Located in the Flint Hills region of the Great Plains, in north-central Kansas, Abilene sits at the intersection of I-70 and K-15, about 94 miles north of Wichita. With a population of barely 6,000, Abilene has earned a place on many best small-town lists, including the Smithsonian’s 2017 Best Small Town to Visit List.
Abilene grew up as a wild west cow town. Cowboys would drive cattle from Texas to the eastern endpoint of the Chisholm Trail, where the cattle were herded into boxcars and shipped east for distribution. From 1867 to 1871, they sent hundreds of thousands of cattle.
Today, most people decide to visit Abilene to learn more about Dwight D. Eisenhower and his life as the 34th President of the United States. But once they arrive, they see the rich art and history that Abilene has to offer.
Discover Abilene’s history, from the wild west to the White House, as you experience the 12 best things to do in one of America’s best small towns.
Tour Seelye Mansion and Patent Medicine Museum
Dr. and Mrs. Alfred B. Seelye built their 11,000 square-foot Georgian-style home for $50,000 and furnished it with décor they purchased at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The cost of the furnishings was more than their mortgage. The 25-room Seelye Mansion still has its original furnishings in use today. While the Seelye family no longer lives in the mansion, the current homeowner, Terry Tietjens, lovingly tends the estate and shares it with visitors as their tour guide.
The Music Room, furnished with French gold furniture, is spectacular. I was amazed at the music makers in the mansion. Terry, a talented musician, played Silent Night on the stunning Steinway mahogany grand piano and continued the performance on the organ in the great hall.
The home includes a ballroom, dining room, music room, 11 bedrooms, kitchen spaces, and a basement Box Ball alley. Be sure to notice the Tiffany-designed fireplace in the grand hall and Edison light fixtures throughout the home.
During summer, the gardens, including a fishpond, are abundant with Mrs. Seelye’s favorite flowers, roses, and lavender. In addition, they use the grounds for weddings.
Also included in the tour of the grounds is the Patent Medicine Museum, which was once Dr. Seelye’s laboratory. He founded the A. B. Seelye Medical Company in 1890 and created cure-alls that the company sold in 14 states. The medicine company brought Dr. Seelye the wealth that allowed him to build his grand home.
While you can’t overnight at Seelye Mansion, Engle House Bed and Breakfast is another home designed by the same architect where you can.
Stay at Engle House Bed and Breakfast
Jacob Engle was another prominent figure in Abilene during the early 1900s. He was vice-president of Belle Springs Creamery, and as a school board member, signed Dwight D. Eisenhower’s high school diploma. Dwight D. Eisenhower worked for Engle at the creamery before going to West Point Military Academy in June of 1911.
Today Jacob’s home is the Engle House Bed and Breakfast, where I stayed in the Lancaster Suite. The room featured a queen bed and a standard size leather sofa in the main room. In a separate area, I had a nook that held an excellent writing desk.
The Engle House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is Heritage Home Certified. If you enjoy a historic home, pick up one of the booklets titled Abilene: Little Town of Mansions. The leaflet, published by the Heritage Homes Association, has a map and describes over 100 heritage homes. The homes marked in red are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since Engle House is a bed and breakfast, I had a home-cooked breakfast that included a sausage and egg casserole breakfast, warm cinnamon coffee cake, and a bowl of fresh fruit.
Explore Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home is an entire 22-acre complex with a lot to take in. Begin at the Visitors Center and view the video as it provides a framework for the rest of the site. Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.”
The next stop is Eisenhower’s boyhood home, where the upcoming five-star general and 34th President of the United States lived with five brothers in a six-room house. To understand his youth take a guided tour, where the home still has its original furnishings.
Before touring the museum building, take a picture with the Eisenhower bronze statue featuring 25,000 square feet of new exhibits. The updated museum opened in the summer of 2019. They improved the technology in the displays, making them more interactive. The latest collections capture your attention. Next, explore the Presidential library that features videos supplementing the exhibits.
Lastly, take time to reflect at the Place of Meditation, the final resting place of former President Eisenhower, his wife Mamie, and their young son Doud.
History buffs will want to visit the Presidential Library and museum. Many attractions offer an Eisenhower connection, so you’ll find more information about Dwight and Mamie throughout town.
Enjoy the Murals
Art enthusiasts will appreciate the murals painted on the sides of buildings throughout the town. You can download a mural map here and explore about a dozen murals throughout Abilene. One of my favorite murals is of the four-cent stamp. The inspiration for this mural was the stamp commemorating Kansas’ centennial. This Kansas statehood mural features pioneers and a sunflower, Kansas’ state flower.
Have Dinner at the Farmhouse Restaurant
West of Abilene, located on old US-40, is The Farmhouse Restaurant, one of Ike’s favorites. When Eisenhower ate at the farmhouse restaurant on the hill, they called it Lena’s. Today, the framed newspaper announcing his election, “Ike Wins,” hangs in the restaurant.
A tradition at the Farmhouse Restaurant, a holdover from when it was called Lena’s, is everyone receives a paddling on their birthday. For example, Eisenhower got a paddling to commemorate his 75th birthday. The signed paddle still hangs on the wall. In addition to the paddling at The Farmhouse Restaurant, the birthday person receives a complimentary ice cream or piece of the pie.
