THE OLD WEST AND CHISHOLM TRAIL
It started as what settlers thought would be a dusty, miserable part of the “Great American Desert,” but it is now the lifeblood of the Kansas economy as the state’s largest city.
Nearly 150 years ago, four men with a dream set out to establish a city rich in Old West culture and plentiful in resources. It laid at the confluence of two rivers – the Big and Little Arkansas – surrounded by the short grass of the prairie and a variety of wildlife. The area, which would be named after the native Wichita tribe that migrated from Kansas to Texas, attracted swarms of hunters and traders, soon becoming a hub for economic growth.
Jami Frazier Tracy, Curator of Collections at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, says many prospective settlers were convinced that “rain follows the plow,” as they trekked west.
“Hunters and traders were the first white men to venture into south-central Kansas, seeking meat, furs, hides, bones and other parts they could sell along the Missouri River,” she said.
In 1868, a group of Topeka businessmen calling themselves the ‘Wichita Town Company’ surveyed and plotted the area around those rivers on former Osage land. Those men, J.R. Mead, William Mathewson (Buffalo Bill), William Greiffenstein and N.A. English set up trading posts around what we now recognize as Wichita proper.
The city incorporated two years later when a petition, signed by 123 men and one woman reached Reuben Riggs, a probate judge at the time. The woman, Catherine McCarty, eventually birthed two sons, one of which became the infamous Billy the Kid. Wichita became official on July 21, 1870. Many streets around the city reflect the city’s founding fathers and those who contributed to its creation.
Over the last 147 years, the city has remained rich in culture. From continuous trade with nearby native tribes to an abundance of trapping and trading opportunities along the river, the first few developmental years saw tremendous growth. In 1872, Col. Marshall Murdock created The Wichita City Eagle Newspaper, known today as The Wichita Eagle, the largest paper in the state.
ECONOMIC BOOM AND HOMEGROWN BUSINESS
The economic boom brought industrial expansion with the erection of banks, railroads, real estate and even meat-packaging facilities. Many historic buildings remain today in Old Town.
By the 1880s, Wichita was on its way to a historic population boom.
“For a brief time, Wichita was the fastest-growing city in the United States,” Tracy said. “By 1888, city officials claimed a population of 40,000 people, however, speculation had driven real estate values to unreasonable heights, and many local businessmen could sense the impending doom of a major economic bust.”
Despite Wichita falling on hard times in the late 1870s, the city managed to grow its economy through manufacturing. The Burton Stock Car Company built and sold stock cars at first, but eventually turned out the first six-cylinder vehicle, the Jones Six, in 1914.
Growth continued over the next 50 years with the introduction of several local businesses, including Keen Kutter Tools, restored today as Hotel at Old Town. The Coleman Lamp Company was established later in 1902 and has remained a staple in the community for decades. Today, it turns out more than 15 million products a year. At the Coleman Factory Outlet and Museum, guests can learn about the company’s rich history and purchase products across the street from where the original plant stood.
Other notable homegrown products include: Mentholatum, created by A.A. Hyde in 1889; Pizza Hut, established by Dan and Frank Carney in 1958; and Koch Industries, known for its many subsidiaries in manufacturing, oil, trading and investments.
“Wichita has grown from a ‘vast and beautiful wild,’ as on early settler called it, to a dynamic, progressive city,” Tracy said. “We overcompensate for our geographical challenges and it shows. It reflects a long-standing tradition of making things happen, keeping to the frontier mentality and riding on the pioneer spirit.”
THE AIR CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
The age of aviation helped shaped Wichita into the Air Capital of the World through the development of major aerospace manufacturers. First, E.M. Laird founded the Swallow Airplane Company, after being courted away from Chicago, where he was a budding air designer. The Laird Swallow was the first made-for-production commercial aircraft in the United States.
Some of Laird’s early employees, Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech broke off from the company to create a new venture with Clyde Cessna. Travel Air was established in 1923 in the historic Delano District.
Aero Plains Brewing Company sits in the heart of Delano, near where Travel Air first set-up shop. Owner Lance Minor speaks often about the quick and seamless transition from a historical Cowtown to booming metropolis.
“We went from riding horses to building airplanes in under 50 years,” Minor said. “That’s pretty darn cool.”
Travel Air soon became the largest commercial flying manufacturer. However, Cessna would soon go his own way, following an argument over whether the monoplane was better than the biplane. Cessna founded Cessna Aircraft Company in 1927. Today, Cessna remains a powerhouse in the aviation world, as part of Textron Aviation.
Stearman established Stearman Aircraft in 1927. The Boeing Company of Seattle eventually bought out Stearman, right before the Great Depression. Now, the company is owned Spirit AeroSystems and employs more than 20,000 people as Wichita’s largest employer.
Walter Beech married his secretary, Olive Ann and formed Beech Aircraft Company in 1932. Today, Beech Aircraft is part of Textron Aviation. Olive Ann ran the company for about 20 years after her husband’s death in 1950. Beech created products for many NASA missions, including the Gemini, Apollo and other space shuttles.
In the early 1960s, a Swiss aerospace company moved from Switzerland to Wichita, to build a small private jet airplane for business travelers. Wichita won the bid for Lear Jet’s international move over places in Michigan and Ohio because of access to skilled employees already living in the area.
LearJet is now a subsidiary of a Canadian company, Bombardier Aerospace. It still exists as part of the booming Wichita aviation industry. The city produces more than half of the world’s planes for commercial and military use.
PRIDE, PASSION AND PARTNERSHIPS: FLAG FEVER SEIZES WICHITA
Wichita is more than a city, it is a community held together by a mutual love for the place nearly 400,000 people call home. A symbol of that love was birthed in 1937, but not truly showcased until 75 years later: The Wichita flag. But what took so long? Angie Prather, with the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce, says for a long time, getting ahold of a Wichita flag was difficult and expensive. A few years ago, Lucinda’s became the first store “flag swag” could be acquired affordably.
“Being able to purchase a pin for 2 dollars or something like that, that allowed people to get into it,” Prather said.
The creativity of local artists putting the image on just about any item one could imagine has also contributed to “flag fever.”
“I do think it’s a pride thing and I think it’s a connectedness thing,” Prather said. “Anyone who’s passionate wants to be part of something bigger than themselves, and this is bigger.”
From being flown in store windows to huge murals being painted on windows and roofs, it is obvious many are wild about Wichita. The design is thanks to a 1937 flag design contest and one local artist.
Cecil McAlister captured the core values of the community in his winning design.
The red and white stripes symbolize the freedom to come and go as one pleases. The blue circle represents happiness and contentment. The Native American sign, known as a “hogan,” is a symbol meaning “permanent home,” signifying a sense of safety and fulfillment in the community.
No matter what nickname you know Wichita by: The Peerless Princess of the Plains, The Magic City, River City, The Air Capital of the World or Doo Dah, it is apparent that passion and pride has built it to being one of the coolest places in the Midwest.
“Wichita is a savvy city that has reinvented itself many time,” Minor said. “We are more than a cow town, an aviation manufacturing hub, a sampling city for franchise restaurants, an oil & and gas city or the self-storage and bowling capital of the world.”
It’s that attitude that keeps Minor and other business owners planting roots and building lives, “at the crossroads of history and innovation.”
The flag is free to be reproduced on items because the image is not copyrighted. Residents and visitors can show their love for Wichita by using the hashtag #ILoveWichita and visiting ilovewichita.org. The Wichita flag is the only flag to date with social media pages giving it a personality.
Learn more about the city with these Wichita Facts.