PLUC favourite, Abilene, written by Bob Gibson and John D Loudermilk, makes some strong claims in its lyrics. We ask: what’s the story behind the town in the song & do these bold statements hold up to closer scrutiny?
There are actually two Abilenes in the US, Abilene Texas and Abilene Kansas. Though Loudermilk does not specify to which Abilene his song refers, it is almost certainly Abilene, KS, original terminus of the legendary Chisholm (cattle) Trail, through Oklahoma (see Google Maps), which brought Texas Longhorns up to the railheads established along the Kansas Pacific Railroad for shipment to Chicago and the Eastern seaboard; after Missouri had prohibited cattle droving through its territory (Abilene TX, founded 1881, takes its name from Abilene, KS). Howard Hawk’s Red River (1948) starring John Wayne & Montgomery Clift, is set along the Chisholm Trail.
Abilene KS was thus one of the first ‘Cow Towns’ of the old west. According to tradition, Elizabeth Hersey, the wife of its founder, one Timothy Hersey, named it Abilene after a passage in Luke’s Gospel, “city of the plains“
While this is an apt description of the town itself, her putative etymology was based on a false premiss. The name Abilene appears only once in the Bible, in Luke 3.1; where the scene is being set for the appearance of John the Baptist:
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene.
However, ‘Abilene’ actually means the territory round about, and governed from, the city of Abila – the Abilene country.
Abila Lysaniou stood on the River Barada, about 20 miles upstream from Damascus. It took its cognomen from the Lysanias named in Luke. ‘Abila’ itself actually means ‘meadow’ in Hebrew, ‘greenery’ in Arabic. I can’t find its Aramaic meaning, but it must be something similar. If you look at the area surrounding the modern day Abila, viz Souk Wadi Barada, it is clear why it should be so named.
Faulty etymology or no, Abilene KS – situated 150 miles west of Kansas City, Missouri, along the shores of Mud Creek, a minor tributary of the Smoky Hill River flowing some 2 miles to the south – was founded in 1860 as a stage-coach halt, three years after the Hersey’s arrival in the area. However, it was the opening of the stockyards there 7 years later, at the conclusion of the American Civil War, that really put Abilene on the map.
In the first year of operations 35,000 head of Texan cattle were shipped east. The numbers shipped through Abilene doubled each year thereafter. For the next 5 years, Abilene would be the epitome of the Wild West, as cowboys who had been on the trail for 12 weeks or more were paid off; and almost immediately relieved of their hard-earned in the many bars, gambling dens and brothels that sprang up for this very purpose. The first two lawmen to be appointed, in 1869, resigned before their first day of service was complete! Wild Bill Hickok was even elected town Marshal in 1871, after the previous Marshal had been murdered and decapitated(!). In one famous incident, Hickok ran John Wesley Hardin out of town.
However also in 1871, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad reached Newton KS, some 66 miles to the south of Abilene, and crucially, one week’s less journey time on the Chisholm Trail. Abilene’s days as a Wild West frontier town were numbered. A further nail in the coffin of Abilene’s fortunes was hammered home one year later, when the AT&SF reached, and established a railhead at, Dodge City KS, on the Santa Fe trail (ironically, the AT&SF never actually reached Santa Fe).
Finally in 1876 Kansas forbade cattle droving along the Chisholm Trail altogether (splenic fever, spread by tick bites, was endemic in Texan longhorns, and this usually proved fatal to other breeds of cattle that the longhorns would encounter en route), and Abilene passed out of mythology into Mid-Western somnolence. The Chisholm Trail itself passed away in 1884.
Abilene’s modern-day claim to fame is as the birthplace of Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force (1943-1945) and 34th President of the United States (1953-1959). The Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum is located in Abilene.
However, of more interest, possibly, Abilene is also home to the Greyhound Hall of Fame where you will be greeted by the resident greyhounds, both retired. Train spotters will find much of interest on the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad.
Photos of Old Abilene Town Heritage Site may be found on Facebook, though it should be noted that ‘Old Abilene Town’ Heritage Site is a collection of buildings that have been assembled at the one location, not a conservation area as we would understand it. The author leaves it to the reader to judge whether Abilene is, indeed, ‘the prettiest town that [they’ve] ever seen.’
Afterword: here’s a clip of Timothy Hersey’s great-great-grandson, Andy, performing one of his own compositions, Welcome to the West: