Artistic, historical, and family-friendly attractions fill Kansas’ largest town, which is a convenient drive from FMCA’s motorhome extravaganza site in Hutchinson.
By Pamela Selbert, F195400
The Plains Indian tribes believed that the confluence of the Big Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers was a mystical spot. Wichita, Kansas, was built there, and in the 1870s was a rough-and-tumble cow town along the Chisholm Trail. Today Wichita has many more claims to fame. It has been named an All-American City three times. It has long held the distinction of being the “air capital of the world,” because of the many aircraft manufacturers that are located there. And its thriving arts community has earned it a reputation as the “Cultural Mecca of the Great Plains.”
But what you may remember most after you visit Wichita is its outdoor sculpture. As you travel down wide, tree-shaded residential streets and through a bustling downtown, you can’t help but notice that statues seem to be everywhere. Wichita is home to more than 500 outdoor sculptures — so many that a booklet titled Beautifying Wichita Through Sculpture, describes the 170 that are said to be “most easily seen by the general public.”
Wichita is the largest city in Kansas and continues to grow. As of the 2000 census, it boasted more than 344,000 residents. So, in addition to the sculptures, it offers an ample number of attractions for RVers to enjoy either before or after their stay in Hutchinson for FMCA’s Motor “Home On The Range” motorhome extravaganza October 1, 2, and 3. Since Wichita is only 45 miles southeast of Hutchinson, it makes a convenient day trip.
Going on a sculpture hunt is a good way to explore Wichita, as well as receive a lesson in art appreciation. The range of styles is vast: some sculptures are whimsical; many are symbolic; and others practically defy description. Bill Bagley’s “Sputnik II” (on East Douglas Ave.) could be a Dr. Seuss-style piece of outlandish farm machinery, and is actually a composite of welded tools. The nearby “Tin Man,” by Jan Purcell, seems to be striding vigorously down the Yellow Brick Road. Frank Jensen’s “Lion” (on South Belmont) is a fierce-looking filigree beast crafted from strips of welded steel.
Other sculptures represent Wichita’s American Indian heritage. The most notable is the towering and dramatic “Keeper of the Plains” (650 N. Seneca), a likeness of an American Indian with his hands raised to heaven. The statue is set in the very spot where the Big Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers meet, and was created by Blackbear Bosin, a Kiowa-Comanche. At that same location is “Heritage Pole” by Joe Sequiche Morris, a Cherokee, a 33-foot-tall totem of bright figures that tells the story of Kansas.
The sculpture collection also includes three works by Auguste Rodin — “Grand Torse d’Homme,” “La Priere,” and “The Cathedral” — and a magnificent “Mother and Child” by Charles Grafly. All four of these (and many more) are at Wichita State University. In fact, more than 60 outdoor works of art are located on the campus.
It would take days to see all of Wichita’s fine sculptures. Among my favorites are the 13 delightful bronze figures placed seemingly at random along Douglas Avenue in the heart of downtown. These life-size figures seem so real that you must tell yourself they’re only the likenesses of a businessman reading a newspaper, a girl with a pony, and a child playing hopscotch.
To get a true feel for the city’s variety of sculptures, it’s best to acquire a copy of the self-guided tour booklet mentioned above from the Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bureau is located at the corner of Main Street and Douglas Avenue. Guidebooks and brochures about many of Wichita’s attractions are available there as well.
After your introduction to town, view the historical side of Wichita at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, located in the stately 1892 former City Hall building. Outside, you’ll see yet another charming sculpture, “Boy with a Boot.” It was cast in Italy and given to the children of Wichita by Mayor Finlay Ross in 1898.
The museum building itself is a world of fine Victorian woodwork, decorative painting, and leaded glass. It harbors a host of excellent exhibits, among them “Wichita: the Magic City,” a “Wichita Cottage,” and the “Drug Store.” The cottage, far grander than one’s usual notion of a “cottage,” comprises a bedroom, a dining room, a parlor, a bathroom with a tin claw-foot tub, and a kitchen with an ornate cast-iron stove. The other rooms, featuring elegant parquet floors, are trimmed in shiny dark woodwork and furnished in the era with a marble-topped table, a pump organ, and gorgeous glass kerosene lamps, among other treasures.
An entire 1910 drugstore was moved to the museum from Severy, Kansas. It features a long, marble counter; stately apothecary bottles filled with colorful liquids; mortars and pestles; and more stained-glass windows. Floor-to-ceiling glass-fronted cabinets are filled with potions and products of the time such as Gavitt’s Lice Powder, Dr. Hess White Diarrhea Remedy, Blondex shampoo, Mentholatum, Bromo-Seltzer, and Y.M.B. Liver Pills.
