At first glance, you wouldn’t imagine cowboys and cattle once strutted down the streets of Wichita. The largest city in Kansas and an industrial manufacturing hub, Wichita enjoys all the trappings of modernity and cultural recreation.
But 150 years ago, the city looked radically different. Cattle were herded through the city by cowboys crossing the country along the Chisholm Trail.
Though the city entered a technology and manufacturing boom in the 1920s, groups can still experience the town’s early days at the interactive Old Cowtown Museum and entertaining Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper. They can also discover other aspects of the city’s past at the Mid-American All-Indian Center and the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum.
Wichita’s museums and tourist stops rival those in major cities across the country. Visit these fascinating heritage attractions to understand how the city’s Wild West past shaped its cutting-edge present.
Old Cowtown Museum
Horses trotting along dirt-covered streets, costumed interpreters and occasional gunfights illustrate how the Old Cowtown Museum keeps its focus on historical realism. The living-history museum re-creates Wichita in 1865 with a town comprising 54 historic and reconstructed buildings.
Groups can browse through 10,000 artifacts as well as speak to interpreters ready to chat about daily life during Wichita’s Wild West era. Occasional shootouts originate from real stories of rowdy cowboys and lawmen trying to keep the peace.
Thirsty guests can sip on sarsaparillas at the city’s saloon, reimagine shopping at the general store or watch a family cooking dinner in the museum’s residential area.
“It takes you back in time to when people had skills we no longer take the time to learn, like blacksmithing,” said Moji Rosson, vice president of sales for the Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Groups can really enjoy themselves here. You learn about the pioneers that were building our city. It really is quite the experience.”
The 1952 museum is one of the oldest open-air history museums in the central United States. Groups can opt for guided tours, educational programs or self-guided explorations of the museum’s 23 acres.
Mid-American All-Indian Center
A 44-foot-tall sculpture of a Native American chief stands at the confluence of the Little and Big Arkansas rivers. The iconic “Keeper of the Plains” statue stands next to the Mid-American All-Indian Center, which honors the Plains Indians who lived in the town before settlers.
“It is a historically spiritual place for Native Americans,” said Rosson. “You walk out of the museum and see the ‘Keeper.’ If you are lucky, you can come back after dark and see the pots of fire that light up the ‘Keeper.’ It is a spectacle that is hard to describe but you have to witness in person.”
The light show, which occurs each night for 15 minutes, symbolizes the four elements of the medicine wheel coming together.
Wichita was named after the Wichita people, a confederation of Southern Plains Native American tribes indigenous to Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. The center honors the area’s local tribes as well as Native Americans across the country.
The museum’s 3,000-piece collection changes yearly to explore various facets of Native American life. Groups can book guided tours to explore the museum’s interactive displays, videos and art gallery.
After exploring the museum, visitors can wander through the Outdoor Learning Center to see a full-size tepee and native garden that reflects how the Native American families once lived. Nearby, the Artist Gardens showcase works from two well-known Native American artists: Francis Blackbear Bosin and Woody Crumbo.
Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum
The Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum’s 1890 building, 170-foot-tall clock tower always impresses. Known as the Palace of the Plains, the building is considered one of the museum’s premier artifacts.
The gorgeous building houses the museum’s collection of 70,000 artifacts, including a Wichita-built 1916 Jones Six automobile.
“One of their most popular exhibits is on the Chisholm Trail,” said Rosson. “It explains how Wichita was one of the key posts on the trail and how that helped make Wichita into a city.”
The museum follows the city’s development from something out of a John Wayne movie to its boom in aircraft manufacturing in the 1920s. Suddenly, the town became a leader in aviation. A short film provides background into this transition.
Visitors can walk past full-scale replicas of a Victorian home interior, a neighborhood drugstore and the mayor of Wichita’s office from the 1890s. Other exhibits explore stories from Wichita during the buffalo-hunting days of the 1800s, the town’s connection to World War I and the lean times during the Dust Bowl.
The Hall Collection of Cut and Engraved Glass showcases functional, dazzling objects made from glass. Other changing exhibits are wide-ranging in topic, with past exhibits from baseball to the electric guitar.
Groups can work with the museum to schedule a guided tour.
Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper
Cowboys tired from a day of wrangling cattle often gathered in the evening to share a meal around a campfire. Groups can relive this romanticized comradery at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper.
“It is a unique experience,” said Rosson. “Groups can come early and enjoy a wagon ride or even watch a cowboy movie. They can customize the experience for the group.”
The dinner bell rings at 6:15 for an all-you-can-eat barbecue dinner complete with baked beans, potatoes, homemade biscuits, and apple cobbler with ice cream. After the meal, guests can watch a Western stage show with traditional cowboy music and humor by the Prairie Rose Rangers.
The popular evening entertainment runs on weekends and Thursdays through Sundays during the holidays. Special guests also occasionally perform; past country music artists have included Riders in the Sky, Roy Clark and Ronnie McDowell.
Groups that arrive before the dinner bell can enjoy a horse-drawn-wagon ride across the property. One stop on the ride includes the Hopalong Cassidy Museum, which includes exhibits and the Bar 20 Theatre.
The Bar 20 Theatre shows classic cowboy movies from 5 p.m. until dinner, with free popcorn and access to the Silver Screen Cowboy Museum. The museum showcases the history of cowboys in film with movie props, posters and other movie memorabilia.