You might be surprised to find out how far east the Wild West actually began.
Annie Oakley was born in Darke County, Ohio. You can learn more about the legendary sharp shooter at The National Annie Oakley Center at the Garst Museum, in Greenville, Ohio.
Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, in a lovely Victorian house on a quiet suburban street that doesn’t hint at the adventurous future (other than the large picture of Earp, to make sure you know you’re in the right place). He grew up in Iowa, which is where his youngest brother Morgan was born. Older brother, Virgil, was born in Kentucky. Like many in the 1800s, the Earp family just kept moving west. Wyatt Earp first became a lawman in Kansas—and would later offer advice about recreating the Wild West to another Iowan, John Wayne.
Wild Bill Hickok was born in Mendota, Illinois. There is a statue of him outside the Mendota historical museum. (A delightful museum that is a good reason to stop in Mendota.)
Buffalo Bill was born in Le Claire, Iowa, where you can drive down Cody Road to the Buffalo Bill Museum. The bar that lays claim to being a favorite hangout, Glur’s Tavern, is in Columbus, Nebraska. (And you can still dine at Glur’s. Pretty good burgers.)
Calamity Jane was born and raised in Missouri, a pretty wild place in the early 1800s.
Jesse James was also born and raised in Missouri, and died there, as well. (The last place James lived is just out the back door of the outstanding Patee House Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri.)
Another notorious outlaw, Harvey Alexander Logan, better known as Kid Curry, was born in Iowa. Curry was said to be wildest member of The Wild Bunch.
Zane Grey, the writer who created the Western literary genre was from Ohio—near Zanesville, which was named for Grey’s grandfather, explorer Ebenezer Zane. (If you want more on Grey, he is remembered in a section of the National Road & Zane Grey Museum in Norwich, Ohio.)
Missouri (St. Joseph) is where the Pony Express originated. (Another great museum.)
Iconic Western towns such as Wichita and Dodge City are in Kansas.
Just to say that its worth remembering that much of the history of the Wild West is, in fact, the history of the Middle West.
Of course, it’s also worth remembering that the speed with which the Midwest grew meant that you had to keep moving if you wanted to stay wild.
(Above photo was taken at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Le Claire, IA.)
In my book Destination Heartland I have several “food notes,” one of them about Bierocks and Runzas. I knew they were introduced by Russian-Germans—and I knew they were good. But this episode of Tasting History with Max Miller, Max goes into the background of how those Russian Germans ended up in Kansas and Nebraska. He also teaches you how to make Bierocks. Good fun.
Why pre-order a book? Right now, prices on everything are going up, but if you order the book now, the price is guaranteed. It’s available on all the usual sites (including Amazon and the publisher’s, U of IL Press).
This is a fun book filled with surprising tales and delightful destinations. I take you along as I explore a much-overlooked region, the American Midwest. Everyone from Wyatt Earp to Henry Ford is there. Don’t just read about history, but learn where you can explore more about Native Americans, the Pony Express, shipwrecks, the Underground Railroad, early pioneers, the Civil War, railroads, and a lot of stuff that will make you wonder why it got left out of your textbooks!!!
Don’t be scared by the price of the cloth-bound library version. That is for libraries. The general population version is paperback and only costs $19.95 — and the e-book is cheaper still. But you owe it to yourself to pursue this adventure. The Midwest and its past really are remarkable—and the present is pretty cool, too.
My first experience of Fred Harvey’s work was as a child, driving with my family across Illinois. Every now and again, the highway is crossed by an oasis, a structure that bridges the highway and offers gasoline, restrooms, and food. Today, the food is an array of fast-food places, but when I was young, the entire dining area was a Harvey House Restaurant. Fred Harvey’s restaurants were nice places, with white tablecloths and good food. In the 1950s, people who weren’t even traveling would go to the oases to eat at Fred Harvey restaurants.
By the time I was experiencing them, the restaurants were run by Harvey’s sons, as Harvey had died in 1901. But Fred Harvey was famous, not only in his day, but long afterwards. He was the man who invented the restaurant chain, but more than that, he was the man who tamed the wild west.
