She was once called the Great American Desert, a title mistakenly given her by temporary passers-through. She’s always been home to huge herds of North American bison, vast expanses of seven foot tall Big Bluestem prairie grass, forested hills, hawks, bobcats, coyotes, the Arkansas and Big Blue rivers, Cottonwood trees and quite a few deer and antelope.
And not just a few amazing people.
Indians. Cowboys. Explorers and Pony Express riders. Politicians. Artists. Aviators, scientists and writers. Reformers. Populists. Pizza makers. Farmers. Lots of farmers.
Kansas turned 150 this month. And it’s her people that make her who she is.
There was David Buffam, a free-stater who in 1856 was shot outside of Lawrence by a pro-slavery supporter. His last words?
I am willing to die for the cause of freedom in Kansas.
The 1st Colored Volunteer Regiment was formed in Kansas and became the first regiment of black men to fight for the Union and the first to serve alongside whites. James Lane, Kansas senator, formed the Tr-Colored Regiment in 1862. It consisted of white, black and American Indian soldiers.
Henry McCarty, then 11 years old, is mentioned in the Wichita Eagle newspaper as one of several “street urchins” who witness gunfights. Henry later becomes better known as Billy the Kid.
Lucy Hobbs Taylor becomes the world’s first licensed woman dentist in 1866. Francesia Porter joins the Kansas Medical society in 1872, becoming the first woman doctor in the country to be admitted to a state medical association.
A group of about 30 former slaves form the small town of Nicodemus in northwest Kansas following the Civil War. It remains the oldest and only all black town west of the Mississippi.
Mary Elizabeth Lease, a lawyer and farmer’s wife, spoke across the state and country in support of Populist views during the late 1800s. She urged farmers to
raise less corn and raise more hell.
Medicine Lodge farmer Jerry Simpson is so poor, says the Wichita Eagle newspaper, that he doesn’t have socks. During the 1890 congressional race, Jerry derided his wealthy opponent by claiming that “princes wear silk stockings. I don’t wear any.” “Sockless” Simpson went on to win the election and became a respected Populist voice in Washington.
Mennonites from Russia bring new ideas of pacifism and non-violence to Kansas in the 1870s. They also bring Russian Turkey Red wheat – helping to create the nation’s “Bread Basket.”
The Dalton Gang’s crime spree comes to end in 1892. While attempting to rob two banks at once in Coffeyville, the Daltons are stopped by townspeople in a 12 minute shootout.
James Naismith invents the game of basketball and becomes coach at the University of Kansas. The Jayhawks go on to win national championships in 1952, 1988 and 2008.
During one of the numerous county seat wars during the 1800s, Bat Masterson and 20 deputies are dispatched from Dodge City to monitor the country seat election in Garfield County. Violence followed the election with citizens from Ravanna and Eminence attacking one another during attempted robberies of the county records.
Carrie Nation starts her bar-smashing campaign in her home town of Medicine Lodge.
The state’s first influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants in the early 1900s provide the necessary spark to jumpstart railroads, mines, meat packers and agriculture.
Clyde Cessna, along with Beech, Stearman, Boeing and others, becomes one of many who help make Wichita the “Air Capital of the World.” Cessna crashed so often early on that he stated:
I’m going to fly this thing, then I’m going to set it on fire and never have another thing to do with aeroplanes!
In 1917, Iris Calderhead, daughter of a Kansas congressman, is arrested in front of the White House during a women’s suffrage rally. Nine months later, Nellie Cline becomes the first woman lawyer to address the U.S. Supreme Court.
Seven thousand women, in support of striking southeast Kansas coal miners, marched in 1921 to protest unfair labor practices. Called the “Army of Amazons” by the New York Times, the women stared down machine guns and rifles held by 1000 deputized milita. Their protest led to eight hour work days, progressive child labor laws and equal rights for women and minorities.
William Allen White of Emporia, author of the famous “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” 1896 editorial, responded to the growth of the Ku Klax Klan by running for governor in 1924. His vocal disapproval of the Klan helped lead to its legal banishment from the state.
John White was a kindergarten student in Andover in 1934 when his teacher saw dust clouds looming and sent the class home.
The dust hit us so hard we kept running into trees. Me and a buddy hid out in a culvert. My dad found us and I remember him carrying us home. My friend’s lungs were so full of dust that he passed away.
Dwight Eisenhower grows up in Abilene, invades Europe and becomes president.
In 1950, the citizens of Liberal challenge Olney, England to an international race of pancake-flipping women to celebrate Shrove Tuesday. The race is still held every year with Liberal leading the series 36-25.
The Dockum Drug Store sit-in in downtown Wichta was one of the first organized lunch-counter sit-ins for the purpose of integrating segregated establishments in the United States. Initiated by local high school students in July 1958, the sit-in was successful three weeks later when the owner relented:
Serve ’em — I’m losing too much money.
National chain Pizza Hut starts in 1957 when Frank and Dan Carney borrow $600 from their mother and open their first store in Wichita.
Gordon Parks grows up in southeast Kansas, picks up a camera in the 1930s and begins working for Life magazine. He later published the acclaimed novel, The Learning Tree.
Allen Ginsburg pens Wichita Vortex Sutra, describing his time in Kansas.
Truman Capote writes In Cold Blood, an account of a murdered family in western Kansas. My father, who grew up just miles from the incident, remembers that
people started locking their doors after that.
Lynnette Woodward, four time All-American at the University of Kansas, plays on two US Olympic basketball teams and later becomes the first woman to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.
All interesting people.
But it’s somehow more than just people. It’s also a strange and wonderful combination of cultures and biology and politics and place.
William Heat Least Moon wrote once
So what is the truth of Kansas? It is the heartland of America, indeed, but not simply in the way popularly understood; it also beats at our center because, like the whole nation, it moves in turbulence, in fitfulness, and, somehow between times, in beauty.
After 150 years, Kansas is still a great place. Happy birthday!