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 Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

From gunslingers to skunks,
varmints took toll on Dodge City

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

Of all the wild Western towns established on the early American frontier, Dodge City, Kan., was probably the wildest and the woolliest. Almost any description imagined or written about the town might well be true. The fact the town has survived and thrived could be the most astonishing story of all.

An old myth states Dodge City got its name because so many of the early residents were "on the dodge" from the law. Actually, the site was named for Col. Richard I. Dodge, a military commander of nearby Fort Dodge and one of the few respectful facts of the town's early history.

Dodge City did not just happen. Odd circumstances made it an "end-of-track" town where the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway track ended coming from the east. When Texas cattlemen learned they could sell their overstocked herds by driving them to Dodge, the site also became an "end-of-trail" town.

Locals laughed stating, "the end-of-track" was where the locomotives let off steam. When the Texas cowboys reached the "end-of-trail," they let off steam also. The pair of ends made for a steamy wild place where anything could and usually did happen.

A third anomaly contributing to the growth of the area was the fact Dodge was located in the center of the domain of the Republican herd of Plains buffalo. With millions of the critters free for the taking, the Civil War leftovers spilled into the city to join in the hide and meat harvest.

It seems the locals didn't like cowboys, the railroads didn't like the soldiers, the buffalo hunters didn't like anybody, and no one liked to be told what to do. This resulted in the filling of two cemeteries, one for the respectable deceased with coffins and flowers and the other for the less respectable who were buried in Boot Hill, wrapped in horse blankets and with their boots on.

Oddly enough, the main reason for most Dodge City deaths for a period of time, other than being shot, stabbed or beaten to death, came from the bites of skunks. Drought and extreme cold weather brought groups of the stinking critters into town to live under the building, piles of buffalo hides and garbage dumps. Each night they prowled the town confines looking for tidbits of food or a warm place to build a den. Stumbling or sleeping drunks were unusually susceptible to being bitten by the nocturnal creatures. Many probably never knew they had been attacked.

As residents who were bitten by the animals usually died, the belief was at the time that all skunks had hydrophobia. Today we call it rabies and know that only a small percentage of the animals tested actually carry the dreaded disease.

In later years, tests were carried out, and the Smithsonian Institute issued this theory: There is not a species of hydrophobia or rabid skunk, then or now, only a few carriers. The death of those bitten was probably caused by blood poisoning coming from the foul teeth and mouth of the animal. Since this was before tetanus shots came along, this theory might well be true.

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" September 22, 2009 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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