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The German Influence In Wichita's Early Days

Kristin Nador / Flickr / Creative Commons

In 1878, the editors of the Illinois Staats-Zeitung, a German-language newspaper out of Chicago, visited Wichita and noted that the city’s population was about a third German, among them mayor and Wichita founding father Wilhelm “Dutch Bill” Greiffenstein. The visitors were impressed that there was even a fraternal “Turnverein,” or Turner’s Society, in town.

German-speaking immigrants were central to Wichita’s daily life in those early years. Some were Jewish, such as merchants Leopold and David Hays, Solomon and Morris Kohn, and Mayo Fechheimer. Some were Lutherans. By the 1880s, there were enough German Catholics to merit the formation of the parish of St. Boniface in 1887, renamed St. Anthony’s in 1905. Not far away were German Catholic farming communities such as Andale, St. Marks, and the now vanished Germania. To the north were the Mennonites of Marion County.

These German rural communities often owed their start to the work of Carl Schmidt, land agent for the Santa Fe Railroad.

Recently, a graduate student of mine, Austin Rhodes, completed a thesis about saloons and alcohol in early Wichita. He found that in contrast to the rowdy reputation of Delano, saloons in Wichita proper tended to be more respectable and tied to German proprietors such as Emil Warner and Fritz Schnitzler. Adolph Weigand, not related to the real estate family, opened a brewery in Wichita in 1871 that continued to operate into the 1880s, even after statewide prohibition went into effect. This was probably the brewery that the Staats-Zeitung editors referred to as producing “an excellent quality of beer.”

Dutch Bill Greiffenstein, whose farm was located on the current site of Century II, would have been proud at the legacy of Germans and German Americans to this city.

Jay M. Price is chair of the department of history at Wichita State University, where he also directs the public history program.