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.
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.
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.
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