Wichita has endured a beating this week, from fans expressing their dismay that their teams were being sent here for the NCAA tournament and from players expressing relief that their teams weren’t sent here, since “there is nothing in Wichita.”
Wichita is known for its massive inferiority complex, and this isn’t helping. But those who live here know that once basketball fans arrive, they will likely enjoy themselves and wonder why they don’t live in culturally rich towns with no traffic jams and incredibly inexpensive housing.
This seemingly nondescript Kansas town is actually a pretty interesting place. Lots of weird things have happened here. Lots of interesting people have lived here. And we’d gamble that you’ll be surprised to learn some of the minutiae that makes us memorable.
Never miss a local story.
Here are a few juicy Wichita details to jot down in your “Who Knew?” notebook:
We are home to Koch Industries: You’ve heard of the Koch Brothers, the owners of the mega corporation that wields wealth and political influence. You may never have heard, though, that Koch Industries is based in Wichita. Its headquarters are housed in a big, secure complex at near K-96 and Oliver. And Charles Koch, the company’s CEO (who always makes lists of the top 20 richest people in the world), has a big, secure estate right off of one of our busiest business thoroughfares, Rock Road. You can’t see the house if you drive by, but you can see acres and acres of its fencing. The Kochs also are big donors around town, and many buildings and attractions are named for them – most notably Charles Koch Arena, where the Wichita State University Shockers play basketball.
Freddy’s Frozen Custard was started here: And it’s still headquartered here. The national chain, known for its crispy-edged steak burgers, shoestring fries and creamy custard, was started 15 years ago in Wichita by two brothers and their business partner. Their first restaurant, which was named after the Simon brothers’ WWII vet father, Freddy Simon, opened at the corner of 21st and Tyler in 2002. Now, there are 285 Freddy’s restaurants in 31 states, and the chain is about to expand into the Middle East.
Kirstie Alley has two houses on our main drag: The star of “Cheers,” “Dancing With the Stars” and several reality television shows is a Wichita girl, and she still has two houses on our main drag, Douglas Avenue. Alley, a graduate of Wichita’s Southeast High School, has several pals in town, and residents have become accustomed to seeing her at concerts, sporting events, grocery stores and restaurants whenever she returns. Fun fact: At Christmas time, Alley frequently decorates the front yard of one of her houses with a festive caroling set she salvaged from her 1993 movie “Look Who’s Talking Too.”
Harrison Ford hangs out here every January: Sorry, you just missed him. The star, a.k.a. “Star Wars’” Han Solo, is also an avid pilot. And for the past three years, he’s come to Wichita for a week in January, reportedly to have his plane serviced and take flight training. While he’s here, he’s always spotted dining out in restaurants around town, and Wichita keeps close tabs where he goes – but a respectful distance when he’s seen. A creature of habit, he usually visits the same places every time he’s here.
We once had a serial killer: Wichita was terrorized for years by an infamous serial killer: Dennis Rader, who identified himself as BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill). He killed 10 people between 1974 and 1991, then disappeared, only to resurface by sending one his signature letters to the newspaper in 2004. He was finally identified as a family man and dog catcher from nearby Park City named Dennis Rader and was captured then convicted in 2005. He now is serving 10 consecutive life sentences in the El Dorado Correctional Facility.
We’re pretty casual about twisters: That doesn’t mean we don’t understand how serious they are. Many Wichitans have either survived or known someone who has had a close encounter with a deadly twister. But they’re a fact of life in Kansas, especially in May and June, and we know what to do: Stay indoors, take shelter in a basement or an interior room on the lowest level. (FYI: March twisters are a possibility and have happened, but they’re pretty unusual. The season really gets going in May.) Wichitans sometimes forget how much tornado sirens and the possibility of twisters freak out people who aren’t used to them, so if you need help – or comfort – just ask a friendly face. Another tornado tip: If you happen to still be in town at noon on Monday and hear sirens, don’t panic. It’s just a weekly drill.
We’re known as the “Air Capital of the World:” Wichita is home to the state’s largest private employer, Spirit AeroSystems, and last year, Wichita produced more than a quarter of the world’s general aviation aircraft. Iconic aircraft businesses like Stearman, Cessna and Beechcraft were founded here, and Airbus, Bombardier Learjet and Textron Aviation all operate here.
Traffic jams? What are those? Wichita just doesn’t have traffic jams. It has several highways. And lots of people. And thousands of cars. But traffic only ever comes to a standstill if there’s a major accident, and even those clear up pretty quickly.
Pizza Hut was started here: Pizza Hut was founded in Wichita in 1958 by Dan and Frank Carney. The headquarters aren’t here anymore, but the original Pizza Hut building sits on the Wichita State University campus.
White Castle was started here, too: The only White Castle burgers available in Wichita these days are in the frozen section at the grocery store. But the slider chain was founded in Wichita in 1921.
We’re the biggest city in Kansas: “But what about Kansas City?” doubters will say. Well, FYI, Kansas City straddles the Kansas/Missouri border, and the big part is in Missouri. Wichita is bigger than the Kansas side of Kansas City. Our population is about 390,000. Kansas City, Kansas, has a population of about 152,000.
We’re home to the tallest building in Kansas: The size of our skyline may not wow you, but our Epic Center – the downtown building with the angular top – is 385 feet tall, making it the tallest building in the state. No. 2 is the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka. Wichita also has the third tallest building – 250 Douglas Place in downtown Wichita. Fun fact: There’s a song by singer Shawn Colvin called “Wichita Skyline.”
Our basketball team is pretty decent, too: You probably started hearing about the Wichita State Shockers in 2013, the year our school’s basketball team was the Cinderella story at the NCAA tournament – and made it to the Final Four. The next season, the Shockers remained undefeated for the entire regular season and never lost a game until the first round of the NCAA tournament against Kentucky. The team has been on a run ever since, and attending Shocker basketball games at Koch Arena is a top form of entertainment in Wichita. At the moment, the Shockers are off competing in the first round of the tournament in some other city while we host you here.
We have zero hills: Are you a runner? Go out for a jog while you are here. You’ll encounter nothing but sweet flatness for miles and miles and miles.
We pronounce a few proper nouns differently than you do: It will sound stupid to you but it’s completely normal to us. Our Arkansas River, which runs through downtown, is pronounced ARE-Kansas. And our Greenwich road is pronounced GREENwitch. That’s just the way it is, and you’ll have to deal while you’re here.
We’re the Lebanese food capital of maybe the whole country: Wichita is where many Lebanese families chose to settle, and we have a Lebanese food scene that’s unrivaled maybe anywhere. If you like hummus or shawarma or falafel or kebbe, you’ll find plenty of places to get very good versions here. And be sure to eat a fattoush salad or two before you go. Top suggestions: N&J Cafe, Cafe Maurice, Meddys, College Hill Deli, Two Olives, Bella Luna Cafe, MIF Deli, Cafe Mediterranean and LeMonde Cafe.
Still curious about Wichita? Here are more handy tips about this city: