Call Wichita a “Cowtown,” and locals may say thank you, with a smile.
Wichita may be an air transportation and high tech center, but, in its earliest days, it marked the end of the Chisholm Trail – a cattle drive from Texas – where cattle were hauled away to market by train car.
The cowboys riding the herds needed a place to unwind and clean up. Wichita filled that space. The city celebrates its “cowpoke” history with the Old Cowtown living history museum.
The outdoor museum opened in 1952 and has 54 buildings on 23 acres. Visitors can take 1-2 hours to really enjoy the visit.
Old Cowtown is home to Wichita’s oldest house – a cabin that was built by Darius Munger. He is considered the original white settler of Wichita. He built the home in 1868 near 9th street and the Little Arkansas River.
Another key house in the residential district of the museum is the Hodge house. Wesley Hodge was one of the first African-Americans to live in Wichita. He built the house after moving to the city in 1876. He was a blacksmith from 1878-85.
Marshall Murdock was a journalist, who founded the Wichita Eagle daily newspaper. The Murdock house represents a comfortable middle class home of the 1870s.
The last house we checked out was the Story and a Half house. It was considered a starter home, and was often rented to low- or middle-class families. The upstairs was basically half a floor, thus the name.
Moving on to the business section of town, as agriculture developed in the area, Kansas farmers raised corn and some wheat during the 1870s (wheat would become the top commodity later). Streets were packed with farmers during harvest, delivering crop to the local grain elevators.
Trains were used to transport people, goods and crops around the country. The Wichita train depot stands a few feet from the grain elevator.
With money in their pocket, farmers, cowboys and others could visit local businesses, such as the drug store, general store, the Blacksmith, newspaper office or the meat market.
The meat market served as the focal point for hunters. Wild game, such as elk, buffalo and deer would be sold here and shipped to the eastern market. Locals could enjoy some domestic meat, as well as some wild game.
In need of a bath and a shave, men would head to the local barber shop. Women weren’t allowed in a “shaving saloon.” Men would socialize and discuss current events, without the “fear of offending ladies’ sensibilities.”
A bath could be had for 50 cents. Many cowboys likely appreciated the opportunity for a warm bath and fresh haircut and shave after a long trip on the trail.
Feeling refreshed, who wouldn’t want to head over to the saloon for some liquid refreshment and female companionship? Snitzler’s Saloon fulfilled these needs, along with gambling.
If the cowpokes had a little too much liquid enjoyment and got carried away with a fight or threatening behavior, they may have found themselves spending some time in a jail cell at the marshal’s office. Wyatt Earp of the “showdown at the OK Corral” fame spent a year in Wichita.
Just outside the town sits the DeVore Farm. The 5-acre property represents a farm of the 1880s. Equipment from the era – along with animals – is available for viewing.
We enjoyed our visit to Old Cowtown. We actually attended twice – once during the day, taking in the exhibits, and then in the evening, enjoying the Victorian Christmas celebration.
For more information on Old Cowtown, please visit its website at www.oldcowtown.org.
I love living history museums. So, it’s easy for me to recommend them. But, in this case, combining a living history with cowboys (I wanted to be one as a kid); I overwhelmingly recommend people visit Old Cowtown when in Wichita. It’s a fun and educational experience.