“The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower
The 34th president of the United States and 5-Star General was born and raised in Abilene, Kansas. Founded in 1857, the town grew when the railroad and the Chisholm Trail intersected causing it to become the first cowtown in America. Today, the small but bustling town draws history enthusiasts and day trippers looking for an afternoon of entertaining tourist stops.
Just east of Salina on Highway 70, the town that raised a president includes sites for the young and old. Full of tourist stops and antique shops, you’ll be hard pressed to see everything the town offers visitors in one day.
These are the stops I can recommend:
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home, 200 SE 4th Street.
Tourists can explore all three sites on 22 acres of land that include five buildings housing artifacts and documents that trace his life from his childhood to his final days. In fact, Eisenhower and his immediate family were laid to rest on the property, a memorial that visitors can also visit. Across from his library, the museum houses far more than nostalgic “I Like Ike” buttons. The museum curators painstakingly collected nearly everything bearing his name to the clothing he wore while at war.
After slowly making your way through his museum passing by artifacts documenting his achievements and his family life, you can step outdoors and see his small boyhood home in the distance. Visitors are able to tour the interior of the home led by a tour guide about every thirty minutes. Siteseers awaiting the next tour should sit outside on one of the shaded benches until the next free tour begins.
The three bedroom 19th-century home is situated on its original site and the bottom level is open to visitors. The house and its contents look exactly as his mother left them before she passed on. It feels surreal to stand in a president’s boyhood home. You will feel a real connection to Eisenhower by the end of your tour.
Abilene Convention & Visitors Bureau, 201 NW 2nd Street
This quaint visitor’s center employs one super helpful tour guide! Ask her anything. She is a proud resident prepared to give you historical facts and free maps too. The building is actually a historical Union Pacific Depot that is open seven days a week. If you stop here first before beginning your tour of the town, you can watch an introductory video or gather materials for your journey. Don’t forget to take you photo inside an original bright red phone booth located just outside of the center. A farmer’s market selling produce and homemade wares takes place on the grounds on Saturday mornings.
Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad Excursion/Dinner Train, 888-426-6687, 200 SE 5th Street
You can also ride the historic rails in Abilene from the 1887 Rock Island Depot and Gift Shoppe. After buying your ticket for the the next scheduled dinner train tour, you can tour the depot’s artifact museum. The walls of the depot show the writings of railroad workers of the past. Have a question about the historic rails? Ask the depot’s employee, a kind woman behind the counter who knows quite a bit about the town’s history. The dinner train departs at 6:30pm four times each summer and at 6:00pm four times each fall.
Diesel, steam locomotives, a caboose, and gondola care are also on display for viewing or riding. Fares for kids three and under are free, children up to age 11 $7.50-$15, and adults $15-$30.
Be sure to head over across the depot to see the recreated Old West downtown watch the gunfighter show starting at noon each day. The volunteer impersonators interact with the crowd and shoot blanks at one another to tell the story of the wild west.
Heritage Center, 412 S. Campbell Street
This national historic landmark was voted one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas and includes over 100 years of telephone history on site. It is a short walk from the Eisenhower complex. You’ll see early models of telephones to modern day advances in technology. It’s mind-blowing.
Behind the museum visitors can take themselves on a self-guided tour of log cabins, the 1901 C.W. Parker Carousel (rides available!), a one-room school house, and much more! The operator of the carousel has worked as a volunteer there for years and smiles ear-to-ear while sharing the history of this stunning restored piece of local history. Don’t forget to have him take your photo!
Greyhound Hall of Fame, 407 S. Buckeye
Missing your family pet while on the road? Stop by a building dedicated to the history of the greyhound breed and its racing history. Two greyhounds on site serve as the welcoming committee. If you don’t have time to visit, cruise through the parking lot. You might just find one of the dogs in its kennel outside the building waiting for you to pet him!
Ike’s Place Bar and Grill, 100 NW 14th Street
Dark and cool inside, this expansive sports bar’s walls are covered with black and white framed photos of Eisenhower’s life. The menu features typical sports bar grub but also includes homestyle entrees such as homemade soups and their famous meat chili. The waitress recommended several sandwiches and the chili as the most popular eats. This restaurant’s customer service was friendly but a little slow, but the reasonable prices and tasty lunch made up for it. You’ll enjoy the added Eisenhower history lesson from the wall artifacts and menu trivia included in your visit.
Having just scratched the surface of Abilene, I look forward to returning to check out the infamous Brookville Hotel (hot fried chicken and family style side dishes) and the enormous Seelye Mansion.
Do you know of a fun day trip excursion in Kansas? Comment below with your favorite detour stop! A proud Kansan, I’m ready to visit another great destination in the Sunflower State.