Cowtown to Carousels: Explore the Dickinson County Heritage Center

Old West history… The oldest operating C.W. Parker carousel… An Extensive Telephone Exhibit… These are three things that stood out to me at the Dickinson County Heritage Center and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.

We arrived as the museum was opening for the day, and the first thing I did was to practically run through the building and out the back to where the carousel stands. I scored a private ride on the carousel, and staff member Wade Needham related the history the C.W. Parker carousel company.

C. W. Parker Carousels Began with a Trip to the Grocery Store

The year was 1892. Charles Parker, a janitor at the county courthouse, was itching for a different profession. Down to his last dollar, his wife sent him to the grocery store to buy something for dinner. He took their young daughter with him.

On the way, they heard music from a carousel. His daughter just had to ride it. But she wouldn’t stop at one ride. She rode it over and over again. When she finished, Charles had spent 85 cents of his last dollar on the carousel. With the 15 cents left, he bought potatoes. That night, the family’s dinner consisted of only boiled potatoes.

Well, that experience got Charles thinking. He was sure he wasn’t the only one who would spend money on a carousel. Everyone seemed to love carousels. He managed to raise $800 from family and friends to buy his own used one. He made his money back within only a month.

Charles knew he could build a better carousel himself, so he started a small factory. Within ten years, the factory grew to over four acres with more than a hundred employees. In 1909 he moved the company to Leavenworth because of a dispute with the city of Abilene.

Charles’ son eventually took over the company. It existed until 1955 and built hundreds of carousels.

The carousel at the Dickinson County Heritage Center and Museum is the oldest known, still operating C.W. Parker carousel, dating back to 1901, and visitors are welcome to ride it.

C.W. Parker carousel

Wandering Through Early Abilene Buildings

The carousel wasn’t the only thing outdoors behind the museum building. There’s an entire town of buildings the museum has relocated here.

The 1915 Prichard Barn is filled with old vehicles and farm machinery. There is even a horse-drawn hearse. We chatted with museum director Austin Anders about several of the vehicles in the barn, and he told us about Heritage Days the museum hosts every fall. During Heritage Days they hold demonstrations throughout the outdoor part of the museum to demonstrate how things were done in the early days, including pressing apples to make cider.

Some of the other buildings on site are a grocery store, school house, cabin, telephone building, and a sawmill.

Telephones from Early to Modern

The Dickinson County Heritage Center and Museum has the most extensive telephone collection I’ve ever seen in one place. It starts with the very early telephones and an exhibit on Alexander Graham Bell, and goes all the way up to what I would call modern phones…modern being land lines like I sometimes still use today.

You can even try out an old switchboard, the kind that has lots of wires with plugs on the end. Operators used to manually connect calls by plugging the cord associated with the caller into a jack associated with the number being called.

Old West History Exhibit

Toward the front of the museum—the section I practically sped past to get to the carousel—is a great display on old area history, set up as a timetable. Informational signs and artifacts give a good of what life was like on the Central Plains, from early explorers to the period of welcoming settlers through the Homestead Act of 1862, and beyond.

One exhibit that caught my attention was the one that covers Abilene’s cowtown days and the lawmen of those days… including a gun that Wild Bill Hickok once owned.

Gun and an Abilene Deputy Marshal star-shaped badge. Also a photo of Abilene's first jail.

If You Visit the Dickinson County Heritage Center and Museum…

I mentioned only a handful of exhibits that you’ll find in the museum. There’s plenty more to see, including lots of old household items, like early sewing machines, weaving looms, tools, and toys. The exhibit on C.W. Parker and carousel horses is fascinating, as well.

The Dickinson County Heritage Center and Museum is located at 412 South Campbell in Abilene, Kansas. Hours vary by season, so be sure to check the museum’s website ahead of time.

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
Boot Hill Distillery: Soil to Sip in a Historical Location
Historic Fort Hays: Tracing the Footsteps of Frontier Defenders

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