During the Civil War, Harvey, who had experience in the restaurant business, had witnessed the importance of railways but also saw that feeding travelers was a real problem. (This was before trains had dining cars.) He came up with the idea of creating and running restaurants in train depots, starting with the famous Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railway, which connected Kansas (Atchison and Topeka) with the rapidly opening West. He brought in fine china and imported linens, as well as good cooks, but the juicy steaks the menu featured were not the key element of his operation. He brought in hundreds of Harvey Girls to serve in the restaurants. Knowing of the serious shortage of females on the frontier (and at this time, Kansas was still the frontier), many single women were eager for the opportunity the restaurants afforded. Uniforms (iconic outfits with black dresses and starched white aprons), accommodations, and transportation were all supplied, as well as a salary. Contracts simply required the girls to work for one year before leaving to accept a marriage proposal. Starting in Topeka in 1876, by 1891, Harvey had 15 locations.
The restaurants and their efficient, well-trained servers became so much a part of Western culture that they became the subject of a 1946 movie titled (not too surprisingly) The Harvey Girls, starring (among others) Judy Garland. The movie’s best-known song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” won an Academy Award.
Here’s a trailer for the movie, just to give you an idea how big Fred Harvey’s idea was.
I’d stopped in Topeka en route to Wichita at the urging of a friend who grew up nearby. I had not originally planned on this stop, but my friend said two things were absolutely worth seeing: the Kansas Museum of History and the Kansas State Capitol. So I wedged another half day into to my driving plan—and I was pleased that I did. I definitely agree that my friend’s choices were outstanding.
The museum was first. What seemed like a relatively small temporary exhibit took a surprising amount of time, as it offered a remarkable amount of history. For each of the 105 counties of Kansas, there was a story of a significant event or person, as well as some background on the county. For example, the death in 1872 of Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, probably influenced the naming of the counties of Horace, Greeley, and Tribune—primarily because he was a noted abolitionist, which was an important cause in Kansas.
That was a fun bit of information, but most of the counties were represented by historic firsts, remarkable discoveries, or important events. For example, Sumner county gave women the vote in 1887. Soon thereafter, the Quaker town of Argonia in Sumner County elected Susanna Madora Salter the first woman mayor in the United States.
Dr. Brewster Higley, who lived in Smith County, was probably a good doctor, but he is best known for a poem he published in 1872 titled “My Western Home.” Friend Daniel Kelley set the poem to music, and it became widely known as “Home on the Range,” now the state song of Kansas.
Chautauqua County’s Alfred Fairfax, who escaped slavery, fought with the Union Army during the Civil War, moved to Kansas, and became the first African American elected to the Kansas legislature.
Lots of other stories, of rough-and-tumble towns, of striking oil, of poets and inn keepers, of Native Americans and African Americans were good reminders that there is almost nowhere you can go that doesn’t have some bit of interesting and even significant history.
And all that was before I even made it into the main part of the museum. And what a great museum it was. Big, impressive displays—such as a full-size tipi, full-size covered wagon, and an actual engine and a few cars from the famed Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe train line—make this museum not only educational but, along with all the stuff that can be touched or explored, also very kid friendly. The narrative moves from Native American to early Spanish and French explorers and trappers, to the waves of pioneers that swept in during the mid-1800s, through the Civil War, up to the present. Here’s a photo of just one of the many displays that help connect visitors to the past.
Exploring the museum one encounters a remarkable number of familiar names: Amelia Earhart, Dwight Eisenhower, Fred Harvey, Carrie Nation, plus all those associated with Wichita, from Clyde Cessna to Pizza Hut. Legendary lawmen included “Bat” Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickock. Exhilarating seeing how much “American history” is really “Kansas history.”
