Wichita Oyster Dinners

If you’ve read my book Midwest Maize, you’ll know that there was a massive oyster craze in the Midwest during the mid-1800s. (And if you haven’t read it, know that there really is a connection between oysters and corn at this time.)

Anyway, once canning existed and began to become more widely available (even though cans were being cut and assembled by hand), thanks to the country’s extensive train networks, luxuries from the East Coast began to flood into the Heartland. People who had nothing else in common shared the passion for oysters, and oyster bars popped up in both large and small towns. Here is the evidence of this craze from Old Cowtown Museum.

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Wichita: From Wild West to Wild Blue Yonder

Early in Wichita’s history, herds of cattle moving up the Chisholm Trail to the railhead earned the town the nickname of “Cowtown.” So the outdoor, living-history museum that brings that era to life is, quite naturally, called Old Cowtown Museum. It is with a happy jolt of recognition that one first sees the “town.” It is the quintessential street scene of countless Westerns, from movies to TV. It is perfect. And it is real. That is, this is what towns really looked like. In fact, though a few buildings are reproductions, the majority here are actual historic buildings from Wichita’s earlier days. Let me give you a glimpse of what greeted me there:

Each building is filled with wonderful artifacts related to the original purpose of the building, including a music store, funeral parlor, clothier, art gallery, meat market, the inevitable (because vital) blacksmith shop, and more. Costumed interpreters share tales and, in many cases, carry out the tasks of the town, from running the printing press to keeping the jail to making iron implements—and even serving sarsaparilla in the Saloon. An early trading post and the homes of some of the early residents of Wichita are also perfectly preserved.

Wichita was “Cowtown” for a relatively short time—1872–1876—just as the era of the cowboy was relatively short, vividly memorable because of books and movies rather than because of a long history. In fact, by 1876 (the last year Wyatt Earp was the local lawman in Wichita), the cowboy era was pretty much over here. The area became more agrarian—a transition represented here by distance, with a lovely old farmstead about a block after the end of “town.” Fabulously worthwhile place to explore the reality behind the iconic images of the American West. And so much to learn. (Did you know there was more than one Buffalo Bill?)

Not far from the Old Cowtown Museum is the Mid-America All-Indian Center. The “Keeper” statue in the previous post is on the center’s property. The main building is actually only partly a museum, with a considerable percentage of its space set aside as a Kiva, a space where the local Native American population can hold powwows or other cultural celebrations. While the museum section of the center contains some historic items, the stated purpose of the center is to remind visitors that Native Americans are still around. There are photos and biographies of Native Americans in a wide range of fields, from politics to painting. I assumed they would include the splendid prima ballerina, Maria Tallchief, and I found her fairly quickly. However, one new artist I “met” was Wichita resident Blackbear Bosin. There was considerable space dedicated to Blackbear, or Tsate Kongia, who lived from 1921–1980, with displays of artwork (wonderfully evocative paintings that reflect Indian culture—really liked his work), a short movie, photos, and additional information about his life. My favorite quote, from a friend of the artist, was, “Blackbear loved Wichita. Wichita loves Indians. Wichita loved Blackbear Bosin.” It was Bosin who designed the “Keeper of the Plains” statue.

One of the docents at the Indian Center related that during World War II, when Boeing opened their plant here, Native Americans skilled in metal work flooded into the area. As a result, there are now between 60 and 70 different tribes represented in Wichita. As for Indians being good at metal work, the only reason that didn’t surprise me is that I’d previously read about how the Mohawks in New York, being particularly good at working “high steel,” had made major contributions to building New York City’s bridges and skyscrapers. But the Boeing connection leads into the next thing I learned about Wichita.

I won’t go into a lot of details—need to leave something for you to discover when you visit—but suffice it to say, once you start seeing the names of some of the people who lived here in the early days of aviation, it probably won’t surprise you that there is an Aviation Museum in town. The area was ideal for flight, with open land and clear skies. In 1917, Clyde Cessna, a local farmer who taught himself to fly, made the first plane built entirely in Wichita—and then went on to build the airplane brand that bears his name. Soon, Wichita was also home to Lloyd Stearman, E.M. Laird, and Walter Beech. Fellow Kansan Amelia Earhart visited regularly, as did Missourian Charles Lindberg. Even today, aviation dominates the economy of Wichita, with roughly two-thirds of planes in the U.S. being built there.

A couple more museums lie ahead, but next up will be a fun food aside I couldn’t help but notice in Cowtown.

