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25 Things You Should Know About Wichita, Kansas

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The Midwest meets the Wild West in this city of artists, industrialists, and historic firsts. Here’s a handy guide to the community that helped get America airborne.

1. Wichita is part of Sedgwick County, Kansas, which was named after General John Sedgwick, the highest-ranking Union officer to die on the battlefield during the Civil War.

2. Before Marshal Wyatt Earp earned nationwide fame for his role in the O.K. Corral shootout, he worked as a Wichita city policeman. Suffice it to say that his conduct wasn’t exemplary. After joining the local force in 1875, he participated in a number of fistfights. When, on one famous occasion, his boss was up for re-election as City Marshal, Earp took exception to some disparaging remarks made by another candidate. After beating the man up, he was charged with “violating the peace and order of the city” and forced to turn in his badge.

3. On July 21, 1870, several residents signed a petition that formally granted town status to Wichita. The only woman whose signature graces this document was a laundry service owner named Catherine McCarty. Her son, Henry, would grow up to become a near-mythic outlaw nicknamed “Billy the Kid.”

 


4.
In 1872, a branch of the Santa Fe railroad was established in Wichita. This turned the area into a prime destination for cattlemen as they drove their animals up from Texas. The very next year, some 66,000 bovines were shipped out of the newborn Kansas Cowtown. Hoping to persuade traveling cowboys to spend some cash before moving on, enticing signs that read “Everything Goes in Wichita” were set up near local trails and highways.

5. The cattle industry really put Wichita on the map. In 1887, it had the distinction of being America’s fastest-growing city. However, in typical boomtown fashion, Wichita would lose a third of these new arrivals by the mid-1890s.

6. Wichita made national headlines in 1900. While Kansas had banned the sale of alcohol 20 years earlier, many saloons simply ignored the law and remained in business. Enter Carry Nation, a militant prohibitionist around whom no drink was safe. On December 27, she waltzed into the bar at Wichita’s Eaton Hotel, smashed their glassware, destroyed a mirror, and severely damaged a lewd painting of Cleopatra. Nation was swiftly arrested, but her crusade wasn’t over by a long shot. The activist and her followers would go on to destroy a slew of watering holes (usually via hatchet). Over the next decade, Nation was arrested no less than 30 times.

7. A global player in the healthcare product market, the Mentholatum Company, Inc. was founded in 1889 by Wichita resident and former banker Albert A. Hyde. His cold-fighting Mentholatum ointment remains popular to this day.

8. What’s in a name? Wichita State University’s athletic teams are lovingly called the “Shockers.” Originally, fans knew them as the “Wheatshockers,” a moniker that dates back to the early 1900s. In those days, many a football player earned his tuition money by working as a wheat harvester—or “shocker”—over the summer.

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9. By the way, when the 1928 Shockers basketball team visited Hays, Kansas, to play the Fort Hays State University Tigers, they quietly made transportation history. Never before had a collegiate hoops squad gotten to an away game by flying there.

10. In 1921, White Castle was founded in Wichita by Walter Anderson and Edgar Waldo Ingram, who spent $700 to finance the maiden restaurant. Two years later, they set up duplicate shops in El Dorado, Kansas and Omaha, Nebraska, making White Castle the world’s first fast food hamburger chain. Ironically, however, the franchise has since completely pulled out of Kansas. 

11. Cloud Elementary School in north Wichita is named after Henry Roe Cloud, the first Native American to attend or graduate from Yale University. Cloud would go on to become a prominent intellectual and advocate of Native rights.

12. The city has long called itself “the Air Capital of the World.” It’s never been difficult to see why. In 1920, the Wichita-based E.M. Laird Airplane Manufacturing Co. earned the distinction of being the first U.S. company to mass-produce commercial aircraft. Also, in World War II, 44 percent of the primary trainer planes that were flown by American army and navy pilots were created by Boeing Wichita.

13. The first swept wing jet bomber to have ever been made in the States (a Boeing B-47 Stratojet, to be precise) was built there in 1952.

14. Actress Vera Miles (née Ralston) was uniquely qualified to serve as the leading lady in the classic 1955 film Wichita. A former Miss Kansas, she spent much of her youth in the city. As a teenager, Miles attended Wichita North High school while working at Western Union.

 

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Civil Rights historians recognize Wichita as the site of the first African American sit-in at a segregated restaurant, which took place at the Dockum Drugstore downtown. For several weeks starting in July, 1958, black students occupied the whites-only stools and asked for service, refusing to budge all the while. Eventually, the owner agreed to serve them.

16. White Castle isn’t the only major chain that can claim Wichita as its hometown. Pizza Hut was also established there in 1958.

17. NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers (a.k.a. “the Kansas Comet”) was born in Wichita on May 30, 1943. By pro football standards, the running back’s seven-season career was relatively brief. Despite this, Sayers still managed to become the league’s all-time leader in kickoff returns at the time of his retirement in 1972. 

