The History Behind Old Cowtown Museum
When Wichita was founded in 1865, it was a much different place than it is today. Before modern technology, Wichitans rode horses down dirt roads and managed to get by without many of the luxuries to which we’ve grown accustomed. Opening in 1955, Old Cowtown Museum allows Wichitans to take a break from the hustle and bustle of their modern lifestyles and experience Wichita as it once was: off of the Chisholm Trail, in an 1865-1880 time period.
Though the museum didn’t open until 1955, the ball started rolling several years before. Historic Wichita, Inc. was founded in 1949 and the first historic buildings were relocated in 1952 to the plot of land that, three years later, would become Old Cowtown Museum.
Since it’s inception, the museum has played an integral role in teaching Wichitans about the history of their hometown.
“Museums like Cowtown educate the public on the early history of Wichita and Sedgwick county” said the museum’s assistant curator, Keith Wondra. Wondra also served as a volunteer at Cowtown for 11 years prior to serving on the museum’s staff for two years.
Through living history exhibits and demonstrations and a collection of over 10,000 pieces essential to early Wichita life, Wondra says the museum “tells the story of Wichita’s cattle town era, the era that put Wichita on the map and allowed it to grow into a thriving city.”
The pieces featured in the museum date back almost as have far as the city of Wichita. Cowtown has accumulated the pieces in its collection in a number of ways through the years. Much of the collection has come from the donations from the general public, while other pieces are purchased from antique stores or from Ebay if the curatorial department feels they are essential to telling the museum’s story.
Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings
Nearly 30 of the building on the museum grounds are original nineteenth-century, historic structures that have been preserved and relocated.
“The main reason several of the buildings are so well preserved is that they were part of a larger structure before their move to Cowtown. Also, the tremendous care of the buildings over the years has preserved them for future generations,” Wondra said.
In some cases, original buildings must be extensively renovated to meet the museum’s needs. According to Wondra, Cowtown's renovations are often based on how buildings are to be used.
“The interior of the Murdock House was extensively changed to represent an 1870s Victorian home. The Grain Elevator, on the other hand, was not changed much but just updated to allow visitors to see how a wooden grain elevator works,” he said.
Wondra cites that the biggest renovations occurred in the Turnverein Hall and Fritz Snitzler’s Saloon, which were both “pretty plain inside” originally.
In situations like these, when renovation is necessary, close and careful attention is given to the details. During the renovation process elements and plans must be evaluated to ensure that they are period-appropriate.
This is because proper renovation and accurate use of the historic buildings authenticate and enhance the overall visitor experience. As a result, all of Cowtown’s historic houses are being used as they originally were. The school, First Presbyterian Church, depot, grain elevator, meat market, general store and jail are all being used as they originally were, as well.
In addition to its historic buildings, Cowtown highlights several new buildings that have been designed to reflect the style of the late 1800s.
“The paint has to be period authentic along with doors and windows. Also, the building has to at least look as close to a building that would be in 1870s Wichita,” Wondra said.
Cowtown offers detailed information on each of its buildings on its website.
If you've never visited Cowtown, start planning a visit. The unique experience that the museum offers is totally immersive. When you visit, you'll really feel as though you've traveled back in time. With a regular season running from April to October, the Cowtown offers several unique ways to learn about history in a fun, first-hand manner.
“It gives visitors an idea of how life was like in the 1870s and allows them to compare it today,” Wondra said.
Guests at Cowtown can go on wagon and stagecoach rides, watch gunfight reenactments, and interact with costumed members of Cowtown’s staff.
“Interpreters will be in several of the buildings, such as the Blacksmith Shop and the Wichita Eagle Print Shop, showing guests how items were made in the 1870s,” Wondra said.
The most popular attractions are the DeVore Farm, Jail, and Fritz Snitzler’s Saloon, according to Wondra. What are your favorite attractions at Cowtown? Let us know in the comments!