Wichita has lively, interesting – even rowdy – past

07/20/2014 6:40 PM

07/21/2014 2:09 PM

Wichita does not look a day over 144.

Sure, there may be a few streets that sag here and there – but overall, the old girl is holding up.

When Wichita’s first plats were drawn up by William Greiffenstein and Darius Munger in the spring of 1870, brown wrapping paper was used to mark the young town’s beginnings because Greiffenstein – known as “the father of Wichita” – was in a hurry to get things done.

No local newspaper recorded the event until much later, because there wasn’t a Wichita paper then.

But even in 1870, Wichita was beginning to show signs of a growing community. That still exists today.

In honor of the birthday girl, here are some facts about Wichita.

• Wichita was named for the tribe of American Indians who inhabited the area from 1864 to 1867. Before the city existed, nearly 1,500 American Indians lived in the area between what is now Murdock and 13th.
• Elias Hicks Durfee started his Wichita trading post in 1867. He and his brother-in-law became owners of the Great American Fur Co. and changed the company’s name to Durfee and Peck, which became the largest fur and robe company in the west.
• One of Wichita’s first traders was Jesse Chisholm, for whom the Chisholm Trail and Chisholm Creek are named. Chisholm died of food poisoning in the spring of 1868 after eating rancid bear grease.
• Thomas and Catherine Masterson came to Wichita from Illinois in 1870 with their seven children. Three of their sons – Ed, William “Bat” and Jim – became legendary lawmen.
• On July 21, 1870, one woman – Catherine McCarty, mother of future outlaw Billy the Kid – and 123 men signed a petition to create a town. Judge Ruben Riggs issued the town’s articles of incorporation.
• Wichita has more than 120 sites, buildings and districts that are considered historic gems. Among the buildings are a 1917 house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright at 255 N. Roosevelt and the Occidental Hotel, the city’s oldest brick structure. It was built in 1874 at 300 N. Main.
• On Aug. 5, 1874, Wichitans woke to the sounds of incessant buzzing, crackling and rasping. Clouds of swarming grasshoppers had descended on the town and were piled 2 to 3 inches deep in some spots.
• During the 1870s, when Johnnie Redding got ready for work, he didn’t wear a suit. Instead, Wichita’s first female impersonator stepped into a dress to entertain the wild and unruly.
• For years, the Wichita Vinegar Works was an aromatic landmark for people traveling through Wichita. Founded in the 1870s by Hermann Benscheidt, the company began in a small shop on East Douglas. It moved twice and went through several owners before landing at Central and Sheridan, where the business remained until it was destroyed by fire in 1970. In 1933, the Vinegar Works began operating the state’s first legal distillery. It made wines that were used to make vinegar.
• During the early 1870s, Wichita was a booming cowtown. The town of Delano occupied a 2 1/2-block stretch of Douglas just west of the Arkansas River as a “pop-off valve” for trail-worn cowboys. Prostitutes, cowboys and gunfighters walked the streets.
• In the early 1880s, Wichitan David Payne led groups called “Boomers” into Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. When the Cherokee Land Strip was opened in September 1893, trains from Wichita carried thousands into the territory.
• Wichita’s fastest-growing year was 1887, when the city was ranked third in the nation in volume of real estate transactions.
• Inez Oppenheimer, a well-known Wichita prostitute and last great madam during the late 19th century, ran three brothels in town.
• The Arkansas Valley Interurban line provided daily trolley service from Wichita to Newton and on to Hutchinson. The idea for the Interurban was born in 1903, when George Thies, a Wichita capitalist, envisioned an electronic trolley line. The line began operation in 1910 and ended in 1938.
• Wayne Hung Wong was a “paper son.” At the turn of the 20th century, when U.S. laws prevented Chinese immigrants from entering the country legally, some came illegally with false papers identifying them as sons of Americans. That is how Wong came to Wichita in 1935. He was 13. In the seven decades afterward, he fought in World War II as a decorated soldier, earned his U.S. citizenship, raised four children, was a restaurant and real estate entrepreneur and was the author of “American Paper Son.”
• The heart of Wichita is Douglas and Main. But the “main” street is really Douglas. Shortly after the town was started, Darius Munger developed Main Street, while William Greiffenstein developed Douglas, believing Texas cattlemen would shop at the businesses they saw while driving herds east from the Arkansas River to the railroad – exactly the route Douglas took.
• One of the first mass transit systems for Wichita was Andrew Greenway’s ferry across the Arkansas River, north of the present Douglas Avenue Bridge.
• At the turn of the 20th century, the Wichita Country Club became one of the first places in the Midwest to offer people a chance to play golf. It was founded by a Wichita Episcopal minister, J.D. Ritchey, and his choirmaster, Bennett “Cush” Cushman, so they could pursue the sport. The course had six holes and used tin cans as cups.
• Wichita native John Noble painted a nude Cleopatra in the life-size pastel “Cleopatra at the Bath.” The painting was placed in the bar of the Carey Hotel, which was damaged when prohibitionist Carry Nation attacked the bar. “I felt invincible,” she wrote after the Hotel Carey attack on Dec. 27, 1900. “My strength was that of a giant. God was certainly standing by me.”
• In 1908, A.A. Hyde, who had gained international attention with his Mentholatum salve, built the first steel reinforced concrete building in Wichita, at Douglas and Cleveland.
