Plan to modernize Cowtown boardwalk draws frowns

A family walks along Cowtown’s wooden boardwalk in 2005. The city plans to replace the wood with a composite material.
A family walks along Cowtown’s wooden boardwalk in 2005. The city plans to replace the wood with a composite material. File photo

For those cowboys and cowgirls who like to mosey down the boardwalk at Old Cowtown Museum, the sound of boots and spurs hitting the wooden boards underfoot is about to change.

The wood is changing to a composite material and concrete paths will be created that will be the color of the dirt and sand at Cowtown — and that is enough for some folks to demand vigilante justice, especially those who dress in period clothing and portray characters from Wichita’s past.

The $804,000 composite wood and concrete project was approved by the Wichita City Council on March 28; it was approved 6-5 this week by Cowtown’s board of directors.

A meeting with the volunteers and re-enactors at Cowtown has yet to be scheduled.

Construction by the contractor, Multicon, has already begun. The company also will do work on streetlights and drainage issues.

“The wooden boardwalks at Cowtown offer authenticity matched nowhere else in the United States, maybe the world,” said Leo Kiesling, a volunteer and gunfighter at Old Cowtown Museum. “Movie directors come here for that sound. They have microphones and have us walk up and down the boardwalks as sound samples for movies.

“Why spend four times the material amount for this and do it in the middle of the season?”

Well, there is a reason, said John D’Angelo, director of Wichita’s Arts and Culture Department, which oversees Cowtown. He said the city wants to make Cowtown compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act by using sand-colored concrete on pathways and composite wood on the boardwalk.

“It has a lot to do with accessibility and making sure people are able to enjoy the museum — that’s the real purpose,” he said.

“The other purpose is to fix the drainage problems.”

Cowtown, 1865 Museum Blvd., is a living history museum that portrays frontier life in Kansas over a two-decade era from the 1860s to the 1880s. And sometimes that experience can be a bit too intense for 21st-century visitors.

When it rains, the streets get muddy and puddles are slow to drain. Families pushing strollers or wheelchairs can sometimes get bogged down, D’Angelo said.

“Sometimes it is difficult for people to come out and simply cross the street. There are too many puddles,” D’Angelo said. “It’s authentic but not pleasant.”

And yes, D’Angelo said, wooden boards are cheaper than composite wood. But the issue is maintenance.

Each week, workers replace wooden boards that have rotted and hammer down nails that have popped up.

“We want to respect the fact that we are a historical site,” D’Angelo said. “The problem is the boardwalks aren’t really all that historical.

“Our thing is accessibility and maintenance. How can we make improvements so that people can really enjoy their experience at Cowtown?”

Historically, boardwalks were often temporary solutions before frontier businesses made more permanent entryways. In Ellsworth, for instance, the Grand Central Hotel had a combination limestone and slate walkway, said Jim Gray, cowboy historian and director of the National Drovers Hall of Fame in Ellsworth.

Frontier store owners often used bricks, as well.

“Business owners wanted to show they were progressive and tended to kind of project themselves on the leading edge of things,” Gray said.

But a composite boardwalk?

“How do they think that represents history?” Gray said. “I hope they do this in keeping with what Cowtown represents.”

D’Angelo said the composite material will have a wood-like appearance. Its use will not affect the museum’s accreditation or its status with historic preservation, he said.

“We are trying to use materials that will reduce our maintenance,” he said. “And, make sure more people are able to enjoy the museum.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner