In the beginning, there were men like William Greiffenstein, Darius Munger and J.R. Mead who fashioned a village into a city.
They didn’t wait for feasibility studies or grants. They did what had to be done.
From cowtown to air capital of the world, through boom and bust, Wichita is a city that has invented and re-invented itself.
Can Wichita do it again?
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Just as the bumblebee is the insect that shouldn’t fly but does, we are the city that shouldn’t be here but is. To be bluntly honest, there is no inherent reason why there has to be a city here.
Jay Price, Wichita State University history department chairman
“I call this the bumblebee city,” says Jay Price, Wichita State University history department chairman. “Just as the bumblebee is the insect that shouldn’t fly but does, we are the city that shouldn’t be here but is.
“To be bluntly honest, there is no inherent reason why there has to be a city here.”
But there is. And it is the largest city in Kansas.
“There is no reason we came to be the big city as opposed to a McPherson or a Goodland,” Price said. “We began as a venture – most cities began as a company. There were individuals here who become involved right away and understand that the fate of their city is the fate of their livelihood. They are looking for opportunity, and it makes us pragmatic.”
Wichita’s first plats were drawn up by Greiffenstein and 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.
Then came cattle.
The Kansas Pacific Railway had just completed construction of a long-distance line across the state, extending the national railroad network.
Railroad men and cowboys had the same goal: to get cattle to markets in the East. Joseph McCoy, an Illinois livestock trader, had the insight in 1867 to accomplish it.
McCoy came to Kansas looking for leaders who would be willing to have their town used as a shipping point for the railroads. After searching, he came across Abilene, where he built shipping yards and started running full-page ads in many of the northern newspapers, urging buyers to come west to Abilene to buy stock.
The next year, herds began moving along the Chisholm Trail. Wichita didn’t become a cowtown until 1872, when it acquired a railroad. In Wichita alone, more than 230,000 head of cattle were shipped out between 1872 and 1876.
In 1887, only New York and Kansas City, Mo., generated more real estate sales than Wichita. Cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Brooklyn trailed.
People were flocking to Kansas and Wichita, in large part because of the efforts of Col. Marsh Murdock, the founding editor and publisher of The Wichita Eagle. If there ever was an advocate for Wichita, it was Murdock.
The boom came during a period of national optimism. European crop failures had boosted U.S. food exports, encouraging people to settle lands previously occupied by Indians. From 1881 to 1897, 203,000 people settled in Kansas. By 1889, Wichita’s population had grown to 48,000.
The boom came during a period of national optimism. European crop failures had boosted U.S. food exports, encouraging people to settle lands previously occupied by American Indians.
From 1881 to 1897, 203,000 people settled in Kansas. By 1889, Wichita’s population had grown to 48,000.
Murdock made Wichita seem like an attractive place. His editorials were quoted all over the country.
But at the height of the boom, Murdock decided it was time for Wichita to be realistic. He wrote an editorial, “Call a Halt,” concerned about “the city’s wild and reckless spending.”
Murdock’s Wichita was in chaos. He feared people would lose money on land deals that had no realistic hope of being developed.
The end of the boom did not come immediately. Some of the crash occurred in 1888, but the total impact wasn’t felt until 1889. That year, businesses and schools began to fall by the wayside.
Despair gave way to panic. Many of Wichita’s leading capitalists were losing thousands of dollars.
By 1892, the population had fallen to 20,928.
With the population falling and the economy struggling, the sons and daughters of the founders had to re-invent the industries that would help drive Wichita.
It would take a decade or more for them to find them.
The first was broomcorn.
Broomcorn’s seeds are called branches or straws. It is those seeds that are used to make brooms.
City leaders promoted Wichita as the broomcorn capital of the world because more than 75 percent of the crop during its heyday of the 1930s and 1940s was grown in the Wichita area. The broomcorn industry flourished from about 1908 to 1970.
More than 3,000 carloads of broomcorn bales moved through Wichita every year, with 16 local broomcorn companies handling the brunt of the crop at one time. Broomcorn’s biggest competitor would turn out to be wall-to-wall carpeting.
Leaders who helped Wichita re-invent itself after the bust included people like Ben McLean, who had come to Wichita almost penniless and started working at a lumber company. He eventually bought the lumberyard and a 500-acre farm on 21st Street between the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers.
Through the years, he became active in politics and served as mayor three times after the turn of the century; he was also president of Fourth National Bank and director of the Orient Railroad.
There were people like L.W. Clapp, who was a lawyer and banker, then city manager and mayor of Wichita. He is given credit for helping develop the city’s park system.
Wichita soon embraced and promoted another industry – aviation.
It started with Clyde Cessna, a Kingman County farmer who – with no formal training in engineering or flying – built the first plane in Wichita during the winter of 1916-17.
The industry was nurtured by local leaders and, most notably, by wealthy El Dorado oilman Jake Moellendick. His money brought talent to Wichita and financed the fledgling industry.
Walter Beech, a Tennessee farmboy, was a World War I pilot and a post-war barnstormer and salesman. After he left Moellendick’s Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Co. in 1925, he founded Travel Air with the aim of crafting the finest-built airplanes in the world.
Lloyd Stearman grew up in Harper and learned to fly in the Navy. He worked at Swallow, then joined Beech and Cessna to create Travel Air. Later, his own Stearman Aircraft Co. would lay the foundation for Boeing Wichita.
How is it ... that this comparatively small mid-plains city ranks alongside of New York, Detroit or Los Angeles in the manufacture of the world’s newest vehicle of transportation?
Writer John Nevill, in “Aviation Editor” in 1930
“How is it ... that this comparatively small mid-plains city ranks alongside of New York, Detroit or Los Angeles in the manufacture of the world’s newest vehicle of transportation?” writer John Nevill wrote in “Aviation Editor” in 1930.
He answered his own question with a long list of reasons that included topography, geography, climate, air-mindedness, money and “go getterism.”
During World War II, Wichita was a powerhouse. Boeing’s Wichita division, Beech, Cessna and Culver Aircraft delivered thousands of trainers and bombers to the military.
One more time?
So, can Wichita invent itself again? Can the city expand beyond its still critical aviation industry?
“In every city that has ever boomed, there has been a massive influx of outsiders – that there is so much to do, locals can’t do it alone,” Price said. “It’s like a chemical reaction that happens. The influx of folks coming changes the dynamic.”
The future will be built, as it always has been, on innovation. Wichita is the city that beget White Castle, Pizza Hut, Coleman lanterns and more.
Now, think of the Innovation Campus on Wichita State University, or the e2e Accelerator, or the National Center for Aviation Training.
Great changes come from local leaders stepping up and making decisions.
“One thing we are really good at,” Price said of Wichita, “is re-inventing ourselves.”