Wichita at a Glance
Early History: From Trading Post to Cowtown
The city of Wichita is named after the Wichita tribe. These tribesmen settled on the site of the present-day metropolitan area, along the banks of the Arkansas River, during the U.S. Civil War to avoid conflict with pro-confederate tribes in the Oklahoma Indian Territories.
James R. Mead and Jesse Chisholm – who was part Cherokee – opened a trading post next to the Wichita tribe’s settlement. Jesse Chisholm, on a return trip from a Southwest trading expedition, was traveling through a rain storm, and the wheels of his wagon carved deep tracks into the prairie soil.
Thus the famous Chisholm Trail was blazed; a route used in subsequent years by brave cattlemen driving herd from Texas up through the Indian Territory to the Kansas-Pacific Railroad station in the town of Abilene in northern Kansas.
After the forced relocation of the Wichita tribe back to Oklahoma (Indian Territory) in 1867, the modest Mead trading post became a center of commerce. As Texas cattlemen drove their longhorn steer up the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kansas, the settlement around the old Mead trading post provided a much-needed stop along the way.
James R. Mead and others organized the Wichita Town Company, naming the settlement after the Wichita tribe. Finally, Wichita was incorporated as a city on July 21, 1870. The new decade brought three major railroad lines into Wichita as more and more Texas cattle were driven along the Chisholm Trail. Back then most referred to Wichita simply as “Cowtown” because of all the cattle coming through the city.
During these cowtown days, Wichita could be a turbulent and rugged place; despite signs posted at the city limits that warned visitors to check their guns before entering town. When the railroad arrived, this modest city soon was overflowing with wild cowboys, worn-out from their perilous journey across the plains, with money to burn and dozens of entertainment venues to spend it all.
Across the Arkansas River, the Delano community became a popular destination for cattlemen thanks to its saloons, brothels, and lack of law enforcement. The area had a reputation for violence and debauchery until local lawmen – Wyatt Earp among them – began to assertively police the cowboys.
During the cattle era, local community leaders were content to have the vice take place on the west side of the Arkansas river, while Wichita’s gentrified east-side could then maintain a respectable image, still benefiting from the revenue, taxes and fines from the activities in Delano. The national press at the time often referred to Wichita as “The Wickedest City in the West”, something that city leaders always despised. By the end of the decade, the cattle trade had moved west to Dodge City, and Wichita permanently annexed Delano in 1880 to avoid further problems.
To experience Wichita’s early history: Visit the Old Cowtown Museum, The Delano District, Mid-America All-Indian Center.
From “Wickedest City in the West” to “Peerless Princess of the Plains”
Cattle boom times lasted until 1880, when the Chisholm Trail was blocked by barbed-wire fences protecting land planted with wheat, barring drivers from bringing their cattle to Wichita. Businessmen who made their livelihood from cattle relocated to Dodge City, and Wichita land values temporarily tumbled. But revenues from grain quickly outdistanced cattle when farmers brought their harvest to Wichita, transforming the city into a trading and milling center. Whereas the cattle business had supported dance halls and gambling houses, the wheat industry solidified the civilizing forces of churches, schools and banks.
Rapid migration resulted in a speculative land boom in the late 1880’s, stimulating further expansion of the city. Fairmount College, which eventually grew into Wichita State University, opened in 1886; Garfield University, which became Friends University, opened in 1887.
By 1890, Wichita had become the third-largest city in the state after Kansas City and Topeka with a population of nearly 24,000.
Community leaders worked tirelessly to further attract investors and additional railroad connections by boasting that Wichita had left the cowtown days far behind and was a prosperous, respectable city. To reinforce the image that Wichita was a good investment, leaders supported the construction of impressive commercial and civic edifices.
Wichita’s population steadily increased in the early twentieth century, and new forms of wealth and business opportunity emerged. In 1914-1915 oil and gas were first discovered in nearby Butler county. These discoveries form part of the vast Mid-Continent oil province. Several local producers established headquarters, refineries, and retail outlets in Wichita, as it was the nearest large city.
