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Running like the wind: Greyhounds in Kansas

Lu Anne Stephens

A Kansas museum has gone to the dogs … and their OK with that.

ABILENE — Kansas has a rich history and affinity for the skinny, gangly dogs known as greyhounds.

Which is why there's a museum devoted to them: the Greyhound Hall of Fame in Abilene, which bills itself as the "Greyhound Capital of the World."

The museum details the long history of greyhounds in Kansas, and its hall of fame remembers the all-time greatest racing dogs.

The earliest recorded greyhounds in Kansas were associated with George Armstrong Custer, who brought them to our state on his Indian Wars campaign. He used them to hunt coyotes, jackrabbits, antelope and even bison and wolves on the prairie.

Kansas, with its open horizon and prairie, offered the dogs ample opportunities to stretch their legs. Some can run as fast as 45 mph, second only to cheetahs.

Lu Anne Stephens

Custer's dogs numbered as many as a dozen or more and included two types: the greyhound many of us are familiar with and the staghound, which is a greyhound with a rough coat.

In the book, "Tenting on the Plains," Libbie Custer offers a story about "Byron," a greyhound who was jealous of her and who disliked sharing her with the general:

"We had a superb greyhound called Byron, that was devoted to the General, and after a successful chase it was rewarded with many a demonstration of affection. He was the most lordly dog, I think, I ever saw, powerful, with deep chest, and carrying his head in a royal way. When he started for a run, with his nostrils distended and his delicate ears laid back on his noble head, each bound sent him flying through the air. He hardly touched the elastic cushions of his feet to earth, before he again was spread out like a dark, straight thread. This gathering and leaping must be seen, to realize how marvelous is the rapidity and how the motion seems flying, almost, as the ground is scorned except at a sort of spring bound. He trotted back to the General, if he happened to be in advance, with the rabbit in his mouth, and, holding back his proud head, delivered the game only to his chief."

In 1886, a decade after Custer was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, greyhounds had become a familiar breed in Kansas and elsewhere. The first greyhound coursing races in the nation were held near Great Bend – at Cheyenne Bottoms – where the dogs chased after a live rabbit.

By the 1920s, the popularity of the greyhounds had become such that racing events were held around the nation. By then, artificial lures were used.

The dogs were especially popular in Kansas after farmers discovered how the greyhounds could keep coyotes and jackrabbits at bay, according to Kathy Lounsbury, office and museum director of the Greyhound Hall of Fame in Abilene.

The museum, located across the street, from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, has been a tourism draw since it opened in March 1973.

"They were the hounds of royalty, and you could be put to death if you were caught with a greyhounds that didn't belong to you," Lounsbury said.

Visitors to the Greyhound Hall of Fame can meet Ginger and Max -- official greyhound ambassadors and greeters. Both are retired from their days of racing and live full-time at the museum where Max happily accepts treats.

"Well, these two are local," Lounsbury explained. "They're from Julie Ward's farm … Julie is second generation. … She took over her dad's farm.

"She is one of the second-, third-generation greyhound farms in the area. At one time, there were … 28 to 30 greyhound operations in Dickinson County."

The heyday of greyhound racing may be waning, she said. There are only two greyhound racing tracks left in the United States.

"There's no place for them to race," she said. "There's no job for them.

"I know there's a lot of adoption groups now that are really struggling to get greyhounds because there aren't that many around to adopt anymore.

"They are not bred to be pets – they make wonderful pets – but that's not the purpose of a greyhound, as far as I know."

Lu Anne Stephens
Kathy Lounsbury, office and museum director of the Greyhound Hall of Fame in Abilene, KS.

Tour the museum and it's the sights and sounds of displays and videos that are the most telling.

"The museum is like a storybook," Lounsbury said. "If you look … in the history section, you'll see a lot of the history of greyhounds in this area. You'll see pictures of the first coursing events in Cheyenne Bottoms. You'll see pictures of what looks like tent city that was in Junction City where they had coursing events."

There is a replica of oldest greyhound track in America from Florida. Information about wagering and racing and then, the Hall of Fame of Greyhounds. The names of champion dogs with incredible records.

"This is a particularly interesting spot for the kids … well, for everybody really," Lounsbury explained. "This is the story of life on the farm, in pictures. ... This starts out with the greyhound being born and … then, it goes on to the race career."

And for a few minutes, the museum is filled with the sounds of a racing world, of dogs running and people cheering.

And then, as visitors begin to leave, there is the unmistakable sound of a happy, retired dog receiving a treat.

A quick gulp and it's gone. The rich reward of a history-making dog's life.

If you go: The Greyhound Hall of Fame is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The museum's address is 407 S. Buckeye Ave., Abilene.