The Topeka metropolitan area is rich in history and highly favored by nature. Founded in the middle of the nineteenth century, Topeka has weathered many storms, both man-made and natural. Geographic location has always worked to a decided advantage for the area. In fact, location is the key to Topeka’s future development.

Topeka lies on rich sandy loam river bottomland where Indians lived for many years using the excellent fords on the Kansas (Kaw) River. Among the first permanent settlers in this area were three French-Canadian (Pappan) brothers. They married three Kanza (Kansas) Indian sisters and established a ferry over the river in 1842.

A grandson from one of the marriages was Charles Curtis, the only Vice-President of the United States to be of Indian descent. (Charles Curtis served with President Herbert C. Hoover from 1929 to 1933.)

Because the Oregon Trail crossed the river at Topeka, several ferry boat services were established and prospered. In May, 1858, a privately built bridge was constructed across the Kansas River connecting Topeka with the community of Eugene, now known as North Topeka. A flood destroyed the bridge later that year, but Topeka’s location relative to westward traffic made the need for a new bridge obvious. Railroads have played a key role in the development of Topeka, including the St. Joseph and Topeka Railroad, the Kansas Central, the Union Pacific, Missouri Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe still has one of the largest railroad shops in the world in Topeka.

On December 5, 1854, nine men met on the banks of the Kansas River at what is now Kansas Avenue and Crane Street. The men drew up an agreement, which later became the basis for the Topeka Association, the organization mainly responsible for the establishment and early growth of Topeka. The nine men were Cyrus K. Holliday, F.W. Giles, Daniel H. Horne, George Davis, Enoch Chase, J.B. Chase, M.C. Dickey, Charles Robinson and L.G. Cleveland. The City of Topeka was incorporated February 14, 1857, with Cyrus K. Holliday as Mayor.

After a decade of abolitionist and pro-slavery conflict, the Kansas territory was admitted to the Union in 1861 as the 34th state. Topeka was finally chosen as the capital with Dr. Charles Robinson as the first Governor. Cyrus Holliday donated a tract of land to the state for the construction of a state capitol.

Various names for the capital city were discussed by the founding fathers including Webster, however, Topeka was decided upon.

Although the drought of 1860 and the ensuing period of the Civil War slowed the growth of Topeka and the State, Topeka kept pace with the phenomenal revival and period of growth that Kansas enjoyed from the close of the war in 1865 until 1870. Lincoln College, now Washburn University, was established in 1865 in Topeka by a charter issued by the State of Kansas and the General Association of Congregational Ministers and Churches of Kansas. In 1869, the railway started moving westward from Topeka. General offices and machine shops of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad system were established in Topeka in 1878.

During the late 1880’s, Topeka passed through a boom period that ended in disaster. There was vast speculation on town lots. The 1889 bubble burst and many investors were ruined. Topeka, however, doubled in population during the period and was able to weather the depressions of the 1890s.

In the spring of 1903, flooding on the Kansas River inundated North Topeka, which lies in the valley. Hundreds were marooned in their homes and 29 persons drowned. Property damage amounted to $4,288,000. North Topeka was an industrial section with a number of large flourmills and lumber yards. Recalling a great flood in 1844, natives had warned the early settlers not to build a city on the banks of the river. High water in 1908, 1923, and 1935 created uneasiness among residents of North Topeka, but the dikes constructed a few years after the 1903 flood prevented a repetition of the disaster.

Because of its general economic setting, regional growth in Topeka-Shawnee County kept pace with the rest of the nation until 1930. Topeka lies at the point where the cattle ranches of the southwest meet the Corn Belt, between the undeveloped mineral resources of the Mississippi Valley, south of the winter snow line, and with ample supplies of water, and plenty of room to develop. The depression years of the 1930s saw Topeka’s growth rate fall to its lowest point. The region’s economic structure appeared to have settled into the typical pattern of a medium-sized midwestern area dependent primarily on its agriculture base.

