Disclosure: Kansas I-70 Association sponsored this post. However, all opinions and photographs are my own.
Abilene, Kansas offers visitors a multitude of places to explore that celebrate its history. Voted the Most Beautiful Small Town in Kansas by House Beautiful (2020), it deserves the recognition. From the American flags lining Buckeye Avenue to the museum honoring U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the restored downtown buildings, Abilene proudly represents small-town America. Take Exit 272 from KS I-70 to experience the award-winning town for an afternoon or overnight stay.
During a recent visit to town, we discovered that we weren’t the only ones who wanted to stay in Abilene for Labor Day weekend. It’s a popular Kansas destination! The town was bustling with visitors attending the Heart of America Greyhound Gathering (the town is the Greyhound Capital of the World) and Chisholm Trail Days.
We stayed at an Airbnb home (320 Northeast 5th St.) located close to the downtown area. The accommodations were quaint and the proximity to town was a plus.
I heard that Amanda’s Bakery & Bistro (302 N. Broadway St.) was where the locals dine for breakfast. The downtown hangout is located in an old drugstore building in the heart of historic Abilene. They serve baked goods and breakfast originals and prepare specialty coffee drinks. While the bakery is known for its scratch-made pastries, we chose to order two savory bagel sandwiches and lattes. I never turn down a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich. The meal was delightful.
Amanda’s is more than just another small town coffee shop. It’s also a retail store that sells antiques, gifts, greeting cards, and farmhouse decor. It was as if we were sitting inside someone’s beautiful home but everything was for sale. We watched as residents came into Amanda’s for their usual morning coffee. It’s the kind of place where they remember your order and greet you with a smile.
HISTORIC SEELYE MANSION
We visited Abilene a few years ago, but didn’t get the opportunity to tour the historic Seelye Mansion (1105 N. Buckeye Ave.). Voted one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Architecture, the impressive home was worth the visit. We met Terry, the home’s current owner, who gave us a personalized tour of the property. As others arrived to see the home, they joined our tour already in progress. Terry’s enthusiasm for the home’s history was contagious. It wasn’t long before we were captivated by the story of the Seelye family.
The Seelye Mansion, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is considered one of the finest homes in Kansas. Built in 1905, it has 11 bedrooms, a bowling alley, a grand piano, and many of its finishes are painted with gold. The cost at the time to build the 11,000 square foot home? $55,000.
Who was the Seeyle family and why did they build a mansion in Abilene? The father, Dr. A. B. Seelye was a wealthy entrepreneur who made his family’s fortune by pedaling patented medicines. If you look closely at some of the ingredients on the labels of the medicine bottles and boxes, you’ll find substances that would never be approved for use today. What do you notice on the label below?
The Seelye family bought the entire city block and had James C Holland, a New York architect design it. Have you heard of him? He also designed the Kansas Capitol building. Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to help with the interior design.
Helen and Marion, the Seelye daughters, lived in the home for the rest of their lives. The current owner, Terry, eventually convinced them to let him buy the property as long as he agreed to live in it with them. He moved in and became their “honorary grandson.” Today, he maintains the home and gives tours to 8,000-10,000 visitors per year.
During our tour, we were taken to each room to hear about the home’s architectural design and its contents. The youngest piece of furniture is 100 years old. We sat on chairs purchased at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Our tour group gazed upon first-edition library books, original Edison light fixtures, and gold-painted fresco ceilings. Terry even played the family’s Steinway piano as well as pipe organ for us. We were in awe.
In the dining room, I sat at the head of the table where the Seeyle’s once hosted presidents and state governors. We were surrounded by luxury. The Seeyle’s spared no expense to outfit their home with the best money could buy. You must see it for yourself. Wait until you see the Tiffany-designed fireplace in the grand hall! And don’t forget to check out the 1905 Box Ball bowling alley in the basement.
The grounds of the mansion are equally stunning. The gardens feature a goldfish pond, a pedestrian bridge, and water fountain. Open year-round to visitors, it’s transformed during the holidays. At Christmas time, the home is decorated with 80 trees and over 700 nutcrackers. That’s a party I want to attend!