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You Need to See Wichita

The name alone should make you want to go. Wichita. How many stories of cattlemen and trail rides and early railroads haunted our childhoods, all anchored in Wichita? The history is still accessible, but there is so much more than that.

If you’re arriving from the north, as I was, you’ll notice that the vegetation has changed. It’s more southern. However, the clear air and bright, open spaces, as well as a fair bit of the architecture, are reminiscent of the southwest. In other words, for me, it felt like a holiday even before I started exploring.

The old Chisholm Trail, now renamed Douglas Street, connects the charming, mostly brick Historic Old Town with the one-time rowdy Historic Delano District (pronounced De-LAY-no). Delano, originally a separate town, is the part of Wichita where the Chisholm Trail entered town and cowboys stopped to party—and for many years, older Wichita tried to keep its distance from the more rough-and-tumble Delano. But today, both Old Town and Delano are attractive and loaded with historic buildings, new coffee shops, and good restaurants. I drove the length of Douglas a couple of times, to get a sense of how the two districts were alike and different, and to see what each offered.

Because Wichita gave the world both Pizza Hut and White Castle, you might think the food scene would be disappointing. It wasn’t. Farm-to-table is alive and well, and there is considerable ethnic diversity. A short stay meant I couldn’t try much, but I had a couple of very good meals and saw a lot of places I’d try if (when) I return. Public at the Brickyard is a brick-walled basement establishment in the Historic Old Town end of town. With farms and purveyors named with each ingredient (Creekstone Farms 1/2 pound steak burger, Alma Creamery aged cheddar, Serenity Farm green tomato relish, caramelized onions, crispy lettuce, Bagatelle Bakery sesame-seed bun), it was not a surprise that the burger was far from ordinary. Another night, I opted for a nice bowl of pho at My Tho, a small Vietnamese spot (cash only). Of course, proximity to both the Southwest and Kansas City meant there were lots of well-established Mexican restaurants and BBQ joints, as well. So plenty of options.

But while good food was a nice bonus, I was in town for history. Speaking of the Chisholm Trail, one of the many remarkable things I learned was that Jesse Chisholm, the half Scottish-half Cherokee man who blazed the trail, was illiterate but spoke 14 Indian languages. As a result, he was often called the prairie ambassador, as he could talk to almost any group. A trader, guide, and interpreter, he was valuable to both locals and the government. Though the Chisholm Trail became famous for the cattle drives that moved along it, Chisholm actually created the trail to trade goods with the Plains Indians across Kansas and Texas and into Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

But that’s just a drop of what I learned in town. There are a lot of museums in Wichita, ranging from modest to impressive—and among the ones I saw, there were some surprises. For example, how did a city once nicknamed Cowtown end up as the Aviation Capital of the World? In upcoming posts, I’ll share more about Wichita, but I’ll also include some of the things I learned and experienced. It was a short stay, but it was remarkably full.

Here is a photo I took that I hoped would capture a bit of the dichotomy of Wichita. It is not just Old Town vs. Delano. It is also a bright, modern city still vividly aware of and involved in its history. The statue, which stands at the junction of the Little Arkansas and Arkansas Rivers, is called Keeper of the Plains.

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Kansas: We’re not in Illinois, Toto

Everyone knows that the Midwest is flat, but leaving Illinois and heading west, across the Mississippi River and then the Missouri River, one learns that “flat” is a relative term. Granted, there were no towering mountains, but the terrain I was crossing was a lot more varied than that of Illinois.

In fact, after Florida, which is largely close to sea level, Illinois is the nation’s second flattest state, so Missouri and then Kansas are far more topographically interesting. They are also a lot more open. Missouri has about half the population of Illinois, and Kansas has about half the population of Missouri.

Knowing this, I had actually expected wide open spaces in Kansas. What I hadn’t expected was to find it so enchanting. As I drove into the Flint Hills region, en route from Topeka to Wichita, the phenomenal greenness of the area led me to imagine that, if the farm hands were the inspiration for Dorothy’s Oz companions, the Flint Hills were the inspiration for the Emerald City.

A friend would later tell me that the Flint Hills are not always as astonishingly verdant as I was seeing them, but what I witnessed was glorious, and it is the image I currently carry with me of the heart of Kansas. Plus, the Flint Hills are home to the world’s largest continuous tallgrass prairie, so even if not always so green, they will always be remarkable.

This is not my photo, as I was on a highway. It is from a Visions of the Flint Hills exhibition, and it reflects what I saw—though I tend to think what I saw was even more beautiful, and it was certainly far more extensive.