18. Flag enthusiasts love this town’s offering. In 2004, the North American Vexillological Association invited its members and the general public to rank 150 assorted state, district, and city flags. Wichita’s official city flag design, which was created back in 1937, claimed sixth place. Symbolically, the blue sun represents happiness, the white circle home, the red stripes honor, and the white stripes courage. Taken together, they inform the viewer that people are free to come and go as they wish.

 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain


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 In 2008, Wichita resident Dana Warren was honored by Guinness World Records for creating the world's largest stitched teddy bear, which measured 55 feet, 4 inches in length.

20. Wichita’s most famous resident is Dennis Mitchell of Dennis the Menace fame. The comic strip was created by Hank Ketcham, who, in 1990, revealed that his beloved characters lived in a “two-story, three-bedroom fixer upper on the outskirts of Wichita.” Then-mayor Bob Knight rather liked the news. “I had no idea that [Dennis] lived here,” the statesman said, “but he sure is welcome.”

21. The city is home to Chance Rides Manufacturing, the country's largest manufacturer of roller coasters and other amusement park staples. 

22. Next time you’re in town, be sure to visit the Museum of World Treasures. Not only does this establishment possess a prop pitchfork that appeared in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), but it also features one of the most complete T. rex skeletons ever found. Known as “Ivan,” the specimen hails from South Dakota and 60 to 70 percent of its bones have been unearthed.

23. Wichita has its very own troll (of the non-internet commenter variety). Sculptor Connie Ernatt installed the little bronze critter under a grate near the Arkansas River in 2007.

24. Attention film buffs: the Wichita Public Library system has hosted screenings of Oscar-nominated shorts for the past 29 years. Note that only flicks with a runtime of under 40 minutes are considered. 

25. No guide to Wichita would be complete without mentioning its most recognizable landmark. At 44 feet in height and five tons in weight, the Keeper of the Plains is one impressive statue. Designed by Kiowa-Comanche artist Francis Blackbear Bosin, this sculpture of a Native American was created to honor the United States’ bicentennial in 1976. Safely perched on an Arkansas River island, the Keeper is surrounded by fire pits which light up periodically when the weather permits. 

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Neighborhoods
How 8 Phoenix Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Inhabited by native people for thousands of years and colonized by white settlers in the 1860s, Phoenix has developed a booming economy based around “the Five Cs”: cotton, citrus, cattle, climate, and copper. It's grown from a once-dusty desert town to the state capital, as well as the nation's fifth-largest city, with a population of 1.6 million and counting. Here’s the story of how eight of the city's neighborhoods ended up with their current names.

1. ALHAMBRA

Best known as the founder of Glendale, Arizona, William John Murphy was a pioneer, contractor, and the impresario of the Arizona Improvement Company, created in 1887 to sell land and water rights south of the Arizona Canal. Murphy also greatly contributed to the early development of Scottsdale and Phoenix, and he was responsible for splitting a large chunk of his land along the western border of Phoenix, next to Glendale, into smaller subdivisions [PDF]. He also came up with the subdivision's names; Alhambra stemmed from the 13th-century palace and fortress of the same name in Granada, Spain. Today, the neighborhood is known for large homes and its Murphy Bridle Path, named after its former landowner.

2. AHWATUKEE

The word Ahwatukee—an “urban village” in the East Valley region of Phoenix—has roots in the Crow language, but theories about its translation differ. Before it was a village, the name referred to a single estate built in 1920 that sat at the modern-day streets of Sequoia Trails and Appaloosa Drive. The original builder, William Ames, first named it Casa de Sueños ("house of dreams"), but he died three months after moving in. His widow, Virginia Ames, owned the house until her death in 1932, and it was eventually sold to a rich Midwesterner named Helen Brinton, who had an interest in the Crow tribe. Her attempt to translate “house of dreams” into Crow was Ahwatukee, but the tribe says there’s no such word in their language. The name caught on regardless, being used to refer to the house as well as the area that developed around it.

3. SUNNYSLOPE

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Southwest was a place where sick people would travel from all across the U.S. to recuperate from pulmonary illnesses—especially pulmonary tuberculosis. The hot, arid climate was thought to dry out one's lungs, while the year-round sunshine was believed to have healing properties in general. In the early 20th century, Sunnyslope—and Sunnyslope Mountain, marked by a 150-foot-tall white S near its peak—became known as an area where ill people could get well. California architect William Norton built a subdivision in the area in 1911, and it was his daughter who came up with the name Sunnyslope after admiring the sun glinting off the slope of the mountain.

4. F. Q. STORY HISTORIC DISTRICT

The F.Q. Story district is named after Francis Quarles Story, who purchased the land it’s on back in 1887. Formerly a wool merchant, Story moved to Los Angeles County for health reasons and became a citrus farmer before investing in land in Arizona’s Salt River Valley and promoting agricultural development there. He never lived in Phoenix, but he did have a hand in the development of its major thoroughfare, Grand Avenue, as well as its subsequent streetcar line. The F.Q. Story neighborhood was built as a “streetcar suburb,” with newspaper ads in 1920 calling the grand opening "one of the big real estate events of the season." (Unfortunately, a flood at nearby Cave Creek caused a temporary halt in construction the following year, but the area rebounded after a dam was constructed in 1923.)

