Purchased from Chetopah, Chief of the Osage, in January 1870, Colonel E. C. Manning chose the Winfield Town Company site in the Walnut River Valley “for its general beauty, pure water, abundant wildlife and fertile river bottom soil.” Situated between Timber Creek and the Walnut River, Winfield is surrounded by blue stem country and is located in the heart of the Kansas Flint Hills.An important part of regional history lays just a short walk southwest of downtown Winfield. First used as a trail by Native Americans and later white settlers, the “Old California Trail” was one of the main trails taken by southerners who were making the 1849 gold rush to California.
Enormous growth prompted the first City Council to be set in 1873, to “satisfy pressing needs that ranged from regulating destitute itinerants, sanitation and fire protection to plain old lawlessness.”Organizing a new city takes a lot of doing as early city fathers soon found out. A great deal of credit for the prosperity of early Winfield is given to the arrival of the railroads.All goods had to be shipped in or out of the area by wagon over rough, almost impassable trails to Emporia or Independence.
The first train pulled into town on September 30, 1879. The Santa Fe line ran from Winfield to Wichita. Telegraph communication had started on September 25 and the first mail left by rail on October 1. By 1887, 5 rail lines had arrived. With these, the life blood of the city began to flow and Winfield was on its way! By 1900 the population had grown to 5,554 and Winfield had become the business hub of the area with several railroads, flour mills,stores,elevators, newspapers, banks, churches and schools, along with various kinds of small manufacturing plants.
Winfield was known throughout the state and nation as a cultural center. For many years the Chautauqua was in Island Park. The Opera House brought entertainment to the community and the School of Music was highly rated for many years. Southwestern College and St. John’s College added their support to this fine cultural atmosphere. Successful oil exploration and the discovery of helium near Dexter allowed Winfield to prosper in the post WWI era. By 1925 there were eight distinct oil fields near Winfield and production was greater than any other county in Kansas. “Farming took a mechanized turn with the introduction of tractors and, the wonder of wonders, the new combined harvester/thresher put out by International Harvester Company”.
The Depression years were hard everywhere and Winfield felt the pinch of the times too. But the age-old determination of its citizens held fast to faith in their town, and once again they came through with flying colors.Things picked up again with the advent of WWII. The War Department took over the joint Winfield-Arkansas City Municipal Airport and built Strother Field in 1941. All area towns were “home base” for the many US Air Force aviation cadets and their families. At the peak of operation there were approximately 3,400 Air Force personnel and 400 civilian employees at the field.The influx of combat veterans continued until the field was closed at the end of WWII.
In addition to Strother Field there were four auxiliary fields; northwest of Winfield, southeast of Strother Field, west of Arkansas City, and northwest of Gueda Springs. Post WWII innovations not only created a rash of new businesses in Winfield, but homes and city expansion as well. Winfield’s reputation as a music city was boosted in the November, 1945, Reader’s Digest article called “Mad About Music”. The catch line above the title read “If you don’t like music, stay away from Winfield, Kansas.” The article caused a flood of letters sent from music lovers all over the world expressing a desire to visit or wanting information on the community.
A Thriving Community
Floods had been costly to both the city and Walnut Valley farmers. Concern for environ-mental protection led to the establishment of the Winfield Lake and the Timber Creek Watershed District. A system of 35 flood retarding dams was planned and with the storage site to be located ten miles northeast of Winfield. As a result of a thrivingcommunity, the City also faced the need for expansion. New facilities or expansions were made to the electric power plant, water treatment plant, and waste water plant. Better Homes and Gardens and American Home magazines featured, in 1951, Winfield’s building boom of new style ranch homes, the rage of the time.
Years of Success
Winfield celebrated its centennial year in 1973 with a variety of activities. William Newton Memorial Hospital expanded its function to keep abreast of modern techniques. A new Cowley County Courthouse and Winfield High School was completed in the mid ‘70’s. Strother Field was reverted to a municipal airport and industrial park.
Selected as #56 in the 1993 edition of The 100 Best SMALL TOWNS in AMERICA, Winfield has maintained a progressive philosophy while preserving a sense of its history and natural beauty. It has its own special mix of commercial, recreational and residential development. From the charm of the historic downtown to its internationally known industries and Fortune 500 companies Winfield strives to be a part of the global economy while retaining that comfortable small town feel.