Boot Hill Distillery: Soil to Sip in a Historical Location

We’ve been to several distilleries in our travels, some of which buy their grains from local farmers. But Boot Hill Distillery in Dodge City, Kansas, is the only distillery we’ve been to that does it all—from farming the grain to bottling the spirits. In addition, the distillery itself is in a historic spot, right atop the former Boot Hill Cemetery.

On our 2018 visit, Director of Sales, Lee Griffith, led us on a tour of the distillery. Along the way, he recounted the history of not only the distillery, but also of the building itself, as well as the initial use of the land beneath the building.

History of Boot Hill Distillery Location

The first recorded use of the land below the distillery was as Boot Hill Cemetery. About 30 or so bodies were interred at the cemetery located on the highest hill in Dodge City. Back then, in the mid-1800s, the area was outside of city proper. The cemetery was a potter’s field. Those who met their demise while passing through town and were unknown to anyone in town were buried here. Most townspeople were interred in the cemetery at Fort Dodge.

The city used the cemetery only from 1872 to about 1878. Once the city started to expand toward Boot Hill Cemetery, they exhumed the bodies and moved them to another location. At least they thought they moved all the bodies. They built a schoolhouse on the site, and stories exist of kids going out to recess and finding bones now and then.

The school stood for a bout 50 years before it was torn down. The city repurchased the land from the school system and built a municipal building, completed in 1929. It included the fire department, police department, city jail, courtroom, judge’s quarters, and the clerk’s office. Over the years, little by little, the city departments moved out (except the fire department, which was there until the 1990s). The chamber of commerce, visitors bureau, and other organizations moved in. But, by 2000, everyone had moved out.

From Abandoned Building to Distillery

The building stood empty for fourteen years. The city slated it for demolition. Then, three farmers approached the city with the idea of turning the building into a distillery. Fifth generation farmer Hayes Kelman was looking to do something different besides growing grain and selling it for the best price he could get. Options were starting a cattle feed operation, selling the grain to an ethanol plant, or making whiskey out of the grain. Distilling seemed a lot more fun than the other options, as well as a challenge.

So, Kelman, along with his dad, Roger Kelman, and Chris Holovach bought the building for ten dollars. The city had been granted funds to raze the building. Instead, the money went to restoration. It took two years and lots of sweat equity to renovate the building. Under close supervision by the Kansas Historical Society, they restored the building to make it as close as possible to the original building.

The Bar Itself is Part of Dodge History

The vintage bar in Boot Hill Distillery

We noticed the awesome old heavy, wood bar in the tasting room. Lee explained it came from a former drinking establishment in downtown Dodge. Bill’s Tavern was in business from about 1940 until about 1970.

Brunswick built the bar (the same company with bowling alleys), and Brunswick confirmed its authenticity. They said it was built in 1902. Where it was from 1902 until it was in Bill’s Tavern, no one knows.

When Bill’s Tavern and several other old buildings were torn down during an urban renewal project, someone pulled the bar out for safekeeping. It spent the next fifty years in someone’s basement. When Boot Hill Distillery owners had the opportunity to buy it, they couldn’t pass it up.

Touring the Building

As we toured the building, Lee showed us where the police department was located. Where Dodge City’s two squad cars once parked is a nice outdoor seating area, with gas-lit fire pits. During nice weather, the distillery hosts live music events here.

The back of Boot Hill Distillery with outdoor seating

He took us to what was the second-floor jail. The jail was removed in the 1970s. Today it’s used as a conference room, which can be rented out for events. However, they left some of the original graffiti from the incarcerated on the walls. Lee said a couple of guys who were in the jail as teenagers in the 1950s or ‘60s came back and were surprised to see their own graffiti still in place.

Graffiti left near the old jail upstairs in Boot Hill Distillery

The Cowboy Statue Had a Live Model

Outside, in front of the distillery, stands a statue of a cowboy, which has a fascinating story. Lee told us that in the late 1890s and early 1900s, Dodge City wanted nothing to do with its history and reputation of being the wickedest city in the west. No one would even mention Boot Hill.

Then, in 1929, a local dentist, Oscar H. Simpson, had a different opinion. He wanted to create a cowboy statue and would use his dental molding skills to do so. He talked local lawman Joe Sughrue into being a model for that statue. With two straws up Joe’s nose so he could breathe, Oscar covered Joe with plaster. Joe nearly died in the process because one of the straws clogged. Fortunately, they caught it, and Joe was fine.

Over the years, the statue suffered from the weather. So, in 2015, the community raised funds for the statue’s restoration. The life-sized statue looked great on our visit.

Cowboy Statue in front of the Boot Hill Distillery

The Distilling Process

Part of the distilling process at Boot Hill Distillery

Lee also took us on a tour and explained the distilling process.

The process begins outside, where grains are stored in bins. Each of the three bins holds about a thousand pounds of grain. When we visited, they were primarily distilling from corn and wheat, but they did have barley in one of the bins. Lee said they would eventually use rye, as well.

The grain gets pulverized, almost down to a flour consistency, then gets augured up into the building for the rest of the process.

The grain goes into a mash tub and water is added. It cooks into a mash, a sort of Malt-O-Meal consistency. The process converts the grain’s starch into sugar. The mash then cools down before it goes into a fermentation tank, where it stays for several days.

Lee continued explaining the distilling process for the whiskey and vodka they were making at the time. They also had bourbon aging during our visit, which wouldn’t be ready until the following year. I recently checked the Boot Hill Distillery website, and sure enough, bourbon is one of their products.

How the Old Firehouse Made Room for the Still

The distilling room is located where the firehouse once was. In 1960, the fire marshal ordered two new fire trucks. When they came, they were too tall to fit in the door. The city dug up the floor and lowered it the eighteen inches that it needed to fit the fire trucks. That additional height is just what Boot Hill Distillery needed to fit their still.

Where to Enjoy Boot Hill Distillery Spirits

Visit Boot Hill Distillery’s tasting room at 501 West Spruce Street in Dodge City, Kansas, to enjoy cocktails made with their spirits. Check tasting room hours here. You can also purchase bottles of your favorite spirits here or at liquor stores throughout Kansas. It’s available in other states as well. Find a list here.

Other articles in this issue of Midwest Wanderer Explores…

Exploring the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail in Wichita
Exploring the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail in Dodge City
Exploring the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail in Hays
Exploring the Kansas Gunsmoke Trail in Abilene
Wild West Wichita Comes Alive at Old Cowtown Museum
The Keeper of the Plains and Mid-America All-Indian Center
Time Travel at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum
Boot Hill Museum: Discover the Wild Wet Legacy
Home of Stone: The Mueller-Schmidt House—A Living Heritage
Historic Fort Hays: Tracing the Footsteps of Frontier Defenders
Cowtown to Carousels: Explore the Dickinson County Heritage Center

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