Most extensive is the Wichita historical exhibit, which fills several large galleries. Long ago, the Arkansas River Valley was a vast, rolling prairie, where herds of grazing buffalo blanketed the land from horizon to horizon. The future site of Wichita, part of the Great American Desert where the Big and Little Arkansas rivers meet, was first surveyed in 1836 and reported to be of no use to settlers because of the scarcity of trees. If trees couldn’t grow, how could the land support crops?
Nonetheless, 30 years later, a township was laid out at the spot. By then, Kansas had become a state. Wichita was established in 1868 when a trading post was built on Osage Indian trust land. Two years later, after the Indians lost the claim, Sedgwick County, where Wichita lies, was organized, and named for Civil War Major General John Sedgwick. The town itself got its name from the Osage Indian word for the Wichita Indians. The wealth that built the town came from Indian trade, wagon freighting, hunting, and government contracts for supplying area Indian tribes.
The museum presents this history, as well as the events that unfolded in later years, through hundreds of artifacts, historic photos, slides, and films. Among the city’s early prominent citizens were James Mead of Iowa, a trader and buffalo hunter who established the trading post; and German immigrant William Greiffenstein, who won government contracts despite being banished from Indian Territory for illegally selling guns, liquor, and ammunition. Other notables included William Mathewson of New York, the “original” Buffalo Bill; and Jesse Chisholm of Scotland, who couldn’t read but spoke 14 Indian languages. He was associated with freighting and government contracts and, of course, the Chisholm Trail — a freight road that traversed a portion of his property.
Among the hundreds of artifacts displayed are cowboy saddles, boots, leather chaps, and revolvers; gorgeous Indian-made items, such as a Kiowa cradleboard, a buckskin pipe bag, a boy’s vest, and a woman’s leggings; and an 18-inch model of a Wells Fargo stagecoach. Historic photos depict legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, a Wichita city policeman from 1874 to 1876, as well as fierce-looking Carry Nation, who traveled to Wichita on December 26, 1900, on a mission to drive alcohol out of the city. We roamed the museum for three hours, but could have spent days and still not have seen it to our satisfaction.
The Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum is located at 204 S. Main St. It is open Tuesday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. (Closed Mondays and holidays.) Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children. For more information, visit www.wscribe.com/history or phone (316) 265-9314.
Our next stop was the Old Cowtown Museum, one of the oldest outdoor museums in the Midwest. This facility occupies 17 acres just west of town, where more than 40 buildings of historical significance have been arranged. Among the structures are a working blacksmith shop, a newspaper shop, a marshal’s office, a one-room schoolhouse, a general store, a saloon, and 1880s farm buildings. More than 13,000 artifacts are displayed to interpret pioneer life in Wichita, Sedgwick County, and the Southern Plains between 1865 and 1880.
The museum began in 1949, when a group of citizens realized that the few buildings that had survived Wichita’s early days would soon be lost. They formed a non-profit group and leased land along the Big Arkansas River, which they believed would be a proper setting. The Old Town portion of the museum opened in 1953, and though it has grown over the years, it retains its Western flavor, illustrating facts of daily pioneer life that the movies typically omit.
The Town Area includes a business district where visitors can explore a hotel, a bank, a land office, a clothing store, and much more. At the industrial-railroad area, items and buildings related to cattle trading and grain shipping are displayed. The Arkansas Valley Grain Elevator, one of only three restored wooden grain elevators in the United States, has mechanics inside it that still work.
Much like today, the outskirts of town harbored churches, schools, and private homes. The 1880 DeVore Farm occupies a 5-acre spot at the museum. This interactive farm is fun for the whole family. Museum volunteers bring history back to life for modern children by organizing 19th-century games for visitors. Other activities include taking part in old-fashioned spelling bees at the schoolhouse; learning to drive square nails; and watching as plowing, planting, harvesting, and other work proceeds at the 1880 farm. Powerful Percheron horses are used to pull the antique plow and other farm equipment. Other animals in this barnyard are chickens, cows, and goats, and some 14 cats have the run of the place. Buildings on this typical 19th-century farm include a smokehouse, a chicken coop, a threshing barn, and a pigsty.