I’d recommend carving out at least 2-3 hours for a guided tour of the property. To learn more about touring the Seeyle Mansion, visit their website.
THE LEBOLD-VAHSHOLTZ MANSION
Although not open for tours during our time in Abilene, the Lebold-Vahsholtz Mansion (106 N. Vine St.) is worth seeing up close for its impressive size and design. Some say it resembles the Addams Family house! The 23-room home was built in 1880 with Victorian finishes. According to its historical marker, C.H. Lebold was a local businessman who chose the site of the town’s first log cabin to build his mansion on. It cost $18,000 to build it. When he lost his money during the depressions, the house was turned over to creditors. It was purchased in 1974 by the Vahsholtz family and restored. Today, Joseph Tatner hopes to bring the mansion back to life and reopen it for tours.
EISENHOWER LIBRARY & MUSEUM
Another well-known attraction in Abilene is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum (200 SE 4th St.). Unfortunately, it was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions during our visit. However, I have toured it in the past and wrote a blog post about what you can expect when visiting it.
The 34th president of the United States and 5-Star General spent his childhood in Abilene. His boyhood home (pictured below) is one of three sites on 22 acres of land open to tours during regular hours. To learn more about visiting his home, library, museum, and memorial, visit this link.
ABILENE & SMOKY VALLEY RAILROAD
Across the parking lot of the Eisenhower complex, the Abilene & Smoky Valley Railroad (200 SE 5th St.) allows visitors to ride the rails pulled by a 100-year-old steam engine. All aboard! We took the two-hour round-trip ride inside an open air car from Abilene to Enterprise, Kansas.
The trek took us through the Smoky Hill River Valley with views of rural Kansas eventually stopping at the Hoffman Grist Mill where we learned first-hand how farmers mill flour and corn. Inspired by the historic lesson, we shopped inside the retail store and took home 2 pounds of freshly milled grits.
Our train ride, although bumpy and a bit noisy, was worthwhile because it gave us a chance to relive what it must have been like to ride the rails. Operated by volunteers, we listened to the sounds of the excursion train as it traveled about 1o-15 mph. The view of Kansas farm fields was breathtaking. To book a train ride online, choose from three options: Regular Excursion, Dinner Train Ride, or Steam Locomotive Train rides here.
Before or after the train ride, I’d recommend also touring the Fred Schmidt Railroad Museum inside the original depot. It teaches visitors about railroad life and the impact the transportation system had on the economy at the time. Kids will enjoy the model train exhibits and ringing the bell!
GREYHOUND HALL OF FAME MUSEUM
Touring the Greyhound Hall of Fame Museum (407 S. Buckeye Ave.) is a treat for dog-loving families. It’s an opportunity to learn about dog racing and how Abilene became the Greyhound Capital of the World. The museum tour begins with a 10-minute movie recounting the history of the sport.
Then, you’re free to explore the museum’s displays covering the highlights of the racing sport from ancient times to the present. Notable greyhounds made history for their agility and fast running times. Inductees of the Hall of Fame date back to 1963.
Don’t be surprised if you’re approached by a retired racer! During our visit, we met three rehabilitated greyhounds who happened to be visiting the museum with their owner. I had never met greyhounds in person and found them to be quite friendly. Once bred to be hunting dogs to chase hare, fox, and deer, they are graceful and make loving companions. One of the dogs (pictured below) nuzzled up to me to let me know that it was fond of me – such a sweetheart!
To learn more about visiting the museum dedicated to man’s best friends, visit their website to check museum hours and event information. Admission is free and donations are welcome.
OLD ABILENE TOWN
One of the reasons I appreciate visiting Abilene is because the residents work hard to preserve town’s heritage for future generations to enjoy. Old Abilene Town’s historical marker tells the story of Joseph McCoy, an Illinois stockman, who built cattle yards at Abilene. The town became the first of several cattle towns along the Chisholm Trail. Old Abilene Town is a replica of years gone by.
