What Makes a Cowboy?
Driving west on Interstate 70, Brent Harris is the man seen on the billboards for Boot Hill Museum. This man looks confident and authoritative in his red vest, black cowboy hat and badge. But, who is this man? Who is behind the “Face of Dodge City, Kansas”?
Upon walking into the shop at Boot Hill Museum, tools, paint cans and other objects line the shelves, saw dust covers the floor, and table saws are plugged in, ready for use. In one corner, there is a pile of wood, and in the other is a make-shift home he built for his kittens last summer. In the middle of the floor, there is a cupboard being build, picture frames being mended and Boots, the cat, walking around. This is where Harris finds his sanctuary. This is where Harris feels most at home at Boot Hill.
Harris has a history of construction and jobs working with his hands. The shop allows him to do what he enjoys. However, the reason for coming to Boot Hill Museum just sort of happened for him. The reason for staying is because of what he calls “Boot Hill Flu”. Once you’ve caught “Boot Hill Flu,” he said, you just can’t seem to get away or stay away from Boot Hill Museum. It becomes a part of you.
“You follow your passion, not intellect,” Harris said.
Harris was between jobs when he started at Boot Hill Museum the first time. He started off to run the stage coach, but with his background working at a major construction company, he began working small repairs around the place. But after some time he needed to do something else, at least for a little while.
Harris was offered a chance to be a real cowboy. He went off to live in the open prairie for a year, raising a herd of cattle and horses. He was there to see new horses born and he had the chance to train them. During this time, he also met some interesting characters and recounting them brought back the enjoyment of the time.
Harris began laughing even before he started the story of the time two gentlemen showed up and asking to ride horses. They were from the United Kingdom and were on a journey to find someone who would let them ride horses.
So upon meeting Harris, they found their opportunity. Harris told them he would take them horseback riding. They didn’t know what they were getting into. Harris got the horses and they were off. These men thought that being a “real cowboy” was just riding around. But, Harris showed them exactly what it meant to be a true cowboy. He showed them all the hard work and all the responsibilities that went into being a true cowboy. He showed them all the cattle, all the horses, everything. By the end of the trip, these gentlemen had changed their mind.
“I don’t think I want to be a cowboy,” said one of the men.
After his time on the open range, Harris came back to Dodge City and he was again between jobs. This time Boot Hill Museum called asking for help with the Boot Hill building. Harris thought he could help with this one project and then find something to do with his life. He didn’t know then that his life would be to help Boot Hill Museum for the next 16-plus years.
Jim Sherer, city commissioner, has known Harris for more than 35 years and understands why he has continued with this commitment.
“Brent has put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into Boot Hill Museum through the years and he has a tremendous passion for what he does", Sherer said. "He also loves and cares deeply about Dodge City.”
Harris has become an asset to Boot Hill Museum and also to Dodge City as a whole. He put a new face to the town. Though he enjoys his life in the shop, Harris stepped out into the spotlight when he allowed his cowboy persona to become the “Face of Dodge City”. Harris isn’t too enthusiastic about it, but it’s a little late to make a change. He thought it was just going to be one picture. However, the CVB took it and made it into an icon.
Jeff Thorpe, president of Boot Hill Gaming, Inc, has known Harris for about 19 years. He sees why Harris makes the Wild West come alive.
“Brent’s persona carries through to his costuming and great mustache. He simply looks the part. As a result, there have been some excellent photographs taken of Brent that became the ‘poster’ face of Dodge City. Today, Brent’s a recognized person on billboards, brochures, and advertising including the tail-fin of one of the Great Lake’s airplanes. He is a living logo of what Dodge City was in the past, and is today.”
Harris said he was told by someone at the Chamber of Commerce that his picture “makes Dodge look more credible”.
This was supposed to make Harris feel better about seeing himself everywhere. Though when he talks about it, this doesn’t seem to serve that purpose.
Through all of his time as being the iconic face representing Dodge City, Harris has met many interesting people and has been given the honor of making some of them Honorary Deputies.
One of the people he remembers is a World War II vet who was a Navajo wind talker. He explained that a wind talker was used to send messages back and forth. There would be a Navajo Indian on one radio talking to another on a different radio. The Japanese couldn’t understand the language so messages could be sent more securely.
Another person Harris has met was Bill Curtis. Curtis came for a book launch and Harris was able to talk to him and make him an Honorary Marshal. From Harris’ point of view, Curtis is a “cowboy to the bone.”
Harris has also met Howard Kazanjian, the executive producer of movies like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
All of these people seem to make working at Boot Hill Museum a little more enjoyable.
Harris enjoys visiting with the people who visit Boot Hill Museum. Even though he loves giving them the history of the Old West, Harris wouldn’t like to go back in time to live there.
He said he likes having an air conditioner, good food and not having to worry about being shot. 1872, when Dodge City was founded, was a desperate time where there was no law in the west. People came to Dodge City mostly because they were in trouble in the east.
However if Harris could talk to one person from that time, he made it clear that it would be Chalkley Beeson. Beeson was a lawman, an entrepreneurial. He left most of the things found at Boot Hill. He was a state legislature and a vocalist. He ran the Long Branch. Possibly this would have helped Harris develop the character of Beeson for the variety show, if he was still planning on continuing this role.
Though after his severe burn accident last summer due to a grease fire, Harris still has to take it easy. On the Facebook page created by his daughter it said, “Brent Harris was badly burnt by hot oil at the Boot Hill Bull Fry and Bash on July 30, 2010. The flash fire caused second and third degree burns on his face, arms, and chest. He was flown by air ambulance to Via Christi Burn ICU in Wichita.” With this Facebook page, the Harris family was able to keep the community of Dodge City informed on how Harris was doing. Though it has been a long journey and will continue to be for some time, Harris has kept his sense of humor and everything he believes in.
For Brent Harris being a “real cowboy means honest ways and good, clean living.” He lives just like a real cowboy should. For those who know Brent best would agree with what one of his friends and coworkers, Josh Roesener has to say. “Once someone asked me to define a cowboy. I decided that it isn’t just a profession, but a way of life. It has a lot to do with the way a man, or even a woman, looks at the world. From the smallest of critters to the weird neighbors that drive you crazy. Someone that can appreciate the beauty and good in everything and everyone. A loyal friend not only to those he knows but also those he doesn’t. Always willing to lend a hand no matter what is going on in his own life. I guess the easiest way to define cowboy is Brent Harris. A friend not only to those he knows, but also those he doesn't. Always willing to lend a hand no matter what is going on in his own life. I guess the easiest way to define cowboy is Brent Harris. I miss you so much buddy. I can't wait to hang out in the man cave and play with the cats, chase the high school maintenance kids around, laugh about EVERYTHING, and yes even change those stupid light bulbs in all of those display cases. I love you big brother."