Tag Archives: Keeper of the Plains

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Farming, History, Midwest, Travel

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Food, History, Midwest, Travel