I devoured a side salad, bacon-wrapped petite filet, a loaded baked potato, and house-made rolls. I’ll admit I also enjoyed a piece of house-made chocolate pie.
Check Out the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum
While you frequently hear about the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas, you’ll find six other museums in this small town. Located in downtown Abilene, the Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum showcases the images of three generations of photographers. The photographers documented Abilene starting in 1921, so you’ll find almost 100 years of Abilene’s history here. In addition to the photos, the historic camera shop exhibits permanent displays of cameras and photographic history. Admission is free.
Learn the History of Greyhounds at the Greyhound Hall of Fame
Another focused-topic museum in Abilene is the Greyhound Hall of Fame. Dickinson County raises more greyhounds than anywhere in the world, so Abilene should be known as the greyhound capital of the world. Ginger, the resident greyhound, hurries out to meet visitors in hopes of getting a scratch behind the ear or pat on the head. She’ll get you excited to learn about man’s best and fastest friend. Did you know that they’ve clocked racing greyhounds at 45 miles per hour?
The Greyhound Hall of Fame provides a comprehensive history of greyhounds beginning in Ancient Egypt and ends by introducing you to the most extraordinary greyhounds in racing. Take 15 minutes and watch the introductory video when you start your visit. It recounts the story of a family who traveled throughout the nation racing greyhounds. It helped me place the greyhound racing industry within the context of recent history. The museum offers free admission.
Ride the Abilene & Smokey Valley Railroad
As a 100-year-old steam engine pulls the train on the Abilene & Smokey Valley Railroad, go back in time. While the railroad offers the experience of an open-air car, you can also dine on the train during one of their dinner tours.
The train goes to the Hoffman Grist Mill, where Christian Hoffman started his first flour mill operation in 1869. They use Heritage Turkey Red Wheat milled on stone grinders, as they did in the late 1800s. You can explore the flour mill during a stopover and buy flour to take home for your baking projects.
Fred Schmidt Railroad Museum offers more about railway history and the role Abilene played in it.
Explore the Dickenson County Heritage Center
The Dickenson County Heritage Center features various fun, from riding an old-fashioned carousel to learning the history of telephones. History lives on at the Dickinson County Heritage Center, so even those who think they don’t enjoy it will have fun with these hands-on activities. In addition, the Heritage Center offers interactive exhibits, where you’ll get a better understanding of the pioneer family’s life experiences. Think wood-burning stoves and kerosene lanterns in a one-room log cabin.
The Museum of Independent Telephony rolls back the clock to a time before cell phones. First, try your hand at being the operator at a switchboard. Then, ride the 1901 C. W. Parker Carousel, a National Historic Landmark. It’s the only operating Parker carousel that exists today.
Discover Old Abilene Town
Abilene has its roots in America’s old west, and Old Abilene Town recants the story of Abilene from its cattle drive days. They’ve built the town from a combination of original buildings relocated to the site and some replicas constructed on-site. With over a dozen buildings, Old Abilene Town features a saloon, blacksmith shop, hotel, and even a town jail. You’ll get a sense of the old west when visiting Old Abilene town.
True West Magazine awarded Old Abilene Town the Best Wild West Show in 2021. The show features can-can dancers and gunfights that will remind you of the wild, wild west. You can even ride a stagecoach. Be sure to enjoy sarsaparilla while you’re there.
Have Lunch at the Hitching Post Restaurant & Saloon
After an afternoon in Old Abilene Town, you’ll need some sustenance to finish out your day. The Hitching Post Restaurant & Saloon carries on the old west theme. Dinner at the diner-style Hitching Post Restaurant & Saloon features sandwiches and salads, in addition to home-style entrées like fried chicken and meatloaf. On some evenings, they offer the option of a steakhouse dinner. So, when you want a home-cooked meal while traveling, check out the Hitching Post. Their menu even includes house-made pie, so you’ll want to save room for dessert.
Sample Some Russell Stover Chocolates
Clara Stover began making chocolates in her home kitchen in 1923. Today Abilene is home to one of Russell Stover’s four “Candy Kitchens” that make chocolate from scratch and distribute it throughout the United States. The Russell Stover chocolates store in Abilene is an outlet, so you’ll get discounts on their chocolate. The chocolates may be imperfect in appearance, but they’ll still taste fantastic. Other discounts come when the season has passed; you’ll find Christmas candy discounted in January. Of course, on a warm day, you’ll also enjoy the fact that they have ice cream and sundaes topped with their chocolate sauce.
Whether you’re a history buff, looking for some family fun, or love small-town America, Abilene is a great place to discover. American history begins in Abilene in the wild west and continues through the twentieth century. You’ll learn about the life and times of America’s 34th President, discover the history of the fastest dog, or kick back and relax in the comfort of a historic home while someone else cooks breakfast. No matter why you want to get away, you’ll enjoy Abilene.
Author’s Note: Abilene, Kansas hosted my stay. All opinions are my own.