When trader J.R. Mead set up shop on the harsh prairie in 1864, there was little evidence to suggest that his chosen spot would one day become the largest city in the state of Kansas. White travelers were not exactly pouring through the region at the time, and even the native Wichita Indians were wildly outnumbered by the seemingly endless black swarms of buffalo. Unbearably hot in the summer, brutally cold in the winter, almost devoid of trees, wide and flat and eternal, Kansas was (and is) not the most hospitable climate a wandering gypsy could claim as home.
But there was that abundance of valuable buffalo, a river confluence, and the natives were generally friendly enough. Mead opened a trading post to serve the trickling stream of settlers heading west, and a year later, hired fellow entrepreneur Jesse Chisholm (sometimes half-jokingly referred to as Father of the Convenience Store) to drive a wagonload of goods to Texas, to be traded for buffalo hides and other tokens of barter. Though Chisholm himself would die only three years later, his name was already lent to the trail he followed in pursuit of commerce.
Before long, Mead's little outpost attracted a few settlers to the Wichita area, and the arrival of the Santa Fe railroad in 1872 sealed the deal. By the middle of the 1870s, a town had officially been chartered. Of the 123 signatures on the petition to establish the city, one belonged to a black man (Richard Robinson), and one belonged to a woman (Catherine McCarty, more famous as mother of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid).
The Chisholm Trail acted as a veritable beef pipeline, pumping thousands of head of cattle into Wichita, and bringing with them countless wild-eyed cowpokes. A sign on the outskirts of the city read: EVERYTHING GOES IN WICHITA, and for a while, it was true. Eventually the police (including one Officer Wyatt Earp) put the kibbosh on the rough-and-ready shenanigans of the trail boys, but the party just moved across the river to the untamed borough of Delano (now part of Wichita). Gunfights, wild frenzies of liquor consumption, prostitutes bathing naked in the muddy Arkansas all were common on the river's west bank.
But the cattle biz moved westward to Dodge City, and Wichita's era as a cowtown was over as quickly as it had begun. Regardless of the very real possibility of the town's collapse, there were a few civic boosters who believed in its potential. Most notable among these go-getters has to be Colonel Marshall Murdock, founder of the Wichita Eagle newspaper. A newsman who had barely escaped the horror of Quantrill's raid on Lawrence, Murdock was a visionary who dared to foresee Wichita as the plains' central hub of commerce, industry and culture.
Murdock circulated far and wide the notion of Wichita as a kind of promised land on the prairie, drawing settlers from the east coast (and as far away as Europe) with his bejeweled prose. In his eyes, Wichita was the "Peerless Princess on the Plains," the "Magical Mascot of the Meridian." And his enthusiasm paid off as trains and wagons full of hopeful travelers arrived by the hundreds.
Until the 1920s, little occurred in Wichita to distinguish it from any number of other young Midwestern cities. Mentholatum was invented here in 1889, by chemist A.A. Hyde (the unique Mentholatum building still stands, now inhabited by a coffee shop). Agriculture took off as an industry, creating more wealth in the area than cattle had before it. The city got a taste of higher education in 1895 with the establishment of Fairmount College (now Wichita State University). The Jones Six automobile was produced here for several years, until a fire destroyed the factory. And the population doubled in 1918, when oil was discovered in the surrounding area.
But the single biggest factor in the growth and stature of Wichita came into play on April 8, 1920, when the first Laird Swallow airplane took off from a field on North Hillside. The first commercial plane manufactured in the U.S., the Swallow was also the first step in Wichita's journey toward becoming the world's Air Capital.
A posse of civic booster types set out to persuade the pioneering aircraft manufacturers to locate their facilities in Wichita. They cooked up a shindig called the National Air Congress, which attracted 100,000 people. Realizing the potential for industry cross-pollination (not to mention a pool of skilled workers), many of the planemakers found the city ideally suited to their needs. Before long, Cessna, Beech, Steer, Mooney, and Swift all operated plants in Wichita; later they would be joined by others, such as Boeing, Learjet and Piaggio.
With the building of the gorgeous Art Deco municipal airport in 1929, Wichita was equipped to compete with any city in the world in terms of air travel accomodations. The military eventually co-opted the airfield, paying the city $9.4 million to move its airport facilities. And so were born McConnell Air Force Base (named after two Wichita brothers killed in battle) and Mid-Continent Airport.
The city's "Air Capital" image even brought legendary idea man Buckminster Fuller to town; his prefabricated Dymaxion House prototypes were produced at the Beechcraft factory in Wichita. One of them stood east of town until 1991, when it was donated to an out-of-state museum. In a similar vein, the classic Valentine prefab diners were manufactured here, punched out in a factory much like an airplane.
Though the airplane business is certainly Wichita's bread and butter, it's not the only export of note. This city is cradle to an industry that touches nearly every American even closer to the gut: fast food.
In 1921, Wichita fry cook Walter Anderson borrowed $700 and opened a little hamburger stand in the bustling downtown district. Selling his burgers for 5¢ apiece, he soon started raking in the nickels by the bagful. By 1925, there were 22 of these White Castle stores, and Anderson was being called "Hamburger King."
Years later, in 1958, Frank and Dan Carney would borrow $600 and open a tiny little pizza parlor on the Wichita University (now WSU) campus. There were only nine spaces for lettering available on the sign, and they wanted the word "pizza" in the name, so they chose to play on the squat nature of their building and call the restaurant Pizza Hut. (There are now over 12,000 Pizza Huts worldwide.)
Though not as well-known, Taco Tico, Taco Grande, Nu-Way (loose meat sandwiches) and Big Cheese Pizza all have roots here, too. And even restaurant chains based in other parts of the country recognize the distinctive palate of the Wichitan the city is one of the world's top test markets when it comes to new fast food ideas. (McPizza was scarfed here before most anywhere else.)
After World War II, Wichita was swollen with aircraft workers and military personnel, many crammed into the "temporary" housing projects of Planeview and Hilltop Manor. As they moved to nicer, more suburban digs in the affluent wake of the war, their old low-rent neigborhoods decayed into dangerous ghettoes. (The ironically-named Joyland amusement park, opened in 1949, skirts the edge of Planeview.) Over the course of several decades, the original city core area was slowly deserted as new malls and housing tracts were tacked on to the edges of the city. By the late 1980s, due largely to the whims of influential developers, the streets of downtown Wichita served far more crows than people.
But if anything is constant on the prairie, it's change. The city's Old Town district, created to help revitalize the city core, is bustling with locally-owned businesses, many operating out of what were dilapidated warehouses only ten years ago. The historic Eaton Hotel block (site of Carry Nation's famous bar-axing) has been completely renovated, as has the landmark Keen Kutter building (formerly the world's largest warehouse, now the Hotel at Old Town). Bars, restaurants, apartments, shops and services of all kinds can be found in the few square blocks at the heart of Wichita. It is indeed a much different chunk of real estate than it was not so long ago.
As Wichita looks into the 21st Century, it's impossible to tell what lies ahead. Perhaps it's best left to the Kansas motto to inspire us on our voyage into the unknowable future: "Ad Astra Per Aspera (Through Our Endeavors, The Stars)."