The capitol building is splendid—a great, domed edifice that makes it clear that it is to be taken seriously. However, the visit here was primarily to see the famous murals by John Steuart Curry, most notably the once-controversial painting of abolitionist John Brown. I enjoyed touring the impressive capitol building. Then it was time to head for Wichita, which fortunately turned out to be so wonderful that I didn’t feel bad about having only one day in Topeka. Still much more to see in Kansas than I fit in this trip. There needs to be a next time.
Driving through the Flint Hills, I was again delighted by their beauty. As I drove, I was reminded of an observation, stated in a variety of ways: that Europe may have more years than the U.S., but the U.S. has more miles. Crossing so much of the Midwest, I have been vividly aware of how true that is.
Today, I was heading to another historic town: Council Grove. I was definitely not going to have enough time here, as I had to keep going (promises made sometimes drive schedules). I would not have a chance to visit a number of museums and historic buildings that sounded interesting, but I was determined to visit Hays House Restaurant, the oldest continuously operational restaurant west of the Mississippi. But antiquity isn’t the only thing remarkable about Hays House. The builder, Seth Hays, was Daniel Boone’s great-grandson and Kit Carson’s cousin—so a little bit of extra history there. When Hays arrived here in 1847, he was also the first white settler of Council Grove. He had been sent to trade with the Kansa Indians (also known as the Kaw—the people for whom Kansas was named). He soon found himself also handling steadily increasing traffic along the Santa Fe Trail, on which Council Grove sits.
Hays initially built a log cabin and trading post, but by 1856, he needed to expand, as the numbers traveling on the Santa Fe Trail had grown so much. That’s when he built the restaurant that still bears his name. Then, in 1867, after 20 years in the log cabin, Hays built a brick house for himself, which today houses the museum of the Morris County Historical Society. In addition to the restaurant, Hays also started a newspaper for the town and opened the first bank.
Council Grove is as charming as one might hope. I drove through, admiring the layers of history evident in the tidy little town. I parked near Hays House and walked around a bit, discovering a few other places to add to my “next time” list, and then headed for the restaurant. It was too early for lunch and too late for breakfast, but there were still a few folks in the place. I asked the waitress what the fastest thing was I could order. She said biscuits and gravy. While I have a particular fondness for my own sausage gravy, this dish is usually reliably tasty just about everywhere, so I said yes, plus coffee. Still a long drive ahead. Enjoyed my late breakfast, and was delighted when the waitress offered me a large, lidded cup of iced water for the hours ahead on the road. Then I had to leave.
Definitely need to get back here sometime, to explore further. But I had an appointment in Kansas City, so I had to keep on moving.
Below are photos of the front of the restaurant, on the town’s main street, the National Historic Marker for the Santa Fe Trail, and an interior shot that reveals a bit of the older wood from which the building was built. Somehow, perhaps because I grew up with stories of Daniel Boone and the Santa Fe Trail, it seemed every bit as remarkable to be here as it did to visit much older places in Asia and Europe, to which I did not have quite so strong a cultural connection.
I should probably note that there is vastly more to do in Wichita than go to museums. I was there specifically to do research, so I focused on history this time. However, I’m also a world traveler and know what it takes to make a great destination. As wonderfully worthwhile as the places are that I’ve mentioned, know that there is vastly more, both indoors and outdoors. But one can never do everything. In fact, in addition to theaters and hiking trails, restaurants and art galleries, breweries and botanic gardens and zoos, there are many other museums. And if you like camping, not only does Wichita camping outfitter Coleman have a museum, they have an outlet store.
Wichita is a dandy town in a lovely setting, surrounded by wide-open spaces. Definitely worth a visit, no matter what your interests might be.
To a greater extent than possibly any other Midwestern state, African Americans were a key element of early Kansas history. Prior to the Civil War, the people settling Kansas wanted to create a free state, where African Americans could be safe. Neighboring slave state, Missouri, was just as determined in their efforts to spread slavery to the new state. This led to armed conflict even before the Civil War, and the state became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
But Kansas was a safe, or at least safer, place for African Americans, both those escaping slavery and those already free, and after the Civil War, there was a major influx. A number of all-African American towns were created, of which Nicodemus is the only one remaining. The famous Buffalo Soldiers were brought together at Fort Leavenworth, KS, to form the 9th and 10th Cavalry. It was the Native Americans who called the African American cavalry troops Buffalo Soldiers, though the reason is not certain. Some say it is because of the similarity of their hair to the curly coats of the American buffalo (aka bison), some say it was because of the buffalo robes they wore in the winter, and others that it was because they fought as fiercely as a wounded buffalo. Whatever the real reason for the name, the Buffalo soldiers established a reputation as being among the best troops in the West.