• For more than seven decades, the C.C. McCollister family worked, owned or managed Wichita theaters. With the Star, Nomar, Kansas, West, State, Wichita, Marple and the Airport Drive-In theaters, the McCollisters enabled area residents to watch current movies in their own neighborhoods. The family’s empire began with the Star, which opened in 1910.
• The Wichita Natural Gas Co. drilled Stapleton oil well No. 1 northwest of El Dorado, opening one of the richest oil fields in the nation. The well became the first discovered using geologic surveys and geologists. The field became a major source of oil for the Allied effort during World War I.
• During the winter of 1916-17, Clyde Cessna began building the first planes constructed in Wichita.
• Eddie Adams, a gangster who terrorized the Midwest for almost four years, was gunned down in a Wichita garage on Nov. 23, 1921. Adams and his gang were credited with robbing 23 banks.
• J.H. Downing, who founded Downing Mortuary in 1923 and worked there until his death in 1972, helped bury nearly 20,000 area residents.
• In 1925, Tractor Row – a section of downtown Wichita from Douglas to Lewis near where Century II stands now – led the world in tractor and thresher distribution with nearly 50 merchants.
• Between 1929 and 1939, Wichita was the site of the Amateur Athletic Union national basketball championships. In 1931, the local Thurston Girls came within 2 points of winning the national title.
• In 1935, the first year for the National Baseball Congress tournament, Wichitan Ray “Hap” Dumont brought in a star that was a big draw at the gate: Satchel Paige.
• Beginning in 1938 and for nearly three decades afterward, thousands of diners were mass-produced by Valentine Manufacturing in Wichita. The most popular model was the Little Chef, a 10-stool restaurant.
• Wichitan Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her supporting role in the 1939 motion picture classic “Gone With the Wind.”
• From 1940 until 1960, the Blue Moon Ballroom was one place Wichitans could count on for good music, a little dancing and a lot of socializing. Five miles from downtown Wichita at 3401 S. Oliver, the ballroom, which later changed its name to the Blue Note, featured entertainers such as Bob Hope, Benny Goodman, Lawrence Welk and Tommy Dorsey.
• The name of Fannie Street was changed to Greenwood in the 1950s because the City Commission thought it improper to have a street called “Fannie.”
• The members of the Arkansas Valley Lodge No. 21, Prince Hall Masons, were leaders along Wichita’s Main Street black business district, which thrived until the 1950s, when urban renewal forced its relocation. The lodge is at 615 N. Main.
• Jim Ryun, one of the most famous distance runners in the history of track and field, attended Wichita East High School in the ’60s. For eight years, he held the world record of 3:51.1 in the mile.
• After becoming attorney general of Kansas, Vern Miller of Wichita made headlines in the 1970s when he popped out of the trunks of cars and knocked on doors in his fight against drugs, gamblers and bootleggers.
• In 1977, Wichita passed one of the few civil rights ordinances in the country protecting gays, putting the city on the map when singer Anita Bryant and her Save Our Children organization challenged it. The amendment barred discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. Seven months after it was passed, the ordinance was repealed when Wichitans voted to overturn it 47,246-10,005.
• Wichita native Lynette Woodard, a four-time All-America basketball player at the University of Kansas, played on the U.S. Olympic teams in 1980 and 1984. She later became the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.
• Wichitan Jerry Bittle, creator of the nationally-syndicated comic strips “Geech” and “Shirley and Son,” capitalized on a life that was as laid-back as possible. “The best job I ever had was as a lifeguard,” Bittle wrote in the foreword of his book “Sorry We’re Open,” published in 1993 by The Wichita Eagle and Beacon Publishing Co. “The second best job I ever had was as a cartoonist. There are similarities. Each can sleep until noon, both have relaxed dress codes, and neither one requires any math or heavy lifting.”
• Moses Jay, longtime security guard and the first person visitors would meet as they passed through the Mid-America All-Indian Center’s doors, died on Jan. 2, 2002. He was a full-blooded Apache. His Indian name, Nesahkluah, meant “Glittering Rainbow,” and he traced his roots to Geronimo. During World War II, Jay fought in the same battles as Audie Murphy. He was in six major campaigns and earned four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts and a Croix de Guerre, a medal awarded by the French government for valor in combat.
• Henry Roe Cloud founded the Roe Institute, later named the American Indian Institute. Located north of what is now Wichita State University, the all-male school was one of the first American Indian high schools in the nation.
• Hundreds of demonstrators flocked to Wichita in 1991 to make their opposition to abortion known in Operation Rescue’s “Summer of Mercy.”
• Razed in 1993, the United Sash and Door Co. was once the largest millwork plant of its kind. For nearly a century, it was best known as the building that crossed Waterman at Rock Island.
• When Martin Ortiz was a boy struggling to understand English, his teacher at a Wichita elementary school penned a sign and hung it around his neck: “I am retarded,” it said, according to family members. The other students laughed and jeered. “All because he didn’t speak any English,” John Ortiz, Martin Ortiz’s younger brother, told The Eagle in 2009. Martin Ortiz became a national advocate for minority student programs and founder of Whittier College’s Center for Mexican American Affairs. He was a consultant for the Ecuadorian Ministry of Public Health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners.

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