25 Things You Should Know About Wichita, Kansas
The Midwest meets the Wild West in this city of artists, industrialists, and historic firsts. Here’s a handy guide to the community that helped get America airborne.
1. Wichita is part of Sedgwick County, Kansas, which was named after General John Sedgwick, the highest-ranking Union officer to die on the battlefield during the Civil War.
2. Before Marshal Wyatt Earp earned nationwide fame for his role in the O.K. Corral shootout, he worked as a Wichita city policeman. Suffice it to say that his conduct wasn’t exemplary. After joining the local force in 1875, he participated in a number of fistfights. When, on one famous occasion, his boss was up for re-election as City Marshal, Earp took exception to some disparaging remarks made by another candidate. After beating the man up, he was charged with “violating the peace and order of the city” and forced to turn in his badge.
3. On July 21, 1870, several residents signed a petition that formally granted town status to Wichita. The only woman whose signature graces this document was a laundry service owner named Catherine McCarty. Her son, Henry, would grow up to become a near-mythic outlaw nicknamed “Billy the Kid.”
In 1872, a branch of the Santa Fe railroad was established in Wichita. This turned the area into a prime destination for cattlemen as they drove their animals up from Texas. The very next year, some 66,000 bovines were shipped out of the newborn Kansas Cowtown. Hoping to persuade traveling cowboys to spend some cash before moving on, enticing signs that read “Everything Goes in Wichita” were set up near local trails and highways.
5. The cattle industry really put Wichita on the map. In 1887, it had the distinction of being America’s fastest-growing city. However, in typical boomtown fashion, Wichita would lose a third of these new arrivals by the mid-1890s.
6. Wichita made national headlines in 1900. While Kansas had banned the sale of alcohol 20 years earlier, many saloons simply ignored the law and remained in business. Enter Carry Nation, a militant prohibitionist around whom no drink was safe. On December 27, she waltzed into the bar at Wichita’s Eaton Hotel, smashed their glassware, destroyed a mirror, and severely damaged a lewd painting of Cleopatra. Nation was swiftly arrested, but her crusade wasn’t over by a long shot. The activist and her followers would go on to destroy a slew of watering holes (usually via hatchet). Over the next decade, Nation was arrested no less than 30 times.
7. A global player in the healthcare product market, the Mentholatum Company, Inc. was founded in 1889 by Wichita resident and former banker Albert A. Hyde. His cold-fighting Mentholatum ointment remains popular to this day.
8. What’s in a name? Wichita State University’s athletic teams are lovingly called the “Shockers.” Originally, fans knew them as the “Wheatshockers,” a moniker that dates back to the early 1900s. In those days, many a football player earned his tuition money by working as a wheat harvester—or “shocker”—over the summer.
By the way, when the 1928 Shockers basketball team visited Hays, Kansas, to play the Fort Hays State University Tigers, they quietly made transportation history. Never before had a collegiate hoops squad gotten to an away game by flying there.
10. In 1921, White Castle was founded in Wichita by Walter Anderson and Edgar Waldo Ingram, who spent $700 to finance the maiden restaurant. Two years later, they set up duplicate shops in El Dorado, Kansas and Omaha, Nebraska, making White Castle the world’s first fast food hamburger chain. Ironically, however, the franchise has since completely pulled out of Kansas.
11. Cloud Elementary School in north Wichita is named after Henry Roe Cloud, the first Native American to attend or graduate from Yale University. Cloud would go on to become a prominent intellectual and advocate of Native rights.
12. The city has long called itself “the Air Capital of the World.” It’s never been difficult to see why. In 1920, the Wichita-based E.M. Laird Airplane Manufacturing Co. earned the distinction of being the first U.S. company to mass-produce commercial aircraft. Also, in World War II, 44 percent of the primary trainer planes that were flown by American army and navy pilots were created by Boeing Wichita.
14. Actress Vera Miles (née Ralston) was uniquely qualified to serve as the leading lady in the classic 1955 film Wichita. A former Miss Kansas, she spent much of her youth in the city. As a teenager, Miles attended Wichita North High school while working at Western Union.
Civil Rights historians recognize Wichita as the site of the first African American sit-in at a segregated restaurant, which took place at the Dockum Drugstore downtown. For several weeks starting in July, 1958, black students occupied the whites-only stools and asked for service, refusing to budge all the while. Eventually, the owner agreed to serve them.
16. White Castle isn’t the only major chain that can claim Wichita as its hometown. Pizza Hut was also established there in 1958.
17. NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers (a.k.a. “the Kansas Comet”) was born in Wichita on May 30, 1943. By pro football standards, the running back’s seven-season career was relatively brief. Despite this, Sayers still managed to become the league’s all-time leader in kickoff returns at the time of his retirement in 1972.
18. Flag enthusiasts love this town’s offering. In 2004, the North American Vexillological Association invited its members and the general public to rank 150 assorted state, district, and city flags. Wichita’s official city flag design, which was created back in 1937, claimed sixth place. Symbolically, the blue sun represents happiness, the white circle home, the red stripes honor, and the white stripes courage. Taken together, they inform the viewer that people are free to come and go as they wish.
In 2008, Wichita resident Dana Warren was honored by Guinness World Records for creating the world's largest stitched teddy bear, which measured 55 feet, 4 inches in length.
20. Wichita’s most famous resident is Dennis Mitchell of Dennis the Menace fame. The comic strip was created by Hank Ketcham, who, in 1990, revealed that his beloved characters lived in a “two-story, three-bedroom fixer upper on the outskirts of Wichita.” Then-mayor Bob Knight rather liked the news. “I had no idea that [Dennis] lived here,” the statesman said, “but he sure is welcome.”
21. The city is home to Chance Rides Manufacturing, the country's largest manufacturer of roller coasters and other amusement park staples.
22. Next time you’re in town, be sure to visit the Museum of World Treasures. Not only does this establishment possess a prop pitchfork that appeared in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), but it also features one of the most complete T. rex skeletons ever found. Known as “Ivan,” the specimen hails from South Dakota and 60 to 70 percent of its bones have been unearthed.
24. Attention film buffs: the Wichita Public Library system has hosted screenings of Oscar-nominated shorts for the past 29 years. Note that only flicks with a runtime of under 40 minutes are considered.
25. No guide to Wichita would be complete without mentioning its most recognizable landmark. At 44 feet in height and five tons in weight, the Keeper of the Plains is one impressive statue. Designed by Kiowa-Comanche artist Francis Blackbear Bosin, this sculpture of a Native American was created to honor the United States’ bicentennial in 1976. Safely perched on an Arkansas River island, the Keeper is surrounded by fire pits which light up periodically when the weather permits.