Chisholm Trail: I Find an Answer to My Question at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, Oklahoma
It takes a half an hour to travel the twenty-six miles from Waurika to Duncan, OK over rolling prairie swells. About two and a half day’s travel was required for the average cattle herd on the Chisholm Trail to cover the same distance. The herds usually gained between ten and twelve miles a day barring unforeseen delays. When I reach Duncan I’ve driven ninety-two miles total from the Red River crossing.
Duncan is surrounded by mixed prairie grasses and fertile farmlands. The city has been designated as the official Crepe Myrtle Capital of Oklahoma. The official birth date of Duncan is June 27, 1892, the date marked by the first train arrival. However, a trading post, once located at the intersection of the Chisholm Trail and an east-west military trail to Fort Sill, preceded the town.
The Chisholm Trail followed a route just east of the current city location and, of course, the town did not exist during most of the major years of cattle drives to Kansas, 1867 to 1890. Duncan developed rapidly after the first oil wells were drilled in the county in 1918.
The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center
I’m anxious to visit the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center before it closes at five o’clock. Of course, I turn at the first trail marker sign into the downtown’s historic district. Wrong! After I find no further indications of where to go, a friendly passerby tells me the Heritage Center is located farther north on Highway 81. “Just turn left at the Burger King,” she tells me.
I see the restaurant a long block ahead of me when I come to an intersection with a Chisholm Trail Heritage Center sign directing me to the left. Which directions to follow: the person or the official sign? I choose the latter and discover the Heritage Center is actually on a parallel street. It can be reached either way. I then conjecture that my friendly guide probably lived in the north end of town and passed the Burger King first as she made her way to downtown going in the opposite direction from my own. But it’s only conjecture.
I arrive an hour before closing. I seem to be the only visitor at this hour. Greeting me is a delightful and perky docent, Suzanne Bernal, who issues me a token in exchange for the entrance fee. She instructs me to put it in a turnstile slot to gain entrance. After some fumbling, I accomplish this task and she leads me to an auditorium for an orientation movie. Suzanne briefly introduces the movie and museum as “experiential” and tells me that I will experience a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail. She mentions that I will also feel some of the effects, such as an early morning breeze, and fragrances of some of the prairie grasses and flowers.
She does not tell me that I will also be thrown into the chaos of a thunder and lightning storm and a resultant stampede of cattle. Nor does she mention that I might actually feel some of the rain I will see on the screen. What fun follows! I get a visceral sense of what a cattle drive was like. I will reveal some of that in a forthcoming post.
(Muse Gus taunts me: “Well, you wanted to experience the Trail for yourself didn’t you?”)
After that experience, I am led to another room where I sit around a campfire with two automatons: a cattle drive cowboy and the founder of the Chisholm Trail, Jesse Chisholm. The two animated figures while away some time talking about life on the Trail and some problems involved in Texas cattle drives to the Abilene market. I could also hear a heated side conversation taking place in a nearby chuck wagon where a cook is extracting a cowboy’s abscessed tooth.
The museum includes many other exhibits of cowboy equipment and prairie life. One of those is shown here with the permission of the Chisholm Trail Heritage Museum’s Director. The museum also includes The Garis Gallery of the American West that displays related paintings by recognized western artists Byron Wolfe (1904-1973), and Frederic Remington (1861-1909), among others.
It is here at the Center, too, that I am able to solve the mystery of the closed museum in Waurika. “Oh, they must have closed ten years ago!” Suzanne informs me.
Saddling up again, I drive my little green pickup northward toward El Reno where Interstate 40 now crosses the north to south Chisholm Trail route. I’m pretty sure I-40 wasn’t there between 1867 and 1890.