Hays' storied history leads to relocation from South Dakota, time at museum



By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

The way Will Johnson figures it, what better place to be an Old West history buff than to live right here in Hays, Kansas.

Johnson, a volunteer at the Ellis County Historical Society Museum, 100 W. Seventh, moved to town four years ago from South Dakota. Famous former Hays residents lured him here.

"When we moved to Hays -- Hickok, Cody, Custer, 7th Cavalry, 10th Cavalry, 38th Infantry, Buffalo Soldiers, Indians -- it doesn't get any better than that," Johnson said. "Then I heard they were looking for volunteers (at the museum), and so I volunteered."

Johnson, 66, already was retired when he volunteered to minister at Church of Christ in town. For the last three years he has volunteered at the museum, mostly on Thursdays and on special occasions, such as the recent Wild West Festival.

At first, Johnson was assigned the task of updating court records.

"I think I spent as much time reading as I did putting them on the database," he said.

Johnson then started working on restoring firearms at the museum.

"It's a thrill for me, because I get to handle firearms most guys who like guns never actually get to handle," he said.

Johnson lists three firearms as his favorite: the Dreyse Needle Gun; the Triplett and Scott carbine; and the Spencer carbine.

Aside from being a gunsmith, Johnson also hand sews leather items, such as a gun belt he is making for another volunteer involved in re-enacting. Johnson also is involved in re-enacting, and is researching a former Hays sheriff to portray.

"I've always loved Western history," Johnson said. "Roy Rogers, Gene Autry (shown at) Saturday matinees, movies, always loved it."

Johnson said he started researching the real Old West as he got older, not the Hollywood version.

"I began to see the reality, the side you don't normally see," he said.

As much as he likes the Old West, the 21st century suits Johnson just fine.

"Sometimes people say maybe you should have been born a 100 years ago," Johnson said. "No, I like my hot and cold running water, and my shower.

"I can appreciate history without wanting to live there, because it was a hot, dirty time."