History of Wichita

Now recognized as one of the major mid-sized cities in the nation, Wichita has come a long way since its infant years as a trading post and cowtown. The road from "then" to "now" has been filled with colorful people, events and businesses that have been the building blocks for today's cosmopolitan Wichita... a dynamic community rich in culture, activity and opportunity. 

The beginnings of the community date to 1868, when J.R. Mead founded a trading post at the confluence of two rivers, the Arkansas and the Little Arkansas. For centuries this location had also served as a trading place for Native Americans. The name Wichita comes from the Wichita Indians, who settled at various times in the vicinity, and means either "scattered lodges" or "painted faces," depending on which historian you ask.

In 1868, a Wichita Town Company was organized with Mead and six others as original incorporators. Wichita was incorporated as a city of the third class on July 21, 1870. One hundred twenty-three men and one woman signed the original incorporation petition. The woman was Mrs. Catherine McCarty, who owned and operated a laundry. Later, she moved to New Mexico, where her oldest son, Henry, changed his name to William Bonney, better known as "Billy the Kid."

Jesse Chisholm came to Wichita in about 1863, leading a party of sportsmen and adventurers here to hunt game. He later marked the cattle trail, best known as the Chisholm Trail, from the King Ranch in south Texas to Kansas. Cattle by the hundreds of thousands traversed the trail to the Santa Fe railhead at Wichita. In 1872 alone, 350,000 head of cattle were sold in Wichita at a value of more than $2 million, a princely sum in those days.

Spurred by this influx of cowboys in the 1870s who brought hundreds of thousands of cattle out of Texas north to Wichita along the Chisholm Trail, Wichita was indeed a rough and tumble cowtown. It was a city where Wyatt Earp, "Buffalo Bill" William Mathewson and Bat Masterson walked the dusty streets. Just west of the river, the area known as Delano was especially wild and woolly. All manner of vice could be found in saloons, dance halls, gambling and prostitution houses to entertain the thirsty and lonely cowboys.

Even though the cattle trade lasted only three or four years, its presence assured Wichita's position as a commercial hub. With the trade groundwork firmly established, manufacturing and agriculture industries thrived in the late teens and early 1920s. In addition, savvy aviation entrepreneurs moved in to take advantage of the benefits of a prosperous oil industry, agreeable climate and wide open spaces perfect for building and testing these new birds of flight.

Men like Lloyd Stearman, Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna, E.M. Laird, J.M. Mollendick and George Weaver were responsible for starting the aircraft industry in the area. With Mollendick as the financial backer, Laird started the Swallow Airplane Company to build the Swallow airplane that had been designed in Chicago. Interestingly, Beech, Stearman, and Weaver all worked for Laird and Mollendick until each went on to establish his own company. Stearman's company later was purchased by The Boeing Company of Seattle, now Spirit AeroSystems. Today Spirit is Wichita’s largest employer with more than 20,000 employees.

The Beech (now Hawker Beechcraft Corporation) and Cessna companies continue today, as does Learjet (now Bombardier Aerospace Learjet), founded by William Lear in the mid-1960s. It was through the efforts of these aviation pioneers that Wichita earned the title of "Air Capital of the World." With all companies still located in Wichita, this title is still relevant today. Cessna, Bombardier Aerospace Learjet and Raytheon supply more than half of the world's general aviation and military aircraft. Boeing supplies two-thirds of the world's commercial airliners.

It was not only aviation that established Wichita as a hotbed of entrepreneurship. Many other Wichita business leaders have made their mark too. W.C. Coleman, a name synonymous worldwide with camping and outdoor recreational equipment, produced his first Coleman lantern in Wichita in 1914.

About the same time, another innovative business leader, A.A. Hyde, invented a product that was to become a household word... mentholatum. Later, two enterprising Wichitans launched White Castle hamburgers here.

Koch Industries, the second largest privately held company in the U.S., is another homegrown success story. Originally established as the Wood River Oil and Refining Company in 1940, Koch Industries has become one of the most diverse firms in the nation. Koch operations include refined products, chemicals, crude oil services, gas liquids, energy services, chemical technology, minerals services, agriculture and capital services.

In 1958, Frank and Dan Carney borrowed $600 from their mother and established their first Pizza Hut in Wichita in a small red brick building. This original Pizza Hut now resides on the campus of Wichita State University as testimony to the possibilities of vision, hard work and the spirit of entrepreneurship.

A sampling of other well-known national and international companies with roots in Wichita include: Candlewood Inn, Cox Communications, Hyperion Communications, Pioneer Balloon, Rent-A-Center, Ryan Aviation, Sheplers Western Wear Store, and The Residence Inn.

Obviously, Wichita has come a long way since its beginnings as a trading post and cowtown. Right now, Wichita is a booming city with one of the best economies in the nation...a solid, diverse economy with business interests that span the globe. Good jobs and good salaries, below national average costs, short commute times and burgeoning arts and attractions have also developed in conjunction with this solid, Midwest spirit of hard work and vision... a pioneer spirit all dressed up in high tech fashion.

But, it's the original foundation as a center for commerce that has been the one constant ensuring Wichita’s progress through good times and bad. It's a legacy of commerce that will continue to keep Wichita prosperous as we charge ahead in this 21st century. 

(Source –wichitachamber.org)

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