One afternoon was well spent in the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, which used to be the Wichita City Hall. (And reflecting this, not only has “Mayor’s Office” been stenciled in gold on one of the windows, but inside, the original office has been reproduced as it was in the late 1800s.) The imposing building, opened in 1892, makes it clear that the city’s founders had a great sense of Wichita’s potential importance—which was not unreasonable, given that Wichita in 1890 was the fastest-growing city in the U.S., and it is today the largest city in Kansas.
This museum is the perfect place to get a sense of the trajectory of Wichita’s history. There were many new things to learn, but even when the displays were of people, places, or events I’d seen or read about previously, I found it tremendously worthwhile, as it pulls everything together, as well as expanding on the already familiar.
The city’s founding followed the Civil War, so the displays, like the town, start in 1865. Photos of the earliest years included buildings I’d seen at Old Cowtown Museum, reaffirming their authenticity. (Photography had become fairly widespread during the Civil War, so Wichita’s history was well documented from the start.) Presentations flowed from explorers and early founders well into the 20th century. I learned that William Mathewson had earned the name “Buffalo Bill” well before William Cody gained that title. Mathewson was an explorer, hunter, and Indian scout who, later in life, once he’d settled in Wichita, was able to host Cody’s Wild West Show on his land.
Wyatt Earp (who preferred words to guns), grasshopper plagues (“darkened the sky like a storm”), and Billy the Kid transitioned into the Victorian era (and there is an entire, splendidly furnished Victorian cottage reproduced on one floor) and then moved into aviation, the Jones car company, the soda fountain, and, in 1932 in Wichita, the first public performance on an electric guitar (Gage Brewer playing the first Rickenbacker).
There are a handful of videos among the displays, reflecting the changes and accomplishments in Wichita and the county. Happily, thanks to the museum’s having a YouTube channel, the trailer for an early movie about Wichita is available online, and not just in the museum. Wichita was a happening place in the 1940s.
I had many pages of notes by the time I left. So much history—but history familiar because of books and TV, and even my grandparents’ and parents’ lives and stories—so a history to which I felt really connected. One more place that one should definitely see in Wichita.