Wichita Commercial Club – Business Beginnings

Before The Wichita Commercial Club: Cattle Trade and Cowtown

“Cow Statues in Wichita” by Joseph Novak is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Old Smokey Jones is on the membership committee of the Wichita Commercial Club. I have no idea if such a committee existed at the club and my guess is that it did not. I made it up for the purposes of my story, Wichita Snake. After all, this is fiction. But Old Smokey was wise to position himself within the organization since he would end up extorting cash and assets from the club’s “members”. You need to know who you’ll be dealing with, in other words. One might wonder why anyone would join the club under such conditions. Well, as Mary at Earp’s Haven points out to Glen Marshall, non-members receive even worse treatment.

The Wichita Commercial Club, founded in 1897, is recognized as one of the first commercial organizations to emerge in Wichita following the city’s heydey as a thriving cowtown and its subsequent bust as the railroads (and the local station) moved west.

Wichita Commercial Club: Pride and Attitude

In preparing this post, I read through a 1910 entry about the Wichita Commercial Club by its president at the time, Charles Smyth. Presumably, neither Smyth nor any of the club’s other officers would have had to deal with a nefarious personality such as Old Smokey.

The personality of Smyth’s entry about the Commercial Club’s achievements in just over 10 years can, instead, be characterized with two words: pride and attitude. That may have had something to do with the fact that the club was, at the time, in the process of getting its own building after leasing space from a bank for several years.

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It also had to do with the fact that, in Smyth’s telling, the local businessmen who still remembered the thriving days of cowboys and cattle drivers, and the first Santa Fe railroad stop in town, had not lost their spirit in the lean years that followed.

Wichita’s Cattle Trade and The Lean Years

It helps to know a little something about how Wichita earned a place on the map. In the mid-19th century, a good part of the nation’s central region was still unsettled and many travelers crossed the virgin prairie on their way to the West Coast. (Nearly 60 years later, Glen Marshall and his bride Abby Maris in Wichita Snake intend to make the same journey, though by train now and not wagon, before they ran into trouble.)

But the history of so many towns and cities is tied up in the presence of a watercourse, and Wichita is no different. Many settlers heading west in the 1850 and 1860s passed by the confluence of two rivers–the Arkansas and the Little Arkansas. Many kept going but others got caught up in trade and hunting with the local Indians, who were also attracted to the presence of water. Oh, and the local Indian tribe was, naturally, the Wichita.

The town of Wichita, Kansas was incorporated in 1870 when growth was already so rampant that the town’s first newspaper, the Wichita Eagle was founded only two years later in 1872. What made the population swell was more than just the reputation among westward-bound wagoners that this was a place to check out.

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The advent of railroads in the United States earlier in the century included the development of stations in locations to facilitate the movement of cattle and agriculture to markets nationwide. Jesse Chisholm had arrived in Wichita when it was still a settlement in 1863 and forged a cattle trail (known subsequently as the Chisholm Trail) up to Wichita from Texas. Cowboys and drovers now had an easy, straightforward route for driving cattle up to the railroad, earning money for their trade and then spending it in the local vicinity, especially in the nearby and infamous vice-ridden locale of Delano. The cattle trade was what most spurred the emergence of Wichita as a well-known cowtown.

By the late 1870s, the railroads moved west and the cattle trade that had meant so much to Wichita went into fast decline. Agriculture sustained Wichita for a while throughout the 1880s and a board of trade emerged. But these were also, comparatively, the beginning of the community’s lean years.

Let’s Get Back to Business! 

The Wichita Commercial Club, when it was founded in 1897, was originally called the Coronado Club and was intended primarily as a social club for successful businessmen. But as Smyth points out in his history some 13 years later, both pride and vision spurred the founders to develop means by which Wichita could emerge again as a town to be reckoned with. Some of the group’s earliest forays were in the grain and milling business.

