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. 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.