From Cattle to Candy: a History of Business Success in Dickinson County
From its conception as an important waystop for the cattle trails of the 1860s to today’s collection of homegrown businesses, Dickinson County has long been a hub for economic development. That historical record has given rise to a vibrant tourism center, drawing visitors from across the country to revisit the Old West and learn about President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s childhood home of Abilene.
“From its beginnings with the cattle and railroad industries, to the wide range of agriculture and manufacturing companies of today, Dickinson County is an area that knows how to be successful in business,” said James Holland, Abilene’s former Community Development Director and current president of the Board of Trustees of the Dickinson County Historical Society.
Abilene is the county seat and largest city in the county, with nearly 6,600 residents. The many businesses within it and the other, smaller communities sprinkled through Dickinson County trace their origins to a list of visionary entrepreneurs.
In 1865, Abilene was a collection of 10 log cabins without a railroad stop. Once Union Pacfic set up a rail spur in Abilene however, it began a journey of growth coinciding with the cattle industry. Joseph McCoy built up Abilene by marketing its location to the Texas cattle owners who needed to bring their stock to Chicago’s processing facilities. A boom time followed during the end of the decade, as Abilene became the end point of the Chisholm trail and busiest railhead for cattle in the country, with more than 3,000,000 head of cattle shipped through its railyards.
While the cattle industry spurred Abilene’s growth, it also brought many undesirable characters to town, necessitating an increased law presence. The second Abilene marshal was the famous Wild Bill Hickock, who spent most of 1871 helping clean up the town. His stay was short, however, moving on after he accidentally shot a deputy.
The 1880s were a time of transition for Dickinson County, with disagreements between local farmers and cattle traders. As a result, cattle drives moved to other railheads, and Abilene became an agricultural center. Cattle yards were replaced with flour mills and creameries. The most famous of which may have been the Belle Springs Creamery, known for producing the B-S brand and where President Dwight D. Eisenhower worked as a child.
The next prominent businessman of the area was C.L. Brown, who founded the Abilene Electric Light Works in 1898 from his father’s grist mill. Electricity generated from the farm was used for street lights in Abilene.
“While it is difficult to verify, local legend says Abilene had street lights before New York City,” said Holland.
One year later, he started the Brown Telephone Company, which has grown throughout the years, eventually becoming the Sprint Corporation.
Abilene’s entrepreneurial spirit continued with brothers Alva and Wilbur Duckwall. In 1901, they opened the Duckwall Brothers Racket Store - A Little Bit of Everything. Their success blossomed into the Western Merchandise Company and eventually included 96 Duckwall’s Hometown Variety Stores by 1999. As the larger corporation ALCO Stores, Inc., with a large distribution center in Abilene, it filed for bankruptcy and closed or sold off its stores in 2015.
“They were the original Wal-Mart and Sam Walton himself even tried to buy them out at one point,” said Holland.
Current Dickinson County
Today, the area’s history as an agricultural hub continues and drives the county’s economy. Local businesses benefit from a workforce with the institutional know-how from many generations of farming and manufacturing experience. Some of the most notable companies are:
Abilene Machine, with headquarters just outside of Abilene in Solomon, is one of the largest retailers of replacement parts for farming equipment like tractors and combines and has a strong reputation for being a reliable, family-owned business.
Great Plains Manufacturing, with headquarters in Salina, is a leader in the manufacturing of agricultural implements for tillage, seeding, and planting , as well as a leading producer of dirtworking, turf maintenance, and landscaping equipment.
Russell Stover, with headquarters in Kansas City, is a producer of chocolates and other candies, and opened a plant in Abilene in 1995. Production at the plant in 2019 was 18 million pounds with an average employment of around 600 workers, depending on the season.
“When agriculture has a good year, it raises all boats,” said Holland. “Everything from home remodels to car sales go up when we have a profitable year in agriculture.”
Dickinson County has a lively tourism industry also. Many of the highlights center around Old West history like the Chisholm Trail, but a major draw is President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s childhood home in Abilene.
“It seems that people’s appreciation for President Eisenhower and his accomplishments has been extremely sustainable over time,” said Holland. “With 2019 as the 75th anniversary of D-Day and his Washington D.C. memorial finished last year, his legacy continues to grow.”
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum is located in Abilene and includes his boyhood home. Many exhibits highlight his many lifetime accomplishments, but one, in particular, was a spark plug for local business development.
“It is well-known that he authorized the Interstate Highway System, which was constructed under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956,” said Holland. “But I-70 was originally slated to pass 30 miles north of Abilene and he had it redrawn to its current location of passing through the town.”
Dickinson County has a long business acumen and an established history of entrepreneurism. This continues today with the Dickinson County Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) program for high school juniors and seniors across the county, the first such program in Kansas. Contact the Dickinson County Economic Development Corporation to learn how you can be part of that record today!