The museum is open from April through October, during which time approximately 700 volunteers help with interpretation, special events, and maintenance. These men and women wear era-style clothing that is made on the premises. The museum hosts many special events throughout the year, such as a Victorian wedding re-enactment, a cowboy campout, an 1870s Independence Day celebration, and much more. For example, on September 7 and 28, the Old Cowtown Museum Gunfighters will re-enact scenarios on the streets of Cowtown. On September 21 and 22, Celebrating the Horse Weekend will be held. The Fall County Fair and Education Day, with saloon dancing, quilting, weaving, and other crafts, will take place October 4, 5, and 6.
The Old Cowtown Museum is located at 1871 Sim Park Drive and open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $6.50 for seniors, $5 for students ages 12 to 17, $4 for children ages 4 to 11, and free for children under 4. For more information, phone (316) 264-0671, or visit www.old-cowtown.org.
In a lovely and peaceful setting at the confluence of the Little and Big Arkansas rivers is the Indian Center Museum. A totem pole stands outside, as does the aforementioned “Keeper of the Plains” sculpture. The museum is a tribute to the men and women who first lived out their lives on this land.
The facility includes two indoor galleries. One houses temporary, changing displays of art, all created by American Indians. Outside an Indian Artists’ Walk of Fame features a series of gardens, each dedicated to a famous Indian artist.
The other indoor gallery contains historical information about the Plains Indians. Items of note include leather clothing, moccasins, bags, baby carriers and fans, armbands, gauntlets, vests elaborate with tiny seed beads, and a breastplate made of bone and brass beads. Other exhibits explain the daily life of early Plains Indians, such as hunting for elk, pronghorn antelope, and deer, and cultivating corn, beans, and pumpkins. A Pawnee earth lodge, believed by Indians to represent woman and the universe, is part of a large diorama that highlights the ingenious construction of these 12-foot-diameter homes. Each structure had a square-shaped doorway hung with deerskins and split-plank roof rafters covered with grassy sod. Lodges were coated with wet earth to form a plaster-like shell. Other museum exhibits explain the role of the horse and the bison in Plains Indian life.
Dozens of artifacts are presented, including pottery, stone hammers, bone awls, mussel shell earrings, an antler bracelet, a stone pendant, and more. The museum also houses the Gallery of Nations. This gallery is decorated with bright flags that represent dozens of Indian nations and is used for various occasions. Outside the museum building is the Indian Village, with examples of various dwellings.
The Indian Center Museum is located at 650 N. Seneca St. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday (April through October only) from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. The Indian Village on the grounds is open from April through October. When the village is open, admission is $6 for adults, $2.50 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children under age 6. Museum-only admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children 6 to 12, and free for kids under age 6. For more information, call (316) 262-5221 or visit www.theindiancenter.com.
These are only a few of Wichita’s many highlights. Other places of note include the following:
The Kansas Aviation Museum is located in the former main terminal of the Wichita Municipal Airport. Its 1940s air control tower is still intact and overlooks McConnell Air Force Base. Outside the terminal is a collection of military and civilian aircraft with Kansas roots.
The first successful Kansas airplane, the 1910 Longren Flyer, was built only a few years after the Wright Brothers’ plane was flown. Since then, numerous other aircraft have been built by more than 80 Kansas manufacturers, among them Stearman, Beechcraft, Cessna, Boeing, and Learjet. Planes in the collection include a Cessna-built Air Force trainer plane, the T-37B “Tweety Bird.” Restoration projects are ongoing at the museum; currently, a Stearman 73 and a Laird Swallow are being rebuilt. The Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame is also at the museum.
The museum is located at 3350 George Washington Blvd. and is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Saturday from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $2 for ages 12 and older and $1 for children ages 6 to 11. For more information, phone (316) 683-9242 or visit www.kansasaviationmuseum.org.
The Kansas African American Museum spotlights the achievements of African-Americans in Wichita and throughout the state by displaying artifacts and visual art, and telling the stories of inventors, settlers, and city leaders. The museum occupies a 1917 church building built by black Wichitans that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Exhibits include traditional and contemporary African art, as well as African American pieces. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. For more information, phone (316) 262-7651.
Botanica, The Wichita Gardens is where visitors go to see thousands of native and exotic flowers and dozens of fountains and sculptures. Its Sensory Garden boasts a “living plant wall.” From June through October, visitors can stroll through the Butterfly House amid hundreds of winged jewels. Botanica is located at 701 N. Amidon (in the River District). The gardens are open daily from April through December; closed on weekends from January through March. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $3 for youth, and free for children under age 5. For more information, contact Botanica, The Wichita Gardens, at (316) 264-0448 or www.botanica.org.
