Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


From a trading and hunting outpost of 600 people when it emerged as an incorporated town from the former Osage reservation in 1870, Wichita prospered through changes, reinvented itself often, and served, by the turn of the twenty-first century, a metropolitan area of 500,000 people. It was by turns, and among other things, the premier cattle town of Kansas (1870s), the fastest growing city in the United States (1880s), the broomcorn-jobbing capital of the nation (1910s), the "Air Capital of the World" (1920s), a major defense manufacturing center (1940s), an entrepreneurial incubator for fast food franchises and other businesses (1950s and 1960s), and a regional center for medical care and research (1970s and 1980s).

Like many Plains cities, Wichita's strength has been in the energy and vision of its people. Joseph McCoy organized the cattle trade there. Marshall Murdock of the Wichita Eagle attracted attention by calling his hometown the "New Memphis of the American Nile" and the "Peerless Princess of the Plains." Mary E. Lease formed her Populist rhetorical style in local debates. Carrie Nation made national headlines by discovering that Wichita was not respecting the Kansas prohibition ordinance. William Coleman's Wichita gasoline lantern plant made his name a household word. A. A. Hyde invented Mentholatum, the "little nurse for little ills," in Wichita. Matty Laird, Walter Beech, Lloyd Stearman, Clyde Cessna, and William Lear were only some of those who made aviation history there. Wichita was an early leader in government innovation through establishing a city commission (1909) and a city manager system (1917). Even earlier (1887), the town had extended the municipal franchise to women. Paul Wellman was a popular western historian. Louise Brooks of Wichita became a major movie star. Frank and Dan Carney founded Pizza Hut in a small brick building in Wichita in 1958. Sam Ramey took his Wichita State education on to international opera stardom. Runner Jim Ryun broke the four-minute mile in high school and must surely be ranked as the nation's all-time greatest miler. Nancy Kassebaum pioneered among women in the Senate.

Wichita seemed to learn from its reverses. In the 1890s it lost one-third of its population and one-half of its valuation yet attracted aviation and other industries in the early twentieth century to grow again. During the Great Depression, although its population stabilized at 100,000, local people preserved the aircraft business, and, with that industry as a base, World War II contracting led to a doubling of the population within a decade.

In the late twentieth century Wichita became more diverse–in population, in business, and in social and cultural focus–than it had been traditionally. During World War II its lack of Asian residents had been an argument for making it a defense center, and the black population was never over 5 percent until the 1960s. That changed, and in 2000 Asians and African Americans constituted, respectively, 4 percent and 11.4 percent of the city's population. Wichita has three times in recent decades been recognized as an All-American City in national competition, reflecting its cultural resources, clean environment, and continuing entrepreneurial spirit.

See also INDUSTRY: Coleman, William; Pizza Hut / PROTEST AND DISSENT: Lease, Mary Elizabeth; Nation, Carry / WAR: World War II / SPORTS AND RECREATION: Ryun, Jim.

Craig Miner Wichita State University

Bentley, O. H. History of Wichita and Sedgwick County. Chicago: C. F. Cooper and Company, 1910.

Miner, Craig. Wichita: The Magic City. Wichita KS: Wichita–Sedgwick County Historical Museum, 1988.

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