With the onset of World War II, the railroad, meat packing and agricultural base shifted to manufacturing and government/military services. These new patterns were more clearly defined and solidified during the post war years. Forbes Air Force Base was established during the war, and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company opened a plant in 1944.

Again in 1951, the Kansas River overflowed, resulting in the permanent closing of the Morrell Meat Packing Plant and the elimination of over 1,000 jobs. The attraction of the Hallmark Card and Dupont plants and other manufacturing company extensions were important in keeping the economy diverse.

Having planned and built numerous upstream flood control dams to harness the damaging power of the Kansas River, nature again dealt a blow to Topeka in 1966. A tornado twisted its way through the city, leveling houses and businesses and narrowly missing the Capitol. But, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Topeka recovered and has sustained steady economic growth.

In 1974, Forbes Air Base closed and over 10,000 people left Topeka, impacting the city’s growth patterns for years to come.

In the 1980s, Topeka citizens voted to build a new airport and convention center and to change the form of city government. West Ridge Mall opened in 1988 and in 1989 Topeka became a motorsports mecca with the opening of Heartland Park Topeka. The Topeka Performing Arts Center opened in 1991. In the early 1990s the city experienced business growth with Reser’s Fine Foods locating in Topeka and expansions for Santa Fe and Hill’s Pet Nutrition.

During the 1990s voters approved bond issues for public school improvements including magnet schools, technology, air conditioning, classrooms and a sports complex. Voters also approved a quarter-cent sales tax for a new Law Enforcement Center, and then in 1996 approved an extension of the sales tax for the East Topeka Interchange connecting the Oakland Expressway, K-4, I-70 and the Kansas Turnpike. The project was completed in August 2001.

During the 1990s Shawnee Countians voted to extend tax support to the County for the expansion of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. The Kansas Legislature and Governor also approved legislation to replace the majority of the property tax supporting Washburn University with a countywide sales tax.

In 2000 the citizens again voted to extend the quarter-cent sales tax, this time for the economic development of Topeka and Shawnee County. In August, 2004, Shawnee County citizens voted to repeal the 2000 quarter-cent sales tax and replace it with a 12-year half-cent sales tax designated for economic development, roads and bridges.

Topeka History

Little Known Facts

Topeka is the home of the first million-dollar high school. Topeka High School opened in 1931 when Principal Willard Van Slyck proclaimed: “A million-dollar student body for a million-dollar high school.” Construction costs reached $1.75 million.

Topeka is the home of the Santa Fe Railroad, founded by Cyrus K. Holliday as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. In 1995, the Santa Fe merged with the Burlington Northern, becoming the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation. The company has since changed its name to BNSF Railway Co.

Topeka is the home of Margaret Hill McCarter the first woman to speak at a National Political Convention (Republican Convention, 1920-Harding). An English teacher, Ms. McCarter was the author of books about life on the plains.

Charles Sheldon
Charles Sheldon

Topeka is the home of Charles Sheldon author of In His Steps, theoretically the best selling book in the world. Dr. Sheldon promoted free kindergarten for all and was editor of the Topeka Capital for a week, editing the newspaper in Christian style.

Alfred E. Neuman
Alfred E. Neuman

Topeka is the home of the smiling character Alfred E. Neuman, long recognized as the logo character for Mad Magazine. The character was the logo for a Topeka dentist who professed his services “didn’t hurt a bit!”

Topeka is the home of Brown V. Board of Education National Historic Site. The site was designated to commemorate the landmark Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954, which ended segregation in public schools. Topeka’s Monroe School, the all-black school cited in Brown V. Board of Education, was converted to a national park detailing the court case and the integral role of the Brown decision in the Civil Rights Movement. The Park opened in May 2003 with President George Bush speaking.

