|Wichita: worth your while
Make this vibrant city your headquarters as you plow into the pioneer past
Published: Jan/Feb 2002
By Tamra Willett-Johnson
Welcome to Wichita, where focusing on the lives of frontier folks is as easy as finding comfortable lodgings and great food. This city at the joining point of the Big and Little Arkansas (locals pronounce it "Are-Kansas"), plus nearby towns, make it easy to explore the past while not forgoing the comforts of the present.
The blacksmith, rancher and pioneer homemaker, and other late 19th-century slices of life, can be found at the Old Cowtown Museum, just five miles west of downtown. On the living history museums 17 acres, 30 exhibits and costumed staff portray life in an Old West cattle town and on an 1880s farm, complete with livestock and crops.
The Mid-America All-Indian Center shows another side of prairie life at its Native American Heritage Village. Containing a Wichita grass lodge and Kiowa, Sioux and Cheyenne teepees, the village gives a glimpse of 1800s tribal life. Only natural materials were used during construction, and the shelters contain replicas of ceremonial and household items.
The centers museum displays artifacts, sells contemporary art and serves Indian tacos on fry bread every Tuesday. It also hosts a yearly powwow near the towering "Keeper of the Plains," a sculpture depicting an Indian raising his hands in tribute to Father Sky and Mother Earth.
Early times on the vast Kansas frontier can be seen at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, some 70 miles northeast of Wichita. Considered unplowable by pioneers, this area of the Flint Hills looks much the same as it did hundreds of years ago when Kansa and Osage Indians came to hunt bison.
The preserve belies the belief that Kansas is flat. Rolling hills covered with native grasses and wildflowers make up most of the preserves 11,000 acres. The natural cycle of wildfires and animal grazingbison in the past, cattle todaymaintains the tallgrass ecosystem.
More than 300 species of plants, 150 kinds of birds and 31 specials of mammals make their home here. The Southwind Nature Trail offers a close look at some of the residents, and park rangers conduct a seven-mile bus tour of the preserves backcountry, April through October.
Two miles from the preserve is the small city of Cottonwood Falls, home to the Grand Central Hotel and Grill, an 1884 hostelry that exudes Old West charm. Its grill features specially prepared steaks, and the peaceful guestrooms are an ideal place to recover from a day on the prairie.
The connection to the past can be heightened by arranging a ride by horseback or wagon to see what pioneers passed throughmiles of grass, fanned by birds and dotted with wildflowers, stretching to the horizon.
Country Boys Carriage & Prairie Adventures offers rides on horse-drawn vehicles. As folks travel via wagon, carriage or hayrack, the silent serenity of the prairie seeps into the tensest of souls. The outfit also gives a taste of frontier life through campfire-cooked meals, displays of pioneer craft such as dollmaking and cow roping, and tales told to the accompaniment of a crackling wood fire. Half-, full-day and overnight excursions are available.
Those wanting to rough it a bit and camp out in the open can contact the Flint Hills Overland Wagon Train. Singing around the campfire, eating hearty meals and riding covered wagons recall a simpler way of life. Weekend trips are offered May through October.
End a day of pioneering with the friendly folks at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper, 13 miles northeast of Wichita. Though its all-you-can-eat barbecue beef, beans, biscuits and peach cobbler is reason enough to pay a call, the Prairie Rose offers more than a hearty meal.
During dinner, Cowboy Jack serenades the 300 or so guests; afterwards, children leave for Ranger Als Kids Corral where theyll learn roping, cowboy lingo and how to be a true cowboy/girl.
Meanwhile, the adults are entertained by the Prairie Rose Wranglers, a trio of singing cowboys whose harmonies blend like milk in strong, black coffee, creating a mellow and warming brew. The three banter cowboy-style and while the jokes dip a toe into the land of corn now and then, nothing embarrasses and most amuse.
Lodgings are easy to find in Wichita, ranging from the mid-range Broadview to the plush Hyatt Regency, and there are plenty of non-frontier related sites to visit.
Botanica is a gardeners delight, featuring roses, water lilies, herbs and hundreds of other plants. Exploration Place is a must for families, with plenty of hands-on fun focused on flight, human health, and the environments of Kansas. There are museums, shops, art galleries, and fine places to eat, and great duds are found at Sheplers, the worlds largest western wear store.
To see teepees and tallgrass, hear cowboys and blacksmiths, and taste Indian tacos and Kansas beef, make plans for a frontier journey.
Tamra Willet-Johnson is copy/associate editor of AAAs Home and Away magazine in Omaha, Neb.