Wichita boasts a cultural heritage that ties Native Americans, airplanes, Pizza Hut, Frank Lloyd Wright, and cows into the same guidebook.
13-Sep-23 – At the junction of two rivers in downtown Wichita is a towering sculpture of a Native American chief attired in feathered headdress and fringed garments. He is The Keeper of the Plains, a monument to the indigenous tribes who hold these grounds sacred. Flanking the sculpture, which is mounted atop a 30-foot rocky promontory, are a pair of modern suspension bridges that call to mind bows and arrows.
For nearly five decades, the Keeper has stood watch over Kansas’ largest city, which honors its diverse past while charging into the future. Wichita boasts a cultural heritage that ties Native Americans, airplanes, Pizza Hut, Frank Lloyd Wright, and cows into the same guidebook. Let’s get started, in no chronological order:
Wichita’s story of flight
A mere 25 years after aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright first took to the skies in their newfangled flying machine, Wichita in 1928 claimed the title “Air Capital of the World.”
At that time, 16 manufacturers, starting with Clyde Cessna, were churning out a quarter of all aircraft built in the United States. Wichita continues to be a major aircraft production hub today.
The Kansas Aviation Museum is housed in the city’s original municipal airport terminal, where legendary film hoofer Fred Astaire is said to have danced in the then-fashionable atrium while awaiting a flight. The building, a Depression Era construction project with beautiful Art Deco features, was abandoned in the mid-1980s. It reopened in 1991 after heavy cleaning as the museum. Wear and tear are still evident, but dedicated volunteers have taken on the challenge of restoration.
The museum’s collections include 40 or so retired and historic aircraft, some quite rare. Among them are commercial and private models; and military warbirds, trainers and a refueling tanker.
Within the museum’s three indoor levels are exhibitions dedicated to prominent Kansan aviators and innovators, Cessna, Beech, Boeing, and female and Black aviators as well as the control tower.
Another 15 or so planes are outdoors on the ramp. The 1957 Boeing B-52D served in the Vietnam War, and the 1967 Boeing 727 was formerly operated by FedEx.
A visit to yesteryear
Many major cities would be insulted if referred to as a “cow town,” but Wichita proudly wears the badge. The Old Cowtown Museum is an expansive outdoor living history experience depicting daily life in the late 1800s. Wichita’s railheads back then were a key destination along the 800-mile Chisholm Trail, the major cattle drive route from Texas. Millions of longhorns passed through these parts.
Most are furnished. Among them are a livery stable, saloon, barber shop, grain elevator, church, school, and funeral parlor.
Costumed guides are on hand to share their wit and wisdom – but watch your step. Shoot-out re-enactments can erupt at any moment.
Art and pizza at WSU
In 1958, brothers Dan and Frank Carney, students at Wichita State University, brainstormed to open a pizza joint, an emerging foodie trend. The fact that they had never made a pizza wasn’t a deterrent, nor was the meager $600 in borrowed funding from their mother. They opened their Pizza Hut anyway, which grew to the largest pizza enterprise in the world with more than 11,000 restaurants in 90 countries.
The space is small but cleverly outfitted with storyboards, photos, memorabilia, and interactive exhibits. View memorable Pizza Hut television commercials, and take a selfie with a cut-out of Pizza Pete, the chain’s one-time mustachioed cartoon mascot. On display are the brothers’ first rolling pin and a Pizza Hut restaurant playset for Barbie dolls.
(Incidentally, White Castle was founded in Wichita in 1921, but today you can’t get one of their oniony sliders anywhere in the state.)
While you’re at WSU, you’re sure to notice some eye-popping sculptures stationed about the grounds. Count 86 pieces, created by some of the biggest international art stars including Salvador Dali, Henry Miller, Fernando Botero, and Robert Indiana.
John Walter Kearney’s equine sculpture, aptly named “Grandfather’s Horse,” is fashioned from car bumpers scavenged from a junkyard. Other sculptures feature a smashed grand piano, a swirling tornado, and a millipede wearing stilettos.
Elsewhere, local museums commemorate Wichita baseball, firefighters, and African Americans in Kansas. The prairie-style Allen House by starchitect Frank Lloyd Wright has been restored to its 1918 origins. The two-story home features more than 30 pieces of his furniture and is open for docent-led tours.
On the wild side
A short drive due west of the city is Tanganyika Wildlife Park, a landscaped park wrapped around a meandering lake. A privately-owned zoo and accredited breeding facility, the 50-acre Tanganyika is home to more than 500 animals and birds, many of them exotic and endangered.
Next, we had a behind-the-scenes sloth experience with Molasses and Chewy, two two-toed sloths. They live in a heated, humid space decked with tree branches strung with ropes for clinging, an environment that emulates their native tropical rainforest. (Sloths spend most of their time hanging upside down.) We petted their wiry fur, fed them green beans and apple slices, and took way too many photos.
As a bonus, Jojo, the shy armadillo who lives with the sloths under a piece of tubing, made an appearance.
A brief dining guide
Breakfast was at Doo-Dah Diner, a retro-chic eatery known by locals and celebs alike for ginormous helpings of gourmet comfort food.
Tanya’s Soup Kitchen whips up creative comfort fare – hand-crafted sandwiches, salads, and a daily soup flight – in the trendy Douglas Design District where nearly every facade sports a mural.
For afternoon noshing, Nifty Nut House is stocked with a tantalizing array of sweets and treats. A family favorite for generations, this super-sized candy store purveys nuts, chocolates, caramels, dried fruits, salty snacks and more. Homemade fudge is a specialty.
Sabor Latin Bar & Grill in Old Town draws crowds with fine South American-inspired dining amid a casual ambiance. The menu tempts with grilled meats and sea fare, tacos, interesting sides and starters, and signature sauces. You can order mojitos and margaritas by the pitcher.
Where to stay in Wichita
My hotel of choice was the Hotel at Old Town, a former four-story brick warehouse built in 1906 for the Keen Kutter brand of tools, cutlery, dishware, and sporting goods. It was transformed into a modern hotel in 1999 and updated in 2022.
All 114 studios and suites are appointed with pillowtop beds, fully equipped kitchens, and views of either the city streetscape or the grand atrium lobby. The hotel is in the Old Town entertainment district, where brick-lined streets bustle with eateries, shops, and happenings.
Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.