Knowing this history of Kansas and African Americans, I had arranged to visit The Kansas African American Museum (TKAAM) while in Wichita. This museum is a relatively recent project, but the building that houses it is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1917, the Calvary Baptist Church became a cornerstone of the city’s African American community. When it ceased to operate as a church, it was seen as the ideal location for commemorating the history of African Americans in Kansas and across the U.S.
Because I was doing some actual research in town (working on a new book—so stay tuned), I had been offered a guide. I had the great good fortune to spend my time at the museum with Dr. Lona Reeves, who was delightful, knowledgeable, and happy to share from her vast store of insights and experience.
We started on the ground floor, which is mostly reserved for events. However, the walls are hung with artwork by contemporary African American artist, and at the back of the room, there are displays of objects—mostly wooden carvings—from Africa. Then we headed to the second floor, where photographs and biographies are hung all the way around the perimeter, recounting people and events of significance, largely but not only from Kansas.
Because of the move of so many African Americans to Kansas, among those biographies there was a remarkable range of famous people who were born in or moved to or lived in Kansas at some point. Hattie McDaniel, who was the first African American to win an Oscar, was born in Wichita. George Washington Carver moved to Kansas at age 13. Photographer and first African American Hollywood director Gordon Parks was born in Kansas, as was Charlie “Bird” Parker. Famously associated with Harlem, Langston Hughes lived in Lawrence, KS, for many years. Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, KS. It was lovely seeing so many “firsts” and remarkable accomplishments memorialized.
There were a fair number of things that were new to me. I learned that Ronald Waters helped stage the first successful sit-in—which was done in Wichita well before the more famous one that occurred in North Carolina. (The down side of remoteness is that heroic actions may not get noticed by major media.) Buffalo soldier Ruben Waller was born into slavery, gained his freedom, had a successful military career, and lived to 105. Oscar Micheaux, the first African American movie maker, produced a movie in answer to the racist film “Birth of a Nation.” One of my favorite surprises (being primarily a food historian) was Junius Groves, who was an agricultural scientist and entrepreneur who was once known as “the potato king of the world,” and who became one of the wealthiest African Americans in the U.S.
At one spot, Lona Reeves pointed to a photo and told me the man pictured was a relative. It was Bass Reeves. I was happy to be able to tell her that I knew who Bass Reeves was, thanks to The History Guy on YouTube. Dr. Reeves was delighted to learn that there was a video recounting this history. Here’s the video I had seen—relating the tale of this real-life Lone Ranger. (And also making it clear that a lot of cowboys were African American.)
After my tour, I met with Ted Ayres, who told me about the Kansas African American History Trail project that he coordinates. Hoping to get more people, including African Americans, interested in this history, museums and historic sites on the “trail” issue “passports,” which get stamped each time you visit a new location. Like so many people who want to reach a larger audience, they have turned to the Internet, and here is a video (the first of two) to introduce people to the idea of the History Trail.
Vastly more could be shared—but I figure I need to leave something for you to discover on your own. But now I have my History Trail passport with the first stamp on it.
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.
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.
This blog will relate discoveries made as I explore and study the Midwest. It will feature places I visited in pursuit of tales for my books but will also follow other threads of history, travel, and culture in the Heartland. For the remarkable tales of corn and its importance in the world and U.S., check out the book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. For the fascinating tale of our earliest domesticated food animal, check out Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Bagonfest. I hope you’ll consider buying them. (And stay tuned for future titles.)
Eric Hoffer Award Winner
Midwest Independent Booksellers Association selection