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Tales of Wichita will wait for future posts, but one more thing is worth mentioning about this handsome region. Returning north, I headed through the Flint Hills region to historic Council Grove. During this drive, along more rural (but still excellent) roads, I encountered a touch of whimsy that delighted me. Just off the road, on hills and rises around Council Grove, there are metal statues recreating once-familiar scenes. It is hard to judge from a car, but the statues appeared to be life size—though I imagine that to create that impression they would need to be larger than life. The two I saw were a cowboy on horseback roping a calf and a Native American gazing out over the hills. I have, since returning home, searched and found photos of other of these Flint Hill statues, but the surprise of seeing the two I encountered was sufficient to make them vividly memorable.

But these were not the only things to love about Kansas. More to follow.

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Bored Soldiers and Empty Shells

One advantage of having speaking engagements all over Illinois is that I often get to explore the lovingly created local history museums that commemorate the lives and people of a town or county. A couple of months ago, I was booked by the Putnam County Historical Society for a gathering to be held at the county’s museum in Hennepin, Illinois. Most of these museums include, among other things, displays about the local population’s involvement in the various wars in which the U.S. has fought. I’ve seen a fair number of uniforms, souvenirs, and memorials, but in Hennepin, I saw a display of something I hadn’t seen before: trench art.

Trench art is defined as “objects made from the debris and by-products of modern warfare.” The term is most commonly associated with World War I, since that is the war that is best known for its use of trenches. While actual combat is horrifying, a lot of wartime is spent waiting for something to happen. When soldiers had nothing else to do, some of them started making things out of whatever they could find, with the most commonly available material being the brass of empty shell casings. The tools soldiers had to work with might be nothing more than a bent nail, and yet the work they produced was often suprisingly beautiful. Here is part of the display of trench art from the museum in Hennepin. A remarkable reminder of how beauty can be salvaged from even the worst situations.
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And a closer look.
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A Surprising Museum in Ohio

Serendipity: the finding of valuable or agreeable things not sought for. Travel just seems to multiply the likelihood of experiencing serendipity.

In Ohio doing some research, driving toward the hotel, I saw a sign that read “Welcome Center and Fulton County Museum, 1 Mile.” This place wasn’t on my radar at all. However, I was leaving the next morning and had nothing else planned while there, so I thought I’d give this place a try.

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What a surprise. This was not a huge museum, but it more than made up in splendid detail, insightful presentation, and brilliant planning what it lacked in size. And who knew so much interesting stuff happened in Fulton County, Ohio?

There are a couple of possible approaches to viewing the museum. You can read absolutely everything, which was what I chose to do. Alternatively, you can accept their invitation to see how history repeats itself and focus on periods that are in some way similar to the one in which you were born or in which you currently live. I thought this approach was immensely clever, but I didn’t want to miss anything.

The museum starts in the area’s pre-history and moves up through the centuries. One way they handle the abundance of artifacts is, under a primary display, there are drawers and drawers of additional items labeled by time period.

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Signs are abundant, making it possible to really fit together the pieces of Fulton County’s history–which includes a remarkable range of events and people who operated at the national level, from the show promoter who helped Buffalo Bill to race-car driver Barney Oldfield, plus of course involvement in such key elements of U.S. history as the Civil War and industrial progress.

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The museum only took us about 2 hours to view–so this isn’t a place you’d likely plan an entire vacation around. However, if you happen to find yourself on the Ohio Turnpike near Hwy 108, you might consider stopping.

Of course, the other lesson is, when you see a sign telling you there is something of interest a mile ahead, you might want to check it out.

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“Smarter Every Day” Looks at Grain Bins

I have long enjoyed the video channel “Smarter Every Day.” It offers insights into how a lot of things work. However, host Destin has now truly endeared himself to me by focusing on farmers — and pointing out just how much farmers need to know to make things work. I already knew about the bins (I cover the invention of corn bins and drying equipment in my book <em>Midwest Maize), and I knew farmers were smart (and most of the farmers I know have multiple degrees, in subjects ranging from monogastric nutrition to economics to agricultural communication), but it’s lovely to see someone else enthusiastic about everything that goes into keeping a farm going — and us fed. What you see here goes on all over the country, with bins filled with corn, beans, wheat, lentils, peas, garbanzos, barley, and more.

Oh — and that “danger” element Destin mentions — farming is considered second only to coal mining, as far as danger. So no one is farming because it’s easy. It can be hard to make a profit, but most of the farmers I know love the land–and love knowing that they are feeding people.

Here’s Destin’s video.

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Filed under Agriculture, Corn, Culture, Farming, Food, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Video