Wichita: October 28 – November 5, 2010

(Editor’s note: All of the pictures are thumbnails. Click on each to view it. Then be sure to click the back button to get back to the text or the next image. Don’t “close” the picture — that will cause the whole travelogue to close!)

Another easy driving day – just about our 250 mile desired max. A fellow camper told us once that his goal for each travel day was 250; they’d stop at either 250 miles or 2:50 in the afternoon! Our route took us back through Topeka and then a hard left south.

My computer had acquired a virus, so our first order of business was to locate a repair shop. I won’ go into details, but the subsequent saga with a fraudulent company was very costly both in time and money. Fortunately, no data was stolen, but the event put a pall on the next six weeks. So much for trusting strangers!

Nor was the campground our favorite. It was convenient, but it was home to a couple dozen feral cats which, it was rumored, would attack our dogs if we let them. Fortunately, they never did. Wichita and environs handed us enough treasures to overcome both of these challenges.

Wichita is very alive. It’s the home of White Castle, Pizza Hut, Coleman outdoor products, Garmin Industries and Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the United States. It’s pegged as the air capital of the world, because more than half of all general aviation and business aircraft are manufactured there, along with major components of commercial airliners. Cessna, Beechcraft and Learjet are alive and well. Boeing (Spirit) is the largest aircraft industry employer. Wichita has also produced jet fighter-bombers, spy planes, military training airplanes, and parts of most manned spacecraft.

Railroad Museum

Our first stop was the Great Plains Transportation Museum. It’s in the middle of town, visible from the street below, adjacent to the trestle in a yard across from the train station. It saw major traffic from the ATSF as well as the Missouri-Pacific and Rock Island lines over the years. In the yard are half a dozen engines and myriad old cars of many types. Virtually nothing is in restored condition; they sit as they worked in days gone by. Pictures will tell a better story than words. In addition, the access building contains artifacts, such as timetables, train orders and waybills, plus wonderful photographs and reproductions of railroad art. Trafic now is all BNSF; two long trains came through during our visit.

Old Town

Wichita is blessed with the confluence of the Big Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers. They serpentine through the city, west of Broadway, and the area between 13th and 2nd Streets is a mecca of parks, exhibits and museums. One wag in the city told me that someone mistakenly put the AR at the beginning of the river’s name, but in truth this major stream runs all the way from eastern Arkansas westward to New Mexico – and also played prominently in the infamous Trail of Tears.

Among the more dominant attractions is the Old Cowtown Museum. It represents the origins of Wichita when the
area received a spur of the Santa Fe Railroad for shipping cattle to market. But the rich growing soil and waterway itself also helped to guaranteed Wichita’s future, and it grew like wildfire.

The Museum is predominantly an open air village, and many units have docents to show and tell about life more than a century ago. We have encountered numerous reconstructions of this type during our journey, and this one was the most developed and refined to date.

The entrance is behind a cowpoke statue, into an auditorium that hosts dinner theatre performances of the Diamond W. Wranglers. A walk across a field is next, so you’re entering the town from the prairie. The cemetery on the edge of town is delightful, as you’ll discover when you enlarge the picture. The first house you encounter, the Munger House, is the first two-story structure built on the land that was to become Wichita. There, locals tell you all about its contents and about the town.

You then stroll down street after street and marvel at the commercial establishments. Next to the railroad depot is an authentic granary, still receiving cargo for shipment.

You’re invited to a ride out to the farm, horse-drawn, of course, where you find long-ago used equipment and a very special today mascot.

Walking back through town, to the neighboring houses, one spots several businessmen, including a long-caped gentlemen receiving a shipment of two freshly manufactured caskets. I had a nice conversation with the printer. A Brit, he acknowledged knowing only what he was taught on site about this trade. Having been in the printing industry almost as long as Guttenberg, I gave him some pass-along stories to expand his presentation.

Frank Lloyd Wright House

The Allen-Lambe House was the last of Wright’s Prairie homes – and he considered it among his best. It was designed in 1915 and occupied in 1918 by former Governor and journalist Henry J. Allen and his wife, Elsie, an art connoisseur. The Allen family occupied it until 1947. The house was eventually turned over to the Allen-Lambe Foundation in 1990, managed by the Koch family. But who was Lambe? Apparently he was a very wealthy real estate magnate and investor who died in 1981 and turned his millions over to the Charles Koch Foundation. Elizabeth Koch, the director of the foundation, gave us our tour one evening, along with about twenty others.

Ownership notwithstanding, the home is exquisite. One enters a foyer which contains a sitting bench, racks for outer clothing, and a desk. It was here that you were met by staff, and here was as far as you got into the house if your credentials weren’t letter perfect. After
we donned shoe covers, we proceeded up three steps to the dining room straightaway and the family room at right. The huge dining room “chandelier” was stained glass, at risk of falling apart. The tiny bulbs inside it were rarely changed because of the risk to the lens. The table could expand and expand for the largest dinner party. A kitchen and utility rooms were behind, with an office in the rear. The kitchen was apparently bastardized and cost high five figures to restore to a semblance of its original design. Bedrooms were upstairs. The family room was as long as the house, zoned for multiple imagery. All of it was so Wright: low, square, custom built-in and free standing furniture (some of which was purchased back from subsequent owners), and prestigious materials in earthy hues. One distinctive feature was a gilding of the mortar where brick walls were brought inside from the exterior, a feature used by Wright in the Tokyo Imperial Hotel that he was designing simultaneously. The family room smoothly moved outside to the terrace, pool and landscaping. No photography was allowed inside.