By 1917 there were 5 refineries operating in Wichita, and seven more were built in the 1920s. The careers and fortunes of future oil moguls Archibald Derby, who later founded Derby Oil, and Fred C. Koch, who established what would become Koch Industries, both began in Wichita during this period.
To experience Wichita’s oil boom age: Visit the Sedgwick County Courthouse, Wichita’s Historical Museum, The Orpheum Theater, Friends University, Wichita State University.
From “Air Capital of the World” to “All American City”
The money generated by the oil boom enabled local entrepreneurs to invest in other cutting-edge, new industries, such as the nascent fascination with aviation and the airplane manufacturing industry.
Wichita’s first airplane was manufactured in 1917, and during the 1920s the city became known as the “Air Capital of America” in recognition of the number of airplane factories located there. By 1929 Wichita produced a quarter of all commercial aircraft in the United States. The aviation industry played an increased role in the city during World War II, and even more so after the establishment of McConnell Air Force Base in 1951.
Throughout the city’s history, since 1920, Wichita (and its aircraft companies headquartered here) have produced over 300,000 aircraft — more than any other city on earth. In 1929, the aircraft industry’s national association, the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce (today’s Aerospace Industries Assn.), cited Wichita for producing the most aircraft of any American city, awarding it the title “Air Capital City“.
During World War II, Wichita exploded, almost overnight, from 111,000 residents (in 1939) to 184,000 (by 1943), from the growth in its military aircraft production — drawing workers from around the region. Wichita’s aircraft industry employment has remained high ever since, as the industry has grown into Kansas’ second-largest, after agriculture. The Aerospace Industries Association in the 1950’s expanded Wichita’s title to “Air Capital of the World.”
Beech Aircraft Corp. and Learjet Inc. were founded in Wichita, and such heavy-weights as the Boeing Co., Bombardier Inc., Cessna Aircraft Co., and Raytheon Co. established major facilities in the city.
The population explosion that grew from the aviation industry attracted other types of companies. Two big names in the fast-food industry—Pizza Hut Inc. and White Castle System Inc.—were both founded in Wichita. By the turn of the century the city was headquarters for the Coleman Co. and the largest privately-owned company in the United States – Koch Industries Inc.
Three-time winner (since 1962) of the “All American City” award, it also consistently ranks among the top cities nationally for quality of life. These accolades communicate affordability, short and easy commutes to work and a high level of public safety for families – attributes you simply can’t find in most metro areas.
To experience Wichita as Air Capital of the World: Visit the Kansas Aviation Museum, Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, Exploration Place.
Modern Wichita: The New ICT
Wichita’s residents zealously value the small-town atmosphere with modern-city amenities afforded to them. A low crime rate, a nationally-recognized school system, family-orineted infrastructures, low cost of living, ample opportunities for culture and recreation, and a revitalized downtown are part of Wichita’s 21st. century success.
And true to the city’s heritage of bravery and ingenuity, Wichita’s diverse business community truly prizes and encourages entrepreneurship and innovation – From new grassroots start-ups to large multi-national companies, the city offers opportunities of all shapes and sizes right in the middle of the heartland.
A resurgence of Wichita pride has overtaken ICT (Wichita’s airport call letters and a term of endearment used by locals), and at the center of it all is the beloved Wichita flag; a timeless symbol of “home”, and a reminder of all that makes this city a special place.
From the Wichita River Festival (an annual event full of music, shopping and dining) to the Tallgrass Film Festival and the Symphony on the Flint Hills, Wichita has a wealth of unforgettable events that draw upon the community’s tradition of comaradery and fellowship. Other areas of interest in the city include the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, the Wichita Art Museum and Exploration Place.
To experience the New ICT: Visit the Wichita Oldtown, Douglas Design District, Exploration Place, WSU Innovation Campus.
More About Wichita’s Aviation Heritage
Wichita’s Lodging and Travel Information