Playing in a church handbell choir wasn’t on the itinerary for our visit to Wichita, but when the need for a last minute substitute at my sister’s church arose due to a group member’s broken wrist (unrelated to playing handbells), I volunteered to help out. No prior experience, but I figured I could do it. It was, after all, only one bell – how hard could it be?
At the first (and only) rehearsal, I learned that the assignment actually involved three bells – A, B and A flat above middle C. And there were techniques that needed to be mastered. Yikes – not as easy as I thought! But the director and other players were patient, so I hung in there and made it through the Sunday morning performance without embarrassing myself or the group. And guess what? I loved it!
And that’s my handbell story – now back to our sightseeing activities.
Here’s a link to the previous Wichita article in case you missed it.
We spent a leisurely afternoon meandering through the gardens at the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine, Kansas (population 1,400) – 25 miles from Wichita and 8 miles from my hometown of Mulvane.
Beautiful. Serene. Charming. And a little quirky. Here’s the back story.
The Arboretum was established in 1910 by local physician and amateur naturalist, Walter E. Bartlett, who over the course of many years, transformed a 20-acre chunk of Kansas prairie into a forested oasis and wetlands habitat by planting native trees and building a small lake for waterfowl.
After Dr. Bartlett’s death in 1937, his son Glenn and family took over and continued the development process until 1995, when it closed and they began looking for a buyer.
Two years later, Robin Lynn Macy, an accomplished bluegrass guitarist and vocalist (and one of four founding members of the Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks), spied the Arboretum’s ‘For Sale’ sign as she wandered along the backroads, trying to find her way to the Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in nearby Winfield. Instead of being put off by obvious signs of neglect, she fell in love with the property, purchased it straight away and moved to Kansas from her home in Texas.
A short time later, she met bluegrass banjo player Ken White in Wichita. They got married and have been devoted caretakers of the Arboretum ever since.
That’s a fun story, huh? And here’s another fun fact – during the summer months, the Arboretum hosts live concerts on Sunday afternoons. On the day of our visit, O’Conner Lee performed – a bluegrass duo from Nashville comprised of Kate Lee and Forrest O’Connor.
I didn’t catch the name of the guest mandolin performer, unfortunately, but the group was wonderful, and the audience enjoyed every minute. What a delightful surprise – not only to hear live music in a lovely, outdoor setting, but also that the concert was included in the general admission price, a whopping $10.
If you live in the Wichita area and haven’t yet visited the Bartlett Arboretum, it’s worth making the short drive to Belle Plaine. Just check the website ahead of time – they have limited hours of operation.
Strataca Underground Salt Museum
You can learn all about the Kansas salt mining industry by visiting Strataca, which is located an hour’s drive from Wichita in the town of Hutchinson. Kansas. The state is one of the country’s leading producers of salt, and the Hutchinson mine has been extracting rock salt since the late 1800s.
About 275 million years ago, the Permian Sea included a large part of present day Kansas, and salt deposits formed as the water evaporated. The salt layer lies 500-1,500 feet below the surface and is hundreds of feet thick.
So what is there to see in a salt museum? Salt!
Plus a plethora of information about salt-related topics:
Old mining equipment and other machinery:
And miscellaneous stuff:
Despite being underground, the mine isn’t wet or even damp. In fact, conditions are ideal for long term storage of important documents and artifacts.
A company called UV&S began doing just that in the late 1950s and now uses 1.6 million square feet of the old mine to store millions of items. There’s not much information publicly available about what those items are, but about 40% of their inventory is old movie films, including silent movies from the 1920s and classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur and the Star Wars movies.
For security reasons, visitors can’t access the UV&S storage facility, but the museum contains a few sample objects:
The mine is still active, and extracts 5,000 tons of salt every day using only about 50 employees – 30 underground and 20 topside. I read an article estimating that the deposit contains enough rock salt to meet demand for the next 250,000 years.
We enjoyed our visit – very different from our usual lineup of history and art museums!
But while we’re on the subject . . .
