Posted by: Ken A Locke | February 12, 2017

Brothel Tokens and Cartography

The Delano District of Wichita, KS, used to be for cowboys.  Did you know that cowboys weren’t “cowboys” until they crossed into Oklahoma?  They were “drovers” because the men in question didn’t like to be called “boys”.

Cowboys could drive their cattle all the way into Wichita, which meant across the Arkansas River and to the stockyards, but they had to go back to Delano for whoring and drinking.  Cowboys were NOT ALLOWED TO STAY in Wichita because they would cause too much trouble looking for drink and women.  Plus Delano was a separate place.  Now it is merely a historic district of Wichita.

Have a look at the gold coin in the pictures.  That is a”brothel token”.  A real thing that cowboys or drovers used to get upon completion of a cattle drive.  “Good for one dollar in trade in girls, whiskey, or food” is what it says on the front.

In a little under 65 minutes yesterday, I learned an astounding amount of Kansas cattle history at Westlink Library, in Wichita, KS (Wichita Public Library).  Westlink staff had invited Tom Averill from Washburn University and Mary Lou Rivers from the Chisholm Trail 150th Anniversary Celebration (Chisholm Trail 150th) to come speak to a select few readers who had an hour (plus 5 minutes) to spare.

We had all agreed to read this book.  I happened to see it in a stack by the librarian’s elbow a few weeks ago and asked if I could attend the book talk.  As is their wont, the library happily said yes and set me up as an attendee.  Free.  No charge to come hear living history.

The book centers around an ‘eastern’ Kansan, Leo, who goes out west (near Hays) to teach and both get away from bad decisions back east and start over in the west.  He meets up with a cowboy/rancher and another, older cowboy who have always worked cattle and the land.  The ‘executive summary’ of the book is (and there will NOT be a test) that Leo learns enough to be a cowboy and help drive cattle all the way into Kansas City to the Stockyards back in the 1970’s.  Nice little story, right?

It was only after the expert treatment and discussion from the Washburn professor that I realized how deep the comparisons to life’s complexities the story ran.  As we discussed characters, archetypes, foreboding, and allegory I realized how many books carried similar themes in them.   I thought of Cold Mountain, Lord of the Flies, Lonesome Dove, and the movies City Slickers and The Graduate.  Those of you who teach will already know this.  Those of you who read will have already seen this.  Even though I read quite a bit, the profound truths that we polished took me by surprise during those 65 minutes.  I left the library grateful for the discovery of a vital geographical landmark in my personal map of understanding.

I’ll explain.

As I write, read, interact, absorb, understand, and share with my world (that is, the people I come in contact with), I see myself standing on a particular spot of earth.  Sometimes it is a ridge, sometimes a valley, sometimes a shore, sometimes a cave.  My clearest understanding places are the ridges and peaks of the map – I have a fairly good understanding and can explain lucidly what the situation is.  Air Traffic Control is one of those – I mostly “get it”, and can talk a person through the basic systems.  20th century fiction is another; I’m conversant in a lot of what has been written in the last 70 years.  The valleys, shores, caves are topics in which I have little understanding or data of background to help me out.  The whole refugee situation, for instance, feels like a shore for me.  I know there is a huge problem, but I have little empirical, experienced data to make super decisions with, other than to say ‘we ought to be helping find a solution’.  Clear as mud? OK, on we go.

The joy of adding landmarks to my personal cartography made that book session a gift.  I simply grinned at each person who added a story yesterday.  One of the ladies had a relative (he was a ‘several greats’ relative) who actually remembered how the cattle drive went and how much the pay was – passed down so she knew it.  Another expert marveled at how many people said the Chisholm Trail passed across their land.  She described how the trail moved around a lot – the dry seasons it had to follow water more closely; the wet seasons it had to stay higher to avoid soggy ground.  One point of discussion was how NYC people thought the entire state of Kansas was full of hicks and cowboys, but to cowboys you didn’t have to go farther than Kansas City to find city people (and yes, several of us DID say ‘everything’s up to date in Kansas City’).

Angie and I stopped in The Monarch, which is in Delano (where the cowboys could go, remember?), the other evening to cap off the work week.  The corner signpost, out the window, had a sign that said “The Chisholm Trail”.  We sat in the literal place where the cowboys came to recover from the long drives they’d just finished.

Discovery.  We are built for it.  We often stumble on it.  I certainly do…  it’s like opening the ‘junk drawer’ and realizing it is full of priceless memories.

I’ve got no real idea where we are headed, and I have precious few answers about what is going on today, but it sure is nice to look back over the ground we’ve covered.

Get to the ridge, set your load down, take a deep breath, and look around a little.  Let us know what you see.


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