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History

Fire on Commerce Street in 1925 taken from railroad looking west.

history-fire

written by
Christy Davis
cdavis@davispreservation.com

After Wichita was incorporated as a village in 1869, town boosters set out to secure its place as a regional trade center. Its status was threatened when the Atchison, Topeka, Santa Fe Rail line chose to bypass the new town, with its then-unclear Osage land titles, instead passing through the paper town of Newton. Townbooster’s efforts to secure $200,000 in bonds to construct a spur line from Newton to Wichita in 1871, and the railroads decision to extend the spur line south in 1877, both helped assure the city’s future as a major industrial, milling, and wholesaling center.By the 1920s, Wichita was the nations 96th largest city, its fifth-largest milling market, and the broom corn capital of the world. And its capitalists were beginning to reap the rewards of investments in the regions productive oil fields and aircraft industries. Among the new businesses were the Derby oil refinery, Koch Industries, and the Beech, Stearman and Cessna Aircraft Companies. These industries, and the services required to support them, attracted many new residents. Between 1920 and 1930, the city’s population increased by 50,000.Manufacturing and industrial storage buildings began to concentrate along the citys major rail lines, particularly in an area that came to be known as the warehouse and jobbers district (now known as Old Town). The downtown commercial district grew up along Douglas Avenue, west of the warehouse and jobbers district. There, townbooster’s invested their profits in ways that would attract additional investors. The early 1920s were record construction years for Wichita. In 1921, construction permits totaled nearly $7.4 million, up from $4.8 million in 1919. Contemporary projects included infrastructure improvements, from sewers to water systems, to parks and paved streets. Among the major buildings under construction at the time of the Broadview Hotel were the First National Bank and Orpheum Theater, both still landmarks.Although many businesses closed their doors during the Great Depression, three of the city’s aircraft companies survived, leaving them poised to tackle wartime military orders. The city’s aircraft industry exploded during World War II, when its plants attracted $20 million in defense orders a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Civilian workers flocked to the air capital during the war, nearly doubling the city’s population between 1940 and 1945, when it reached 200,000.

Today, Wichita is a thriving city of 360,000. Many of the buildings that were constructed during the citys post-World War I boom are being rehabilitated as the downtown and historic industrial district are revitalized. The broom corn warehouse at 416 Commerce is located along a strip of warehouse buildings that have attracted attention with the construction nearby of the city’s new Intrust Arena.

The Kansas Broom Corn Industry

As a transportation nexus surrounded by farmland, Wichita was a center for agriculture-related industry from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s. By the early twentieth century, four major railroads – the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe; the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific; the Missouri Pacific; and the St. Louis and San Francisco connected Wichita both to the newly developed agricultural areas to the west and southwest and to the industrial markets of the east. Wichita was at the center of a perfect storm for the growing broom corn industry.

Broom corn is a type of sorghum plant (sorghum vulgare) adapted for broom-making in southern Europe. The plant, which grows to a height of ten to fifteen feet, is harvested in fall when the tassels and seeds are green. The tops, which measure about three feet, are hung to dry then threshed to remove seeds. Historically, the seeds were fed to poultry and the rest of the fiber was bound into 300-pound bales for easy storage and shipment to manufacturers. Benjamin Franklin is credited with introducing broom corn to the United States in the eighteenth century. By the 1820s, the Shakers were making brooms using innovative binding techniques. Sixty thousand brooms were sold annually by 1830, by which time the United States was exporting its brooms to Canada and Europe. The industry became increasingly industrialized by the late nineteenth century.

As the nation moved west, so did the broom corn cash crop. By 1900, nearly every county in Kansas was producing broom corn, with 47,776 acres of broom corn crops statewide. The crop became more specialized by 1910, when although fewer counties were producing the cash crop, the acreage had more than doubled to 111,308. The top broom-corn-producing counties in 1910 Kearny, Stevens, Hamilton, Seward and Morton- were all in southwest Kansas, a drought-prone region ideal for the drought-resistant crop.

Wichita’s entrance into the broom corn big-time was marked by the arrival of the city’s first broom corn dealer, the American Warehouse Company. American Warehouse, Amwaco for short, was organized in Sterling, Kansas in the fall of 1904 by H. K. Lindsay, Robert Findlay, and half a dozen or more men equally prominent in the business in this and other states. In 1906, the company bought a building formerly occupied by the Burton Car Works, a product of the 1880s boom and casualty of the subsequent bust. Other companies followed. In 1908, Southwestern Manufacturing Company of Evansville, Illinois announced plans to construct a broom corn factory and warehouse on 15th Street. The warehouse, which would measure 160 X 110 X 25 would be completed in time to store the September harvest. J. H. Hockett announced plans to build a 100 X 170 four-story brick warehouse south of the Frisco Y on Central in 1908.

Soon, Wichita took to calling itself the Arcola of the West, in reference to Arcola, Illinois, which Wichita soon eclipsed as the nations broom-corn capital. Among the broom corn dealers with facilities in Wichita were the Mercantile Warehouse Company, Thomas Lyons Broom Corn Company (Chickasha, Oklahoma, Dallas, Wichita), C. E. Findlay Company (Atlanta, Wichita) H. D. Wood Company and H. L. Ginn’s Company (Wichita and Newark, New Jersey). In 1912, Wichita’s broom corn magnates began distributing the Broom Corn Review, a quasi-trade journal whose principal purpose was to market Wichita’s wares to eastern manufacturers. Wichita was the headquarters for a trade group known as the Associated Broom Corn Dealers of America.

