The Old Cowtown Museum

A Living Museum

Wichita, KS

September 9th, 2004


Having arrived in Wichita, we found that that there were all kinds of interesting thing to see and do.  After a discussion as to which one we wanted to see, we decided on a leisurely stroll through the old west.  Where better to do this than in a cowtown,  the Cowtown Museum that is.  We arrived on one of those unfortunate days when things had not gone well for the old re-constructed turn of the century town.  A water main break had turned part of the main street into a mud hole, but the real problem was that the water had been turned off in he park, including the bathrooms.  This not only left most of the park free of tourists, we got in on a reduced price, so it was a good day for us.  Not many of the docents arrived but those that did were free to talk to us about the things that they were doing and about the town of Wichita. In setting the historic scene it was necessary to find out just how the town got its beginning. In 1868, D.S. Munger, of the Wichita Land and Town Company, made the first land claims in the area that became Wichita.  Munger, lie many other settlers, filed those claims at time when the land still legally belonged to the Osage Indian nation as trust lands.  This meant land had to be purchased outright, and could not be settled under the popular Homestead Act of 1862.  This act granted ownership to land after it had been improved and occupied for 5 years.  The first non-Indian settlers came with the hope Congress, through treaty negotiations with the Osage, would make the land available for legal settlement.  Congress approved the terms of the negotiations in 1870, opening the land for purchase through the U.S. Land office at the price of $1.25 per acre.  many settlers were unable to buy the land they desired because speculators had purchased large sections for resale at inflated prices.  Private agents then sold the land working out of offices much like this one.  During the 1870s, the acquisition of land by speculators, the development of the railroad and he growth of farming in the country led to the price of land rising as high as $4.00 an acre.  Our first stop along the wooden boardwalk was probable most prominent building in town.  The town's general store. General stores were significant in both rural and urban communities.  In rural areas a general store provided customers with all of their basic needs.  In towns such as Wichita, they provided basic grocery and household items and services during the year before improved transportation allowed merchants to specialize their inventories.  Around the corner and down the side street, we found the train tacks, next to the granary. After the arrival of the train, Wichita began to boom.  For some time it was the cattle transfer center between the ranches of Kansas and Chicago.  I had to try my hand on what else, a hand cart.  I can't believe people used those things for transportation.  It is really quite a bit of work to move them. Further on down the street we stopped by the local work working shop.  Here we met a marvelous character in the person of Peter Mader.  A master of the old time machines that were essential from 1860 to 1900.  We watched as he moved from one to another demonstrating each with a couple of swipes of wood, or a shave or two depending on what the job was.  The room itself was a masterpiece of antique hand tools.  Hundreds of them were sitting on shelves all around the room. There were many other businesses that we visited along the walkways of the various streets that made up the town.  The last one we reviewed caused Laura to get "into" the act of a docent.  The local mortuary offered a wooden coffin, one size fits all.  Here  we learned that Victorian society's morning customs softened and veiled the harsh realities of death.  New, mass produced rectangular caskets replaced traditional body-shaped coffins,  The term "cemetery" replaced "graveyard" as the preferred term for a loved one's final resting place.  Religious symbolism and imagery dominated cemetery marks and eulogies.  Terms such as "At Rest" and "Only Sleeping" were common on markers and represented an increasingly romanticized view of death. With this as a fitting "end' to our experiences in Cowtown, we put our day "to rest" and rode off into the sunset.  All in all, it was a good day, and Cowtown is a very good place to visit in Wichita.

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