Reinisch Rose Garden, located in Gage Park, contains more than 350 varieties of roses, totaling more than 7,000 bushes. There is a parent-progeny display garden exhibiting genetically related rose groups. The garden is one of only 23 official All-American Rose Selection (AARS) Test Gardens in the country.

The Great Smith automobile was built in Topeka from 1906-1912.

Lutie Lytle, the second black woman admitted to the practice of law (1897) called Topeka home. She was admitted to the bar in Kansas and in Tennessee.

Charles Curtis, the only Native American to ever serve as vice president of the United States, was born in Topeka. He served under President Herbert Hoover, 1929-1933.

Karl Menninger
Karl Menninger

Menninger, world renowned for its treatment, prevention efforts, education and research in the field of mental health, was established in Topeka in 1925. Dr. Karl A. Menninger, founder, wrote the book Crime of Punishment. The center building at Menninger, the Tower Building, is fashioned after Independence Hall. Menninger partnered with Baylor College of Medicine and The Methodist Hospital in 2002. The Clinic moved to Houston, Texas in June 2003.

Topeka was the home of Alf Landon, the 1936 republican nominee for president defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Topeka was the home of Dr. Samuel J. Crumbine, an early day promoter of good health. As part of his good health campaign, he is credited for outlawing the “common drinking cup” at schools and on trains. He invented the paper cup and the fly swatter and promoted the now famous bricks “Don’t spit on the sidewalk.”

Lake Shawnee in southeast Topeka is the location of the first and only fully staked 400-meter dash rowing course in the world. Lake Shawnee is host to the annual Great Plains Rowing Championships and was host to the 1993 and 1994 American Rowing National Championships. The permanent cables and buoys at Lake Shawnee are those used in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Topeka is the home of the sparrow. Legend has it that Topeka founder Frye Giles, in an effort to control the insects he considered a nuisance, sent away for birds to eat the insects. He nursed the birds to health after their travels to Topeka, created an environment for them to live in, and ultimately called Topeka “the home of the sparrow.”

Rex Stout Books
Novels by Rex Stout

Topeka is the boyhood home of Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe novels. Nero Wolfe’s investigator Archie Goodwin is named after a Topeka policeman from the 1920’s who found young Rex Stout’s stolen crank-up record player.

Gypsy Rose Lee gave her first performance in Topeka. Rose’s sister, Baby June documents in her autobiography the story of Baby June departing with the stage manager. Their mother dressed Rose in June’s costume and pushed Rose onto the stage. Rose was an instant hit and began her career “on the road” in Kansas City the very next day.

Washburn University, the only municipally owned university in the country, is in Topeka. Over 6,545 students are enrolled in Washburn’s 200 programs leading to certification or associate, bachelor’s, master’s and juris doctor degrees.

Topeka is the home for the world headquarters of Collective Brands (PaylessShoe Source), the largest family footwear chain in North America. Payless currently operates more than 4,700 stores in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, and sells over 200 million pairs of shoes annually.

Topeka is home to Tiffany stained glass windows. Located in the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Topeka, the windows, made of Favrile glass, were designed and executed at the Tiffany Studios in New York City under the supervision of its art director Louis C. Tiffany. They were installed in the church in 1911.

Home to the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Kansas, the home of John and Mary Ritchie near downtown Topeka was the site of the first meeting of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Kansas.

Topeka was home for many years to Carrie Nation, the temperance crusader, and her hatchet. Mrs. Nation supported herself with income from her newspaper, The Smasher’s Mail, which was published in Topeka.

The Kansas Governor’s Residence, Cedar Crest, is the smallest occupied governor’s residence in the United States; however, it sits on the largest piece of property at 244 acres. Frank P. MacLennan, publisher of the Topeka State Journal, and his wife Madge bequeathed their home and land to the State of Kansas. It was updated and remodeled in 2000.

Corporate headquarters for Hill’s Pet Nutrition are in Topeka. Hill’s produces Science Diet and Prescription Diet pet food sold internationally through veterinary offices and pet stores.