The grounds are open to the public to explore on any given day. However, I recommend checking their Facebook page to plan your visit around one of the many events they host from simulated gunfighter shootouts to concerts. Chisholm Trail Days includes pioneer impersonators, a draft horse pull, vendors, and artisans. Stop into the saloon for a cold drink and then sit on a bench and watch the town come alive! To learn more about Old Abilene Town and the Heritage Center, read a blog post I wrote about both locations here.
Ortus Café & Gallery (118 NW 2nd St.) in downtown Abilene sits in the historic Post Office Block built in the 1800s. Today, the cafe takes up a part of the building that was once a billiard hall. The renovated space is home to an eatery serving sweet and savory crepes. It’s an excellent choice for a mid-day meal.
We tried the Spinach Artichoke Dip crepe, which was made fresh in front of us. Have you seen crepes made? It’s fun to watch the crepe maker pull the liquid around the hot stone until it is finished. The texture of our crepes were pillowly soft and the inside was tasty with a hint of garlic flavor. I enjoyed the lunch with a glass of iced Blackberry Hibiscus House Tea.
I suggest stopping at Ortus Café & Gallery if you’re interested in dining on a light lunch between touring attractions. The building’s stained glass windows offset the café gallery walls making it a nice-looking space to enjoy your meal.
Unlike some small Kansas towns that only have one long downtown scene, Abilene’s shopping and dining area is a large district. I recommend parking the car in the center and walking the area to shop at stores like Rivendell Bookstore (212 N. Broadway). They sell a large selection of new and used books (ask about the orange stickers). If you walk to the back of the store, you’ll find a big selection of new puzzles for sale. Keep the shopping fun going by visiting another popular store in the downtown district, Jeffcoat Photography Studio Museum (321 Broadway). Operating since 1921, it features old cameras and framed prints.
While downtown, I encourage you to visit Little Ike Park (324 N. Spruce St.) to see a statue of young Dwight D. Eisenhower. A mural makes for a beautiful backdrop to the park and invites visitors to take photos there. Fun Fact: Eisenhower lived in the family home in Abilene with his five brothers from 1898-1911.
Candy lovers will want to jump back in the car and drive to the Russell Stover retail store (1993 Caramel Blvd). As soon as you step inside, the smell of chocolate hits you! Grab a cart and stock up on boxed chocolates, gourmet caramel apples, discounted holiday candy (in the back room!), and handmade fudge. I was told that the most popular flavor of fudge is chocolate peanut butter.
Although you can no longer tour the factory to watch chocolate made or packaged, the retail store offers plenty of sweet options for shopping in search of confections. Remember when you would open a box of Russell Stover’s chocolates and bite into each one to discover its flavor? Now, you can build your own box of favorite chocolates priced by the pound. Prefer ice cream over candy? Visit the counter to have the staff scoop up a waffle cone full of your favorite flavor. Don’t forget to also check out the wall of Jelly Belly dispensers filled with 48 flavors of candy!
Our final stop in Abilene was for dinner and drinks at The Hitching Post Restaurant & Saloon (100 SE 5th St.). We eagerly bellied up to the bar to enjoy the $2.50 beer can special before enjoying dinner. The down home restaurant seemed to be the place where locals dine on comfort classics like hand-cut choice beef steaks. Looking around the restaurant, I noticed that several diners were enjoying the Country Fried Steak dinner, so I ordered it as well. It came with two sides and a dinner salad. For the price, the portions were plentiful. Since it was Friday night, they were also serving a Prime Rib Special.
The restaurant filled up quickly with hungry customers and it wasn’t long before the hostess stand put some of them on a 10-15 minute wait. If visiting The Hitching Post during the weekend, I recommend visiting as soon as they open. View their hours and daily special via their Facebook page.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting Abilene for its welcoming atmosphere and long list of attractions. Whether you take a spontaneous day trip to town off of KS I-70 or plan for an overnight stay, Abilene’s historic sites, shopping, and dining scene make it a 5-star small town. I look forward to returning a third time to check out the Eisenhower Park and Rose and Garden Great Plains Theatre.
Are you considering making Abilene a stop on your KS I-70 road trip? I encourage you to visit their website or leave your questions below in the comment section for me. I’m happy to guide you to give you insider advice.