Before Oklahoma's statehood, Beer City existed as rabble-rousing sort of place

One afternoon in Beer City, Pussy Cat Nell pulled the trigger of her loaded double-barrel shotgun at Marshal Lewis "Brushy" Bush. After the man collapsed to the ground, others heard the calamity and shot at old Bush, too, or so the legend goes.


Beer City was a town three miles south of Liberal, Kan., that existed from about 1888 to 1890, said Pauline Hodges, retired rural education professor at Oklahoma Panhandle State University.

The town was in an area called the Public Land Strip, which was unattached to any state or territory from 1850 to 1890. The small stretch of land, called No Man's Land by many, had no laws and no one in charge, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society's Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.

"Beer City was kind of a party town. There were a couple of saloons, and there was a house of prostitution. They didn't really advertise that it was lawless, but advertised that it was a booming city," said Debbie Colson, manager of the No Man's Land Museum in the Panhandle town of Goodwell.

Colson said cattlemen would come from Texas to wait for trains heading to packinghouses in the East. The cowboys weren't allowed to drive their cattle through Kansas because it was thought they would infect that state's cattle with disease. While cowboys waited for the next train, they stopped in Beer City for a good, lawless time.

"It was a constant rotation (of cowboys). You might be there for two or three months. While waiting on their cattle to load trains, the cowboys would go over to Beer City," Colson said.

Jim Etter, author of "What a Dirty Shame: 100 Unforgettable Place Names of Oklahoma," said Beer City also attracted many Kansans because of the close proximity and the allure of alcohol, which was prohibited in that state at the time.

"Kansas had been more conservative than Oklahoma about drinking laws. People from Kansas would come across the line and have a wild and willy time," Etter said.

Beer City was originally called White City because, instead of buildings, there were white tents that housed brothels, gambling houses and saloons, he said. The name eventually changed to Beer City due to the stories of rampage and ruckus cowboys told the rest of the Midwest.

"The name fully implies the character of the place," according to a Hugoton (Kan.) Hermes newspaper report dated June 21, 1889. "There were eight to 10 saloons, a number of gambling houses and several bawdy houses to represent the business industries of Strip city."

Harry E. Chrisman's "Lost Trails of the Cimarron" is one of a few books mentioning Beer City, devoting a few pages to the small town. The author describes it as rowdy and unruly, with pimps, thieves and other lowly types as its citizens.

"Many of the Beer City businesses were conducted in tents. There were no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no water or sewage system. There were no civic improvements of any kind. Beer City was just a sudsy, boozy spot on the plains " just pure froth," Chrisman wrote in the book.

Because there were no permanent buildings, there isn't any evidence that Beer City existed, except for one photograph, a small number of newspaper clippings and tall tales from old cowboys.

Of the tall tales in Beer City is one about a madam named Pussy Cat Nell, who allegedly shot Marshal Bush, also known as Amos. The leading madam in Beer City, she ran the Yellowsnake Hotel and Saloon, Hodges said. Girls from Kansas towns like Liberal and Dodge City rode the train down to Beer City for the weekends to make some money off of lonely cowboys, and Pussy Cat Nell took a cut of the profits.

The man named "Brushy" Bush proclaimed himself marshal of Beer City with a six-shooter and a sawed-off shotgun, according to Chrisman. He ate, drank and slept anywhere he pleased, and the town was eager to see his demise.

When Bush wanted a salary, he walked up to each business in the town and expected it to contribute, Hodges said. Bush supposedly stuck out his hand for the last time in July of 1888, when he tried to overcharge taxes to Pussy Cat Nell at her brothel. When she refused to pay, he beat her up. Later, in a fit of rage, she decided to shoot Bush from a window. After others saw Bush fall to the ground, they decided to shoot him several more times, making it impossible for anyone to place blame on their favorite madam.

But according to a Hugoton Hermes story in 1889, John Brennen was arrested for the murder of Bush a year after the man's death.

After losing a mayoral election, Bush rounded up the town "Western style" to make a "bone pile" out of the city, according to the article. The town held a meeting and ordered him to keep quiet or vacate, but he refused to do either.

"Shortly afterwards a dozen shots were fired and Bush fell to the ground riddled with shot and bullets. The inquest showed that eight bullets and 23 shot had taken effect," the article stated.

It seemed that the place everyone had come to know and love as lawless was turning into an established town with rules.

"That was the attraction. You could come and do anything you wanted, including kill someone and not get in trouble," Colson said.

Bush was buried in a cemetery in Ashland, Kan., Hodges said. On a Web site for Highland Cemetery in Ashland, an Amos Bush is listed as buried next to his wife, Dora. On the picture of the headstone, there are no dates listed, providing no solid conclusion that he is buried there.

After 1890, the alcohol, girls and debauchery ended as No Man's Land came under Oklahoma Territory Law, and Beer City was abandoned, leaving nothing but Midwest prairie.

The Organic Act was passed in 1890 and enlarged Oklahoma Territory to include the Public Land Strip, according to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. The law took effect May 2, 1890, and with that came all the laws of the territory. Beer City could no longer operate as it was used to, and people slowly moved elsewhere, leaving no evidence of the town.

"They had no law at all when it was No Man's Land. The law frowned on places like saloons with wild women. Patrons or outlaws were undesirable types of people. It just became a little bit too civilized," Etter said.

Hodges said it's important for people to learn about not only the history of Beer City, located in what would become Beaver County, but also the entire Panhandle.

"In the Oklahoma history books, there's nothing about the Panhandle. As we got historical societies, we began collecting stories. We need to know the history of the area and how it came to be settled," she said.

Etter said although not many people know about the history of Beer City, he knows it existed.

"There is no proof except that I've seen a picture of Beer City," he said. "It's the nearest thing to proof. Pictures don't lie." "Jamie Birdwell

  • or