After visiting Wichita it is easy to see why this is one of the most underrated cities in the country.
With a population of 392,059 at the last census, the seat of surrounding Sedgwick County is the largest city in Kansas. Wichita, as with other one-time frontier towns, owes its existence to a combination of cows and railroads in the years following the Civil War.
The Chisholm Trail, once used to drive cattle from the ranches of Texas to the railroads in Kansas, passed through here. By 1873 — a year after the first trains reached Wichita — some 66,000 heads of cattle were being shipped out.
To learn more about this chapter in history I made the short walk from the Hyatt Regency along the Arkansas River and past Blackbear Bosin’s iconic “Keeper of the Plains” statue to the Old Cowtown Museum.
The open-air museum features 54 original and recreated buildings and more than 12,000 artifacts from the Old West era on 25 acres of land just a few minutes from the heart of downtown. Think Colonial Williamsburg, but set during the 1870s, when none other than Wyatt Earp patrolled the streets as an assistant city marshal.
One of the more interesting original buildings is the simple white church from 1870 that once housed First Presbyterian Church. (The congregation’s present church is a fortress-like edifice built between 1910 and 1912.)
Built at a cost of $1,500 as Wichita’s first permanent church, the Presbyterians used it for just two years. Subsequently acquired by the Roman Catholics and later turned into a boarding house, it was saved from ruin in the postwar years. Inside are several displays with religious artifacts from various churches across denominations.
The big draw, as one might expect, is a shootout.
Staged twice a day at high noon and 3 o’clock, costumed interpreters perform a gunfight drama from a dime novel — a genre popular at the end of the 19th century. Occasional special events, including the Wild West Days reenactment in late September, add additional programming.
Perhaps most remarkable is how quickly Wichita transformed itself from an Old West boom town. Within just 50 years of Earp and others, the city was calling itself the Air Capital of the World.
The story of how that happened can be discovered at the Kansas Aviation Museum inside the art deco-style former municipal airport terminal.
Besides big names like Cessna and Boeing, there were as many as 16 airplane manufacturers at one point. It was also a busy hub during the early days of commercial aviation, as Wichita’s location in the Great Plains and near the geographic center of the contiguous United States made for a convenient refueling point.
In its heyday, the likes of Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes made use of the National Register of Historic Places-listed terminal. Though today surpassed by airline hubs in Atlanta, Denver and Chicago, the aerospace industry remains vital to Wichita’s economy.
Be sure to also visit the Mid-America All-Indian Museum with its collection of Bosin artwork, Wichita Art Museum and Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, which is housed within the stately Richardsonian Romanesque former city hall opposite a rather hideous brutalist former library.
If you go
The Kansas Aviation and Old Cowtown museums are open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Perched above the Arkansas River and within walking distance of almost everything to see and do the Hyatt Regency has the best location, despite an overall feeling of tiredness. A couple blocks away is the Ambassador Hotel, a boutique hotel flagged under Marriott’s Autograph Collection brand.
Eat dinner at Georges French Bistro, Newport Grill and FioRito Ristorante.
I flew into Wichita’s airport, which is served by the major airlines. By car, Wichita is six hours from St. Louis, seven hours from Denver and five hours from Dallas.
Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.
Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.