History and Art Museums
. . . Of course we checked out the history and art museum scene in Wichita. Spending a half day in each allows sufficient time to explore the exhibits. Neither tries to compete with their big city counterparts, instead carving out a unique niche appropriate for their supporters.
We enjoyed the special exhibit on the Art Deco era (1909-1939) at the Wichita Art Museum.
Block prints by Japanese as well as European and U.S. artists were featured in two large special exhibits. I’ve always loved Asian block prints – in fact, we have one (shown in photo below) that Bill’s dad purchased when he was serving overseas years and years ago. The artist was Ohara Koson, whose body of work was also featured by the museum.
The museum showcased hundreds of examples – here are just a couple, one old and one new:
We didn’t really know anything about how the designs are made, but this exhibit also included a helpful description – it’s a long process with many steps.
Here are a few other pieces from ongoing exhibits that caught my attention:
We’re most familiar with Georgia O-Keeffe’s Western art, so the painting from her New York years was quite unexpected.
Here’s a link to more info about the Wichita Art Museum.
At the Wichita Historical Museum, you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about the town’s early years. In a nutshell, here’s a summary:
- The first inhabitants were the Plains Indians, who called this area home for thousands of years.
- Members of the Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado’s party were the first Europeans to make contact with indigenous residents in 1541.
- The presence of Native Americans ebbed and flowed during the next 300+ years, but by the 1870s they were gone – relocated to Oklahoma by the U.S. government.
- Modern day Wichita originated in the 1860s as a commercial trading post along the Chisholm Trail – a land route used to drive longhorn cattle north from Texas to railheads in Kansas. Nicknamed “Cow Town,” Wichita was known mostly for its rowdy cowboys, saloons and brothels.
- Despite challenging environmental conditions, homesteaders moved in during the latter years of the 19th century, and the town quickly transitioned to a more refined, orderly and respectable place to live.
- The population exploded in the 1920s and for the next 30 years as Wichita became a major hub for military, commercial and civil aviation development and production. Home to numerous airplane companies that included Boeing, Learjet, Cessna and Beechcraft, Wichita acquired a new nickname – Air Capital of the World.
- Aerotech remains the principal industry in Wichita to this day and still proudly proclaims itself as the Air Capital of the World.
Throughout all those years, there were a few colorful characters who made their way to Wichita, including Wyatt Earp in 1873 and Carrie Nation in 1900.
Mr. Earp, who spent much of his career in law enforcement, worked in private security after his arrival in Wichita and was hired as a city police officer in 1875. The job was short-lived, however, as he lost it just a year later due to his unacceptable violent behavior. Not an isolated incident unique to his time in Wichita, he repeatedly demonstrated throughout his lifetime that “. . . his own allegiance to the rule of law was conditional at best.” (quote from http://www.history.com).
Continuing the theme of violent behavior, Kansas resident and anti-alcohol activist Carrie Nation paid a visit to several Wichita bars in the early years of the 20th century, smashing furniture, artwork, glassware and whatever else she could find using her preferred weapons of rocks and a hatchet. Even though the sale of alcohol was prohibited by the Kansas Constitution, her crusade reportedly had little impact on its availability in Wichita.
My favorite story, though, was about grasshoppers. Kansas was the epicenter of nationwide media attention when a huge infestation wreaked havoc with crops in 1874, and generous Americans from across the country sent relief supplies in response.
Ten years later, floods ravaged parts of Ohio, and Wichita leaders organized The Grasshopper Train of 1884. Part humanitarian mission and part advertising campaign with slogans such as, “Clouded with Grasshoppers in 1874, Flooded with Corn in 1884,” the 31-car train filled with Wichita area corn made its way to Ohio, with numerous whistle stops along the way for city leaders to tout the many opportunities available in their fair city.
The campaign was deemed a success. The image below is actually a large mural displayed at the history museum. Note the clever artwork on the two railroad cars.
Well, that wraps up our week-long stay in Wichita. I hope you enjoyed seeing some of the sights in a place that doesn’t often appear on travelers’ bucket lists of ‘must see’ places to visit.