As birthday parties go, there was much cake, ice cream and plenty of guests to celebrate the 143rd anniversary of Wichita.
A few hundred people brought birthday cards Sunday to the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum to earn them free admission to tour the building, a chance to ring the clock tower’s bell and celebrate the Peerless Princess of the Plains, Doo-Dah, Magic City, the Air Capital of the World and all the other nicknames and phrases that have sometimes over the past 143 years referenced Wichita.
Sunday’s party drew some of the city’s most notable historians.
Schuyler Jones III grew up surrounded by accounts from his grandfather, J.R. Mead, of the pioneer days on the prairie. Mead was an early developer of Wichita.
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What would his grandfather think of Wichita’s 143rd birthday?
“He’d be astonished to see the city as it is now,” Jones said Sunday.
On Sunday, Jay Price, chairman of the history department at Wichita State University, hung the Wichita flag on his house, posted a photo of the flag on Facebook and wrote, “Happy Birthday, Wichita!”
He also attended the celebration.
“Certain cities have a temperament of play and fun,” Price said. “New Orleans clearly does. Dallas has a temperament of showy pride and exuberant enthusiasm. Wichita is that kid in school that everyone likes and knows but may not necessarily be the jock or geek or the president of the team. But it is who everyone knows and likes and actually will end up being the most successful. Wichita is not a show horse. It is a work horse.”
As the afternoon wore on, Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum director Eric Cale had a huge basket filled with birthday wishes and cards. Visitors to the museum could eat cake and ice cream, he said, but only if they filled out a sticky note saying what they liked best about the museum or Wichita.
Several said they liked Blackbear Bosin’s iconic sculpture on the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers, the “Keeper of the Plains.”
“We had no idea how many people to expect,” Cale said, adding that the museum may celebrate the day each year after this. “We’ve had this idea for a long time, but this year, July 21 happened to fall on a Sunday, and we decided to do it. We never tried this before. But I think birthdays are a great way to mark time.”
On July 21, 1870, a petition with 124 signatures was presented to probate Judge Reuben Riggs, requesting that Wichita be incorporated.
At the time, less than a thousand people lived in Sedgwick County, with the population growing daily. There was a sprinkling of homes – cabins mostly and lean-tos. Living conditions were, at best, primitive.
Of the 124 signatures, there was only one woman to sign the petition – Catherine McCarty, Billy the Kid’s mother. She owned and operated the City Laundry on North Main.
The 1870 order of incorporation read simply: “Be it remembered, that at a special term of the probate court, held in the town of Wichita on the 21st day of July, A.D. 1870, a petition was presented to the court by the inhabitants of the town of Wichita describing the said town by mete and boundaries and praying that they may be incorporated and a police established.”
Other signatures include those of William Greiffenstein, the man most Wichita historians consider the “father of Wichita” and who is credited for developing Douglas Avenue; William Finn, an early surveyor of Sedgwick County; and John Price Hilton, a land speculator who was elected Sedgwick County’s first superintendent of schools and whose great-granddaughter would later become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.