The club, for example, brought such businesses as the Watson Milling Company and the Kansas Milling Company to Wichita. It also helped reopen a former packing plant that had fallen on hard times and expanded a railroad connection to connect with the Union Pacific.

The Wichita Commercial Club also promoted local events such as the annual Peerless Prophets Jubilee, a civic festival held each fall starting in 1908, and sought to promote Wichita as a destination for out-of-staters seeking a new home.

In explaining the founding and investment in the Commercial Club by some of the area’s most talented business leaders, Smyth explained: “No city ever grew largely without the aid of a strong commercial organization. The modern city that outstrips her neighbors is not always the one of favored location and rich surrounded territory. Wichita prizes its commercial club.”

The Wichita Commercial Club Finds Its Own Home

It’s hard to tell from the existing document online what made Smyth write his history when he did but it could very well be that the Commercial Club was about to get its own home. In the club’s first years and leading up until the expiration of its lease, members of the club met in rooms on the upper two floors of the town’s National Bank of Commerce.

Smyth is obviously quite excited at the prospect of the club not renewing the lease but, instead, getting its own building. The club purchased property on the site of a former Baptist Church on Market and First Street. At this pivotal moment in the club’s emergence, Smyth also chose to look backward to its first roots:

“The early day commercial organizations held their meetings in wood shacks, where the members at on nail kegs and cracker boxes. But the spirit of acquisition was there in the tiny wooden quarters just as it now permeates the atmosphere about the clubrooms of any of the three Wichita commercial organizations today.

It is the same spirit that is now prompting the business men of the city to reach out for new trade by means of a trade extension excursion. Forty years ago Wichita was nothing. Today it is a city of about 60,000 inhabitants, growing at the rate of 5,000 to 10,000 persons each year. New industries of all sorts, brought in through the influence and assistance of the commercial organizations, are largely responsible for this rapid increase in population.”

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Membership, he finally notes, grew from approximately 200 individuals in 1904 to close to 400 by the time in 1910 when the Wichita Commercial Club was to have its own building.

What Was Going to Come for Wichita

Smyth did not know it but would have been even more excited to note how equally prosperous years lay ahead for Wichita, somewhat due to the accomplishments and public relations contributions of he and the club’s founders.

The plains around Wichita became a great spot for the nation’s first generation of aviation entrepreneurs and inventors such as Walter Beech, E.M. Laird and George Weaver. Wichita’s Spirit AeroSystems is the city’s largest employee today. It originated as part of the Boeing Company of Seattle, which was founded by Lloyd Stearman, another Wichita airline visionary in the first years of the 20th century.

In the early 21st century, we read routinely of cities that were made by a single industry and then struggled to re-emerge following that industry’s decline. Detroit and the automobile industry, Pittsburgh and steel, Youngstown, Ohio and coal (and steel again). The list goes on. Wichita was incorporated in a flash in the mid-19th century and, despite the fact that it is not recognized as a major metropolis such as San Francisco, New York, Washington, DC and a number of other cities (it is, in fact, listed by Wikipedia as the nation’s 49th largest metropolitan region), the community was, even at its beginning, a place that never had a problem rebounding from dips or declines in its fortune.

Wichita kept building on its earlier success with even greater achievements.

It is clear, reading President Smyth’s account of the early years of the Wichita Commercial Club, that the local business culture combined a can-do-attitude with an entrepreneurial spirit and an indefatigable optimism. In Wichita Snake, Old Smokey introduces his city to Glen Marshall in the back of a dry goods store. This was three years before the Wichita Commercial Club left the bank for its own building. But Old Smokey had ambitions of his own and, during that encounter, he had already succeeded, at least in my fiction, in bringing a good part of the town’s commercial interests under his ruthless thumb.

The real story of how Wichita prospered is even more commendable, no less because it was driven by the good guys.

About Joe Kovacs

I write literary fiction and am currently pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, which is about a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. Subscribe to The Write Place Blog by submitting your email address in the box in the right column of this page.
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