In the 1920s and 1930s, there were twelve broom corn dealers in Wichita, three of them with warehouses in the 400 Block of South Commerce Street. These dealers took advantage of adjacent rail lines. By 1927, 70% of the nations broom corn was being handled through Wichita. Despite the fact that the broom corn magnates had ceased publication of their mouthpiece Broom Corn Review in 1931, Wichita had handled the majority of the broom corn required for the twenty-two million brooms produced in 1937.

World War II forever changed the face of Wichita and the broom corn industry. Businessmen and industrialists turned their sites on war production. Farmers used efficient tractors to produce food, particularly wheat, for war-torn Europe. Record-high wheat prices and insatiable demand made production of other crops less financially rewarding. Meantime, labor shortages made it difficult to produce broom corn, which was harvested by hand. Eventually, U. S. broom-corn brokers came to rely on exports, particularly from Mexico. After the war, Wichita’s economy continued to rely heavily on the aircraft industry. Over time its agricultural and industrial warehouses were vacated and Wichita’s status as the broom corn capital of the world faded from public memory.

416 S. Commerce

Despite its humble appearance, the building at 416 S. Commerce was associated with the big names in broom corn for more than two decades. The building was built in 1922 at the height of Wichita’s broom corn dominance. Before 416 S. Commerce was occupied, the adjacent building, 414 Commerce, was occupied by the Peck Broom Corn Company and the building at 420 was occupied by the Panhandle Warehouse Company.

The first occupants of the building at 416 Commerce, as listed in the 1923 City Directory, were the Thomas Lyons Broom Corn Company and Mercantile Warehouse Company. Thomas Lyons was born near Loughrea, Ireland in about 1852 and immigrated to the United States, arriving in Arcola, Illinois in 1870. Lyons soon established himself as a community leader. In 1875, Lyons founded the Thomas Lyons Company and entered the broom corn business. By 1884, Arcola held the title of broom-corn capital and Lyons was the acknowledged broom-corn king. When the company’s Arcola warehouse, which was housing 700 tons of broom corn, was destroyed by a fire after a lightening strike, Lyons made national news. He remained in the broom corn business, also serving as president of the Arcola State Bank and director of the Terre Haute and Peoria Railroad. In the early twentieth century, when broom corn production moved west, Lyons expanded beyond Arcola. In 1912, Lyons owned a farm in Oklahoma where he had put up 1400 acres of broom corn. By 1922, his business had offices in Chickasha, Oklahoma, Dallas and Wichita. In 1922, the Thomas Lyons Company became the Thomas Monahan Company. Thomas Monahan, a first-generation Irish American living in Arcola, likely worked for Lyons before taking over the company. The Monahan Company continues to manufacture brooms today.

In 1924, the property was listed under both Mercantile Warehouse Company with R. W. Findlay as manager. The Mercantile Warehouse Company was a broom corn company with offices in Wichita and New York City. The company was established in Wichita by 1915, when it objected to a proposal by the Western Railroads to raise shipping rates for broom corn. In 1922, its Wichita offices were at 540 -542 N. Santa Fe. Mercantile Warehouse Company manager Roy Findlay was born in Kansas on June 26, 1882 and was working as a broom corn agent by 1910. He was listed in the 1920 census as a broom corn dealer. Throughout the 1920s, Findlay was tied to the property at 416 Commerce. In 1928, his son Earl R. Findlay had his insurance company in the building. In 1929, the business at this address was listed as the W. R. Findlay and Company Broom Corn, with W. R. Findlay and H. D. Wood listed as its proprietors. Howard Wood was a corn buyer based in Battle Creek, Michigan. In 1933, Wood was listed as living in Wichita’s McClellan Hotel.

Both Howard Wood and W. R. Findlay had apparently left the building by 1934, when it was listed as home to three different broom corn companies: H. L. Ginns Broom Corn, S. R. Miller Broom Corn, and Panhandle Warehouse and Distribution Company. The Harry Louis Ginns Broom Corn Company continued to occupy the building through the end of the 1930s. Ginns was born in New York in about 1890 and was working as a broom corn broker by 1915, when he was sent to Liberal, Kansas, a broom corn-producing center, to establish a brokerage office. By 1922, H. L. Ginns had established his own company with offices in Wichita and New Jersey. By 1940, when Ginns moved his broom corn business to 546 Commerce, there were only eight broom corn dealers left in Wichita. Ginns, who died in Wichita in 1975, passed his business down to his son, William Ginnis. William Ginnis, who died in 1983, was one of the city’s last broom corn dealers. By that time, broom corn dealers were buying most of their broom corn from Mexico.

Beginning in the 1920s, Wichita’s economy had begun to shift from agriculture-related industry and warehousing to manufacturing. As manufacturers geared up for wartime production of aircraft and other war-related products, even before the United States formal involvement in World War II, the city raced to provide the housing necessary for the incoming workers. Wichita Building Materials, previously housed at 414 Commerce in the building adjacent to Ginn’s broom corn warehouse, expanded southward. The company was owned and managed by Elizabeth M. Anderson. The 1930 Census listed Anderson’s occupation as salesperson for a lumber supply company. By 1934, Wichita Building Materials Company occupied the building at 414 Commerce. It expanded into the building at 416 Commerce in 1940. The Wichita Building Materials Company continued to occupy the buildings at 414 and 416 S. Commerce until the mid 1970s. The company’s closing may have coincided with Elizabeth Anderson’s death, the date of which is unknown.

Despite its humble appearance, the broom corn warehouse at 416 S. Commerce retains a high degree of architectural integrity from its original construction and continues to interpret its significant role in Wichita’s broom corn industry.

written by
Christy Davis
Davis Preservation LLC
909 1/2 Kansas Ave, Suite 7
Topeka, Kansas 66612
785-234-5053
cdavis@davispreservation.com

 
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