Topeka’s Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant is the world’s largest producer of earthmover tires and the corporation’s sole North American manufacturer of earthmover tires for mining and construction operations. The Topeka plant is also a major manufacturer of radial truck tires used worldwide.

Did you know that people are yelling the name Topeka across the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia just to name a few places? The reason is a game called Gavitt’s Stock Exchange. Invented in Topeka by the successful business man, Harry E. Gavitt in 1903, Gavitt’s Stock Exchange was not only one of the most exciting and popular games ever invented, but rose to become the top selling game in America. Deal and trade your cards to corner the railway stock market, be the first to get all the cards of one railway line, call out “Topeka” and you’ll win the hand! The game available today, is the same one that was manufactured over 100 years ago!

Famous Topekans

Karl Menninger
Karl Menninger

Karl Augustus Menninger, M.D. (1893-1990) Dr. Karl and his brother, Dr. William Claire Menninger, co-founded The Menninger Clinic with their father, Dr. C. F. Menninger, and became leaders in the treatment and prevention of mental illness. Dr. Karl is author of The Human Mind, Man Against Himself, and Love Against Hate.

Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), an American painter and illustrator, was born in Topeka on April 27, 1899. A leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, Douglas has been called the father of African American art. His striking illustrations, murals and paintings of the life and history of people of color depict an emerging black American individuality in a powerfully personal way. Douglas linked black Americans with their African past and proudly showed black contributions to society decades before the dawn of the civil rights movement. His work made a lasting impression on future generations of black artists. He died in 1979 in Nashville, TN. One of his murals has been duplicated in the Aaron Douglas Park at SW 12th and Washburn Avenue in Topeka.

Ronald Evans
Ronald Evans

In 1972, Ronald Evans (1933-1990) became the first Topekan in space as Command Module Pilot for Apollo 17. A 1952 graduate of Highland Park High School, Evans went on to the University of Kansas and United States Navy, where he became a fighter pilot who served in Vietnam. In 1966, he was one of 19 astronauts selected by NASA, and he would go on to serve with the support crews for the Apollo 7 and Apollo 11 missions before heading into space for the first and only time with Apollo 17.

Arthur Capper
Arthur Capper

Arthur Capper (1856-1951) Noted editor and politician, Capper was publisher of the Daily Capital and other Kansas papers and magazines including Capper’s Weekly, Capper’s Farmer and the Kansas Kansan. Capper was governor of Kansas, 1915-1919, and U.S. Senator, 1919-1949.

Actress Annette Bening was born in Topeka in 1958 before moving to Wichita, then to San Diego. She has been nominated for an Academy Award four times for her roles in The Grifters, American Beauty, Being Julia and The Kids are All Right.

Georgia Neese Clark Gray
Georgia Neese Clark Gray

Georgia Neese Clark Gray (1898-1995), a Topeka banker and businesswoman, was the first female appointed U.S. Treasurer. She served in that position from 1949-1953. Today, her name adorns the Washburn University theater.

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Kay McFarland is the first female to serve on the state’s high court. McFarland was appointed to the Kansas Supreme Court in September 1977 by Governor Robert Bennett and became chief justice in 1995.

Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks

Topeka has a rich literary history, laying claim to several prominent authors and poets. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), a Pulitzer Prize-winner for her 1950 book Annie Allen, was born in Topeka to a former schoolteacher and the son of a runaway slave who fought in the Civil War. Her family moved to Chicago when she was young, where she would go on to publish poems and take her place among America’s great literary treasures. Topeka is the boyhood home of Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe novels. Nero Wolfe’s investigator Archie Goodwin is named after a Topeka policeman from the 1920s who found young Rex Stout’s stolen crank-up record player. Harriet Lerner, a psychiatrist at the Menninger Clinic, published several books on psychological issues—including the New York Times bestseller, The Dance of Anger, which has been translated into more than 35 languages—as well as two children’s books. Her son, Ben Lerner, is a poet who was a finalist in 2006 for the National Book Award. Award-winning poet Kevin Young grew up in several places, including several years in Topeka before heading to college.

Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins (left) performing with Miles Davis

Jazz legend Coleman Hawkins graduated from Topeka High School while also studying harmony and composition at Washburn University. He played piano and cello when he was young, but took up the saxophone at age nine, with which he would gain notoriety, playing at venues around eastern Kansas by the time he was 14. Topeka was home to the first all-female mariachi band, Mariachi Estrella, when seven women from the Our Lady of Guadalupe came together in the 1970s to form a group. The band was to play at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City when the skywalk collapsed, killing hundreds of people, including four of the band members. The group is commemorated in a statue outside the Topeka Performing Arts Center. Kliph Scurlock, the son of one of the band’s members, is now the drummer for The Flaming Lips. The rock group Kansas was formed by friends in Topeka before skyrocketing to international success with songs such as “Carry on My Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind.” Former band member and founder Kerry Livgren continues to live in Topeka and frequently performs around the area.

Harry E. Gavitt (1875-1954) The spirit behind one of the most exciting and popular games ever invented, Gavitt’s Stock Exchange was the successful Topekan entrepreneur, inventor and marketing genius, Harry E. Gavitt. During his lifetime, Harry E. Gavitt ran a number of business ventures out of Topeka, Kansas. From the Gavitt’s System Regulator, “…for kidney, liver, stomach and blood troubles,” to his automatic envelope stuffing machine, “…capable of handling 15,000 envelopes per hour,” Harry’s ideas and attitude exemplified the true American spirit.

Charles Sheldon
Charles Sheldon

Charles Monroe Sheldon (1857-1946) A Congregational minister, Sheldon authored the book In His Steps and edited the Topeka Capital for one week in 1890 as a distinctively Christian daily paper.

Cyrus Holliday
Cyrus Holliday

Cyrus K. Holliday (1826-1900) One of the founders of Topeka, he was responsible for Topeka becoming the capital of the Kansas territory. He secured a charter for the Atchison & Topeka Railroad Co. (later the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, now Burlington Northern Santa Fe) which was organized in 1860. Prominent in the Republican Party, he was the first Mayor of Topeka (1857), and president of Merchants National Bank (now a Firstar bank) and Excelsior Coke and Gas Co.

In 1978, Kansas elected its first female U.S. Senator, Nancy Kassebaum Baker, daughter of former Kansas governor and 1936 presidential nominee Alf Landon. She became the first female from any state to be elected in her own right to a full term in the U.S. Senate.

Joan Finney
Joan Finney

Joan Finney (1925–2001), served as the 42nd Governor of Kansas from 1991 to 1995. In addition to being the State of Kansas’s first female governor, she was Kansas’ oldest governor, taking office at age 65, Kansas’ first Roman Catholic Governor, and also one of the few pro-life Democratic Governors of her time.

Dean Smith
Dean Smith (right) with Michael Jordan

Before he went on to become the legendary coach for the University of North Carolina, Dean Smith was a four-year letterwinner at Topeka High School, including being named to the All-State team his senior year, while also playing quarterback on the football team and catcher on the baseball team. Topeka native Bob Benoit was a professional bowler who won four PBA titles and was the first bowler to bowl a perfect game on a televised title match in 1988. Trey Lewis played football for Washburn Rural High School before becoming an All-American defensive lineman at Washburn University and going on to an NFL career when he was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 2007. Professional golfer Gary Woodland was born in Topeka and graduated from Shawnee Heights High School, then went to the University of Kansas on a golf scholarship. In 2011, he won his first PGA Tour title by one stroke in the Transitions Championship. Mark Turgeon, head coach for the Texas A&M men’s basketball team, was born and raised in Topeka. He is a graduate of Hayden High School, where he helped the team to two consecutive 4A State Championships in 1982 and 1983.