5. WILLO

Willo started out as a planned community, an idyllic suburb on the outskirts of Phoenix, although today it lies near downtown. A man named J. P. Holcomb acquired the southern part of the neighborhood in 1878 and then the northern part in 1886, using the land mostly for farming for the next 20 years. In the early 1900s, several homes were built on long, narrow lots, and 41 more were added in the '20s, but the area was still isolated from the city and it was difficult to attract buyers. Developers decided it needed a snappy name, and came up with Willonot from the willow tree, but from combining the two nearest voting districts: Wilshire and Los Olivos.

6. LAVEEN

As early as 1884, Mexican and Mormon settlers were living in what’s now called Laveen Village, in the Southwestern part of Phoenix. The school district was called the Harovitz District, but the community itself had no name for more than 30 years, until Roger Laveen was appointed as its first postmaster in 1913 [PDF]. The post office was located in the back of Laveen’s brother's new general store, which became a cornerstone of the town. Roger only worked in the post office for about two years, although both brothers continued living in the area that now bears their name for decades more.

7. MEDLOCK PLACE

Medlock Place was named after prominent residential developer Floyd W. Medlock, who created the community in 1926 with the idea of giving it a rural aesthetic despite being only a few miles from downtown Phoenix. The precocious Medlock—he was only in his early 20s—planned palm tree-lined roads in the new community and sold pre-built houses, a ground-breaking move in 1920s Phoenix. (In an ad, Medlock called his community "the Subdivision Extraordinary.") For his subsequent South Medlock Place addition, he began selling vacant lots instead, with buyers permitted to hire their own builders.

8. ARCADIA

Located at the foot of Camelback Mountain and one of the wealthiest areas of Phoenix, Arcadia started out like a lot of the city’s neighborhoods: as citrus orchards. The first grove was planted in 1899, and by 1920, the foothills were covered in citrus trees—thanks in large part to the Arcadia Water Company, which set up a widespread irrigation system starting in 1919. Soon, farmers and developers began investing in the region and building homes. The neighborhood took its name from the water company, which in turn got its name from Greek mythology: Arcadia was where Pan, the goat god, originated—a region supposedly named for its king, Arcas, the hunter. The association with nature is still apt, since fruit trees abound in the neighborhood even today.

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Big Questions
Why is New York City Called The Big Apple?
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New York City has been called many things—“The Great American Melting Pot,” “Gotham,” “The City that Never Sleeps”—but its most famous nickname is “The Big Apple.” So just where did this now-ubiquitous moniker originate?

MAKING A BIG APPLE

Over the years, there have been many theories about how New York City came to be called “The Big Apple.” Some say it comes from the former well-to-do families who sold apples on the city's streets to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Another account posits that the term comes from a famous 19th-century brothel madam named Eve, whose girls were cheekily referred to as her “Big Apples.” But the nickname actually springs from a catchphrase used in the 1920s by The Morning Telegraph sports writer John J. Fitz Gerald in his horse racing column, “Around the Big Apple.” Beginning on February 18, 1924, he began every column with the header, “The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's New York.”

At the time, the jockeys and trainers of smaller horses were said to want to make a “Big Apple," which was their term for the big money prizes at larger races in and around New York City.

Fitz Gerald reportedly first heard "The Big Apple" used to describe New York's racetracks by two African American stable hands at the famed New Orleans Fair Grounds, as he explained in his inaugural "Around the Big Apple" column: “Two dusky stable hands were leading a pair of thoroughbreds around the ‘cooling rings’ of adjoining stables at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans and engaging in desultory conversation. ‘Where y'all goin' from here?’ queried one. ‘From here we're headin' for The Big Apple,’ proudly replied the other. ‘Well, you'd better fatten up them skinners or all you'll get from the apple will be the core,’ was the quick rejoinder.” Fitz Gerald nabbed the colloquialism for his column, where it quickly took off.

CATCHING ON

Once the term entered the vocabularies of society up north, its popularity slowly spread outside of the horseracing context, and everything from nightclubs in Harlem to hit songs and dances about the city were named after “The Big Apple.” Most notably, New York jazz musicians in the 1930s—who had a habit of using the nickname to reference their hometown in their songs—helped the nickname spread beyond the northeast.

Throughout the mid-20th century, it remained New York City's nickname until it was officially adopted by the city in the 1970s. The New York Convention & Visitors Bureau hoped that using the moniker would brighten the image of an economically downtrodden and crime-ridden city in decline and revive the tourist economy. In 1997, to give Fitz Gerald his (somewhat unjust) due, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed legislation naming the corner where Fitz Gerald and his family lived at West 54th Street and Broadway between 1934 and 1963 “Big Apple Corner.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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