Indian Museum

Another gem of the confluence is the Mid-America All Indian Center (MAAIC). The Sedgwick County area prides itself in the lack of major conflicts between the Native Americans and the Neo-Americans. As they like to point out, “There was no Fort Wichita.” The Wichitas migrated north from their original homeland in central Oklahoma in the 1860’s to avoid the scourges of the Civil War. They were led by halfbreed Jesse Chisholm — he of “trail” fame — and allowed by the Osage to settle in what is now Riverside Park. Chisholm and his adopted brothers were welcomed by city founder James Mead. Four years later, they were forced back south by “Washington,” but the death of Chisholm the following year found them scattered and decimated. Their few years of peace and prosperity on the Arkansas left an indelible mark on the city that bears their name.

The MAAIC was truly an evolution. It went through almost one hundred years of realization until the first charter was granted in
1969 to a dozen individuals representing many nations: Potawatomi; Comanche; Shawnee; Creek; Navajo; Winnebago; Arapaho; Kiowa; Taos; Omaha and Sioux. The fledgling formal organization got tremendous impetus from the 1970 Wichita Centennial. Bob Carroll, local TV personality and director of the celebration, discussed Indian participation in the event with his friend, world famous artist Blackbear Bosin; it not only happened but was tremendously received. In 1972, a $25,000 OEO planning grant got the MAAIC into temporary quarters, and a subsequent $2 million city bond issue led to the unveiling of the Center in 1975. In a dramatic prelude, Bosin erected his 44 foot tall Keeper of the Plains statue on the grounds in 1972. Its daytime drama is enhanced even more by a ring of fire around the base every evening after dark.

The museum is just a small part of the concept. It is a meeting place – the Gallery of Nations — where activities in support of the 42 tribes it represents are frequent and very beneficial to its community. A path to the statue includes additional exhibits, including a Plains Indian encampment. It is a real as well as symbolic return to vital roots.

While this isn’t the site at which I’ve taken the most photos, it has been the most difficult set to triage. Below are the following: 2 old photos, 2 masks, 4 articles of clothing, 2 rugs, a photo of Blackbear Bosin and one of his paintings, a plaque honoring Woody Crumbo and one of his paintings, a totem, a statue and 4 views of the encampment.

House Tour

Wichita publishes a wonderful booklet highlighting one hundred examples of its architectural beauty and variety, providing a picture and description of each. They are mostly private homes, but commercial buildings, educational buildings and government buildings are
scattered among them. The only problem is that its organization is spastic — no geography was harmed in the production of the document!

So we took it upon ourselves to build a tour. First, we selected about two dozen locations that we considered representative of the whole. Then I put them all in MapQuest and rearranged them into a drivable tour. It was a worthwhile exercise, and part of the result is shown below.

The Treasures of Hutchinson!

The town of Hutchinson is approximately 1 hour northwest of Wichita, and two attractions make it a very worthwhile trip. The first
is the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. Opened in 1923, the mine still extracts rock salt from a vein running 650 feet below the surface from Kansas to New Mexico. Still in operation, the mine has had a secondary tunnel dug to serve as the museum.

There’s not much more than the gift store on the surface, save for the exhibit outside of a GE donkey engine that towed the mined salt to a nearby evaporator. But just wait. After donning a hard hat and picking up your personal respirator, you board a double decker elevator and descend 65 stories – in the dark as the miners do.

Once at the bottom, you’re in a ten foot high cavern with tunnels stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction. You can clearly see how the vein was created, a layer at a time. The temperature is a steady 68 degrees with comfortable humidity. A walkaround takes you past a series of exhibits describing how the salt is excavated. Then a 40 minute tram ride takes you into tunnels, where your guide points out various formations. It’s interesting to see ruined equipment cast aside — there’s no benefit in hauling it back to the surface. At the end of the tour, everyone gets to pick a salt chip of choice from a large pile.

But wait – there’s more. Biologists have discovered an ancient microorganism in the mine, a “virgicillus bacteria” encapsulated in a pocket of salt water. It’s estimated to be at least 250 million years old — 100 million years older than the dinosaurs. Even more remarkable, it was still alive and able to be regenerated by the scientists. An exhibit tells the tale. It is possibly the world’s oldest organism.

The museum section of the mine serves another commercial purpose. It is the home of Underground Vaults & Storage, a company that securely stores items that must never be destroyed. It appears that the company serves mostly governments and the entertainment
industry. Among many other things, original prints of all our favorite movies and original costumes are safely vaulted.

Not far away is the Cosmosphere. It’s a space museum to behold. It features room after room of stories and artifacts that chronicle our space travel (and military rocketry) since we started reaching into the final frontier. My half day visit was much too short. On display are a German V-2 rocket, the actual Apollo 13 command module, the Liberty Bell 7 capsule, a Titan rocket, the world’s fastest spyplane (Blackbird), and Gemini X and Vostok/Voskhod crafts that have been out of this world. The planetarium show is a bit
weak. The IMAX show is better, as is Dr. Goddard’s Live Science Show. But the exhibits are enthralling. It’s frightening to see what Russia subjected Great Britain to during WW II. It’s also interesting to hear the full story about how we beat the Russians to Dr. Von
Braun and his fellow German scientists. There’s also lots of hands-on stuff to do. Some of the images below have interesting text; you can open and then zoom in to read if you care to.

We said good-bye to Wichita getting our fill but, at the same time, missing many of its other treasures, like the Museum of Art
and the Aviation Museum. Don’t know if we’ll ever get back, but we came away with a favorable impression of this lovely city – and new facts to fill in all of the history “threads” that we’ve been following throughout this journey.

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