Abilene, Kansas rose to fame as a cow town, the northern terminus of the Chisholm Trail that brought cattle from Texas to the Kansas Pacific Railway railhead for shipment into the Kansas City stockyards.
Cowboys with a thirst for drink and a hunger for excitement accompanied the cattle. Businesses sprung up along Abilene’s Texas Street to serve their trail-whetted appetites. Marshal Wild Bill Hickok was among those who broke up the resulting fights.
Dwight David Eisenhower wasn’t born in Abilene, nor did he die there. But the years he spent in the central Kansas town were among the most important of his life. For it was in Abilene that the boy who would grow up to become general of the U.S. Army and the 34th president of the United States developed the skills and first displayed the character that would see him and the nation through some of the most perilous times the world has ever known.
Ike was born too late to know Hickok or Abilene’s Wild West past firsthand, but relished its history throughout his life, with his lifelong habit of reading westerns. The interest in history stimulated by his Abilene upbringing reached back to ancient times. He mentions Hannibal, Caesar, Pericles and Socrates as among his boyhood heroes, competing with cowboys and lawmen for his admiration. Ike’s devotion to the study of the past sometimes came at the expense of other homework and chores and once led his mother to lock up his history books as punishment for neglecting his childhood duties.
Eisenhower excelled at sports in Abilene – baseball and football in particular, but he also boxed, fished, trapped, hunted, camped and played poker, the poker learned at the hand of an eccentric outdoorsman and adventurer who taught him how to compute percentages and figure odds, invaluable skills for the future military and political leader.
Ike’s poker skills were enhanced by his powers of observation, some of which were recorded in the margins of his school books, where he rated his teachers as “good” or “cross.” Eisenhower continued his habit of writing character assessments throughout his military and political careers.
Historians rate his personnel decisions in the Army and politics as among his greatest skills. Other important character traits emerged in the Abilene years. Ike attended integrated schools, but when some of his football teammates refused to line up opposite a visiting African-American player, Eisenhower volunteered for the position and shook the player’s hand after the game. As a boy from the wrong side of Abilene’s class-dividing tracks, Ike knew the minimizing indecencies of prejudice all too well.
Work joined history, school and sport as another formative element of Ike’s Abilene days. He baked and sold tamales; grew and sold sweet corn and cucumbers; harvested wheat, picked apples, and hammered out steel grain bins.
He joined the Belle Springs Creamery after graduating high school in 1909, toiling as a fireman from 6:00 p.m. to 6 a.m. seven days a week. With his creamery proceeds he supported his brother Edgar through two years of college at the University of Michigan. The plan was for Edgar to work the next two years for Ike’s schooling. Instead Ike won an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point and left Abilene in 1911.
Dwight David Eisenhower was born the year the U.S. census pronounced the frontier closed and died the year man walked on the moon. In between those milestones he planned and led the greatest amphibious military assault in history and oversaw eight years of peace and prosperity as president. Yet on reflection of this eventful life he declared: “The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.”
Reference: “American Decades,” by Richard Layman
Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3592.