The Great Plains Nature Center, dubbed “a wild oasis in an urban setting,” offers an amazing variety of creatures. In the enormous Koch Habitat Hall, exhibits show the prairie as it originally looked, with streams and wetlands, lakes and rivers — including native fish in a 2,200-gallon aquarium. A wildlife observatory offers opportunities to observe beavers, muskrats, ducks, and egrets. Wildlife programs are presented in the center’s Coleman Auditorium. The nature center is located at 6232 E. 29th St. N. and is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information, phone (316) 683-5499 or visit www.gpnc.org.
The Sedgwick County Zoo encompasses 247 acres and is considered one of the United States’ most progressive zoos because of its breeding programs and natural environments. The zoo houses more than 2,500 animals and nearly 500 species. Major exhibits include a jungle rain forest with hundreds of rare critters and tropical plants; a herpetarium with reptiles and amphibians from around the world; and an African veldt inhabited by elephants, black rhinos, and other mammals. Other exhibits include the South American Pampas/Australian Outback; Children’s Farm; North American Prairie, with grizzly bears, bison, river otters, wolves, cougars, eagles, and a prairie dog town; and the Koch Orangutan and Chimpanzee Habitat. The newest exhibit, Pride of the Plains, offers close-up views of Africa’s warthogs, meerkats, and lions. The zoo is open daily year-round (except during its annual Zoobilee, which takes place this year on September 7). Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, and $5 for children ages 4 to 11. For more information, phone (316) 942-2213 or visit www.scz.org.
Exploration Place gives kids a chance to fire off a rocket and play miniature golf, all in the same place. They also can try on fun costumes, explore a storybook castle, excavate fossils, learn to broadcast the weather, travel into the past, pilot a biplane, create a TV commercial, solve a food poisoning mystery … the list goes on and on. Exploration Place also has the CyberDome theater, in which films are shown on a 360-degree screen, and the Simulation Center, where full-motion hydraulic seats move in concert with an action film projected on a giant screen. The museum is located at 300 N. McLean Blvd. and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Separate admission fees are charged for exhibits, miniature golf, the Simulation Center, and the CyberDome Theater. Combination ticket packages are available, as are senior and group discounts. For more information, contact Exploration Place at (877) 904-1444, (316) 263-3373, or www.exploration.org.
The Old Town District is a revitalized historic downtown warehouse district that features turn-of-the-century buildings, brick streets, streetlights, and raised boardwalks. More than 200 businesses are located in a 10-block area. One is the Coleman Factory Outlet and Museum, a showcase for Kansas’ renowned camping equipment manufacturer. Restaurants and clubs; museums; galleries and antiques shops; and more are concentrated in this old-fashioned location. More than a dozen festivals and other events are held there throughout the year. On Saturdays, a trolley runs through the district, and free public parking lots are situated throughout. Old Town is six blocks east of Wichita’s current downtown core. For more information and a free visitors guide to the district, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, phone (316) 262-3555, or visit www.oldtownwichita.com.
The Museum of Ancient Treasures opened in May 2001 with an incredible collection of items. These include T. Rex and Triceratops dinosaur skulls; 100 million-year-old fossilized fish; spearheads dating from 20,000 B.C.; meteorites; gold nuggets; an Egyptian sarcophagus from 1000 B.C.; gorgeous 2,000-year-old jewelry from Egypt and Mesopotamia; Greek pottery; Roman statues and coins; Buddha sculptures from the Orient; and thousands of other items.
What makes the museum especially intriguing is that all the treasures are from the private collection of a local physician named Jon Kardatzke. He began acquiring them approximately 20 years ago, and friends who saw them on display in his home suggested that he open a museum. The 10,000-square-foot facility now is an absolute must-see. It is located at 250 W. Douglas Ave., Suite #1. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5 for children ages 4 to 12, and free for children 3 and under. Guided tours are available. For more information, phone (316) 263-1311.
These are certainly not all of the fine attractions in town, but they are a start. Be sure to contact the Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau to obtain more information, and get ready for a lesson in appreciating Wichita itself.
Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau
100 S. Main, Suite 100
Wichita, KS 67202
Fax: (316) 265-0162
All Season RV Campground
15520 W. Maple Ave.
Wichita, KS 67052
This campground offers 48 full-hookup sites and amenities such as badminton, horseshoes, volleyball, groceries, and propane on site.
11209 W. U.S. 54
Wichita, KS 67209
Offers 104 full-hookup sites; amenities include a swimming pool, fuel, propane, and fishing.
USI RV Park
2920 E. 33rd St. N.
Wichita, KS 67219
Offers 70 sites; amenities include rest rooms, showers, laundry facilities, propane gas, and a recreation hall.