Sheriff Whitney played by Greg Piper lies on the ground during a re-enactment of the “Shooting of Sheriff Whitney” on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010 at Cowtown Days in Ellsworth. (photo by Jeff Cooper/ Salina Journal) | Buy Journal Photos


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Josh Choitz (center) laughs with other cast members after “the Shooting of Sheriff Whitney” on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010 at Cowtown Days in Ellsworth. Choitz paleyed the part of “Billy Thompson” who was arrested for the shooting and eventual death of Sheriff Whiney in 1873. (photo by Jeff Cooper/ Salina Journal)

Ellsworth’s Cowtown Days shows off history, downtown renovations

By DAVID CLOUSTON | Salina Journal

ELLSWORTH — Most performers dread dying on stage, but in his role as Sheriff Chauncey Whitney, Greg Piper knows that hamming up his demise is part of the act.

Piper, as Whitney, staggered from a pretend shoulder wound and fell to the ground, to the dismay of the crowd watching Saturday at Ellsworth’s Cowtown Days festival.

“He’s nice enough to shoot and kill me every year … sometimes several times,” a grinning Piper said beforehand about Josh Choitz, who plays the rogue Billy Thompson. Billy is described in the re-enactment as “always a slave to the bottle, not to mention the women.”

Billy’s older brother, Ben, with whom he was paired that infamous day, Aug. 15, 1873, had just as notorious a reputation: “a slick shooter and a gambler by trade.”

The retelling of the tale of the shooting of Sheriff Whitney is the signature event of Cowtown Days. The festival celebrates Ellsworth’s heyday as a main rail terminal of the Texas cattle drives from 1871 to ’75. As such, it was one of the wildest of the cowtowns, said Jim Gray, who has spent years researching and writing about the town’s turbulent history.

Deep in dust

The streets of Ellsworth in that era were as much as eight to 10 inches deep in dust from Texas cattle trailing past, Gray said.

“There was kind of a circuslike atmosphere in town because of the mix of Texans and gamblers, prostitutes and businessmen,” he said. “The whole thing was just an exciting time.”

It was a hot August Sunday that gunplay erupted in Ellsworth, leading to Whitney’s death. City Marshal “Happy Jack” Morco sided with a gambler against Texan Ben Thompson in a dispute over the winnings of a poker game.

When Morco came charging down the street, guns drawn, Billy Thompson stumbled. He discharged his shotgun, missing Morco but mortally wounding the sheriff. Whitney died three days later from blood poisoning caused by the buckshot.

Recent facelift

Onlookers lining both sides of Douglas Avenue on Saturday morning to watch the Cowtown Days parade through downtown before the shooting re-enactment enjoyed the look of a recent downtown facelift.

Ellsworth received a nearly $1 million facelift of its downtown business district, courtesy of the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Transportation Enhancement program. The projects selected under the program are paid for by federal stimulus funds. In Ellsworth, the money paid for repairing sidewalks, new street light poles, and new planters, trees and shrubs, plus an irrigation system.

Dead ringer

New colorful banners along the streets also herald Ellsworth’s connection to its cowtown past. On Saturday, many onlookers, including Gray, gathered on the street dressed in authentic period western outfits. They included Jack Ooley, of Lyons, who bore an uncanny resemblance to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

Ooley, 75, said he started dressing like Cody for special events in 2004 after Gray convinced him that by growing his silver hair longer in the back and adding a mustache and goatee he would personify the legendary western scout and showman.

“I won the Buffalo Bill look-alike contest in Denver, Colo., at the Buckhorn Saloon,” he said. “I think that’s the last time they had it. There were eight of us there.”

Darshay Frederking, of Sylvan Grove, was watching the parade while holding her 17-month-old daughter, Kenzley. Frederking came to Ellsworth for the festival with her sister and mother-in-law.

The fire trucks, other colorful parade vehicles and horses didn’t scare Kenzley as much as grab her attention.

“She even went out and got a piece of candy,” her mother said.

Getting kids involved

Other events going on downtown Saturday included a quick-draw booth, tug-of-war contest, a quilt display, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament, demonstrations by local artists, games and musical entertainment.

The desire to get his own children involved — he and his wife have eight — convinced Piper to become involved with the yearly celebration after moving to Ellsworth from Minnesota five years ago. Piper is corrections counselor for the Ellsworth Correctional Facility.

“We have such a good time,” Piper said. Three of their sons played roles in Saturday’s re-enactment. “It’s nice to do something where I can be involved with my kids. That’s really what I love about it.”

n Reporter David Clouston can be reached at 822-1403 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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