandanas up over their noses, just like the bank robbers, to filter out some of that dust so they could breathe. In some situations, without the bandana, suffocation would have been a real danger.

And that, cowboys and cowgirls, is the real reason why cowboys always wore a bandana around their neck” (From “The Cowboy Bandana,”The American Bandana Story).

It was a tough job, then, one fraught with both danger and hardship. And though we’ve romanticized it quite a bit, it remains part of our past and big part of who we are as Americans.

That cowboy life on the cattle drives epitomizes the American thirst for freedom. We all at least dream of that kind of life free from the limiting constraints of so-called civilized life – a freedom achieved today probably only by rodeo cowboys and bikers.

So it’s important to keep that important part of our American past alive.

Enter Deb Sanders

Like Odysseus, we’re all trying to get back home – back to some idyllic, Edenic place or state of being or relationship. It’s just the way we’re made, so we spend most of our lives on that circuitous journey. A few of us, though, pull it off better than the rest. Deb Sanders is one of those people.

The Windmill Inn

chisholm trail windmill inn

Deb Sanders started life in Wichita, Kansas. She later graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in zoology, intending to go into marine biology. But oceans are pretty scarce in Kansas. So after getting married, Deb entered the corporate and business world, living in various places, but finally landing in San Francisco.

Deb’s grandfather owned a 600-acre farm near Chapman, Kansas, only thirteen miles from Abilene. Her husband, Tim, had always wanted to farm. So when Deb’s grandfather passed away and the farm became available, they sold their home and business in San Francisco and headed back home.

There was only one catch, though. Job opportunities are pretty slim in a small town in the Kansas Flint Hills. So they decided to turn the farmhouse and grounds into a Bed and Breakfast.

The house itself is, according to their website, a “1917 Prairie Style four-square home . . . surrounded by acres of rich, fertile farmland and nestled in the grassland region of the Flint Hills, just moments from historic Abilene, Kansas. The home was built by Deb’s grandfather Henry Delker as a wedding gift to his bride Emma. They raised their family here and occupied the home until 1989.”

With that kind of history and beauty, there was only one thing to do. Deb and her husband set to work restoring the house. “Special attention has been given to every detail of the restoration, down to the beautiful egg and dart trim and brilliant stained and beveled glass in the common area.”

After two years of remodeling, Deb and her husband, Tim, opened the doors of the Windmill Inn in 1991. Their main offering at the time was serving meals to overnight guests and other diners. It wasn’t long till they were seating people every night, sometimes as many as 50.

After 23 years of this, Deb and Tim wanted to slow this pace down. They took back the living room, putting it to other uses for B&B guests, and began to concentrate on other B&B-related services.

Deb also realized that Abilene’s tourism needed some work. People were coming, but they weren’t staying overnight. Abilene’s Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home was certainly a big draw, but the day tourists just weren’t staying over.

Abilene Revived

From her involvement with Abilene’s Convention & Visitors Bureau, Deb realized that the Chisholm Trail, with all its fascinating local history, could be and should be another big tourist draw. So she discussed it with her husband.

Then they hopped into their car and headed down the trail to check it out – to Wichita at the confluence of the rivers, across Oklahoma, and down through Texas.

Deb’s next step was to start a Visionary Committee to determine if a museum at the end of the Chisholm Trail was a possibility. After that came a Kansas CT 150 Group made up of the towns along the trail – Caldwell, Wellington, Clearwater, Wichita, Newton, and Ellsworth – and so named because 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of the first Chisholm Trail drive to Abilene.

The group promotes the Chisholm Trail and Abilene’s historic place in it as the terminus. This group is also working to get a National Parks bill passed (which has been in the works since 2007) to have the Chisholm Trail, along with the Western Trail, designated as National Trails.

The Abilene CT 150 Group’s success can also be seen in the return of the Chisholm Trail Days to Old Abilene Town. This celebration features longhorns paraded through Old Abilene Town and then loaded onto rail cars just like they used to be, along with many other events and activities. Period costumes and accouterments make the celebration complete and authentic.

But Deb’s efforts reach even further . . .

Trail Rides and Bandanas

chisholm trail ride

What would a remembrance of the Chisholm Trail and a revival of Abilene’s part in it be without a trail ride?

This year marks the first for a commemorative trail ride following a portion of the Chisholm Trail in Kansas. The riders, 125 of them so far, will start off at Caldwell, Kansas. They’ll ride for four days and finish up their ride south of Wichita following the same path as the Chisholm Trail. This event will even be covered by RFD-TV.

Word got around and enthusiasm grew for this trail ride without any marketing at all. That’s what sparked Deb’s interest.

As a result, she has been negotiating for Abilene segments on the planned RFD_TV program. It also made her think of bandanas.

As a result, she conceived her to distribute bandanas as a way to get the riders to see and possibly ride more of the Chisholm Trail. She would like them to see, for example, the natural waterfall at Elm Springs, fifteen miles south of Abilene, where the cowboys took their “showers” after the long, dusty drive before heading into town for a little well deserved fun.

So Deb and the other members of the Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) began discussing what they could get for the riders as a souvenir and an enticement to come to Abilene. Deb wanted to get specially designed bandanas (that essential piece of cowboy apparel) to distribute to the riders at Caldwell. So she got a budget from the CVB director, and the thing was set in motion.

But she still needed to find a supplier and printer for the bandanas . . .

So Deb contacted Dan Weaver at Wholesale For Everyone. (She did contact other suppliers, but they didn’t respond.) Dan, she said, willingly worked with her on colors and size and helped her hammer out delivery logistics.

Here’s what she had to say about Dan Weaver and Wholesale For Everyone: “Dan was really helpful. He worked hard with me to get the artwork where it needed to be. And he promised on-time delivery.”

So problem solved: well crafted cowboy bandanas for the Chisholm Trail trail riders and a way to promote Abilene’s pivotal role in a part of our past.

And Even More

Now, Deb Sanders has added another component to her plan to promote tourism in the Abilene area.

That is a Chisholm Trail-centered museum to be supported by the National Old West Trail Foundation (NOWT). She has some quality exhibits ready to go and is currently looking for a location. NOWT is set up as a 501 (c)(3), and they are welcoming donations or stories, artifacts, and (of course) money. Monetary support would be greatly appreciated. For more information, contact Deb here.

And don’t forget the Windmill Inn, a premier B&B in the uniquely beautiful Kansas Flint Hill country. Located seven miles south of Chapman, Kansas, the Windmill Inn offers:

The Windmill Inn – a place where the owners truly care about your experience and the well being of their community and home area.