In the mid 1990's I was recruited by the then director of Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita Kansas to portray saloon owner Fritz Schnitzler. It is a position that was part time and low pay. But Old Cowtown is a place that has a special place in my heart. As a historian, and since it fits into the era that I am interested in, it was a wonderful opportunity to meet people from all over the world and tell the story of the West and the cattle towns.
Cowtown was started back in the 1940's when many of the original buildings from the 1870 and 80's era were being lost. On a tract of ,then considered waste land, along the Arkansas River, it is now the heart of the Museum District in Wichita.
There is a group of passionate volunteers that have put in literally decades of service portraying life in that era. There are many volunteers behind the scenes also to do the things that are not out in front of the public. The maintaining of these old buildings and the replicas, is an ongoing and expensive process.
There has always been a core group of employees and professional people that are necessary for the running of an accredited museum. There has been many years of administrators come and go and the museum has had to deal with many issues over the years.
In the last change of funding the City of Wichita took over the management/funding of the museum. However, it is a lot more complicated than that statement. The funding and organizations running and owning the museum is a very complicated thing.
It seems that periodically the funding is cut and Cowtown has to adjust to the seeming drastic cuts that always seem to come its way. It is a fact that many plans and programs have been started and many never finished there. There have been missed opportunities and it always seems that not much is learned from the past.
Myself and two other interpreter's for Cowtown went to the Western Heritage/Cowboy Hall of Fame one time representing Cowtown. The curator at that time confided in us that there are seven major Western Museums in the country and they have a loose association with each other. He stated "it is a shame that Wichita does not know what it has. Cowtown should be the eighth part of this group because they have a world class museum". I agree completely.
The fact that Cowtown is not in the group with The Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the Autry Museum, and the Whitney is a testament to not knowing what you have or appreciating it.
It is a fine line that Cowtown has to walk because the operating of an academic museum, a living museum, and a theme park, is a delicate one that always fuels difference of opinion.
I do not make it back often, though Old Cowtown Museum has a place in my heart. I am sad that the changes made out there have not been either finished or taken advantage of. There is so much to do and the loss of $100,000 is not going to help preserve or keep up the job of it's mission.
There is always going to be dedicated people that will try and keep things going out there. It is a shame that they are so under appreciated. of course ever since Wichita's beginnings they have strove to be a 'New York' on the plains. Such thinking is still here today. If those who cut and work against the museum were to ever set foot on the dirt streets and boardwalks and meet the thousands of visitors from all around the country and the world, maybe they would gain a new sense of appreciation.
Some of my old colleagues are gone now but those who remain still love the museum even though they are not there now. Lets hope a little creativity and appreciation is left in Wichta to build Old Cowtown Museum into a world class attraction