Car Culture in Kansas
The car changed life for Americans. New mobility meant families could more easily go on vacations, explore the nation’s scenery and the charm of small town America. While on the road, travelers demanded the same comforts of home – lodging, family activities, and, most importantly, food.
Kansas businessmen Walter Anderson and E.W. “Billy” Ingram saw the need for food on the go. In 1921 they opened the first White Castle restaurant in Wichita. They emphasized cleanliness with small white “castle-like” buildings, stainless steel interiors, and uniformed employees. White Castle's assembly line process set the standard for fast food restaurants. White Castle became known for its unique recipe – grilled hamburgers with onions and juices that permeated the bun. The nickel burgers were served with a slice of pickle and customers added their own ketchup or mustard. Today there are no White Castles in Kansas but they can be found throughout the Midwest.
In 1922, the Cozy Inn, a six-stool diner, opened in Salina. It offered small hamburgers with a generous helping of onions. “Cozies” were served with a pickle, ketchup, and mustard, but never cheese and sold by the sack. The Cozy Inn, a popular hangout in the ‘50s and ‘60s, drew a following that spanned beyond Kansas borders.The diner continues to serve Cozies today.
In 1926, the American Highway System Act opened the way for two-lane highways that connected small towns with large cities. Route 66 was one of the first roads developed under this act. Known as “Mother Road,” it wound through the heart of the nation connecting Chicago and Los Angeles. Filling stations, motor lodges, and diners emerged along the route. Kansas’ stretch of Route 66 was 12.8 miles long in the southeast corner of the state from Galena to Riverton to Baxter Springs.
Around 1930 in the south central town of Hazelton, Arthur and Ella Valentine opened a diner. The business proved successful and they opened similar restaurants offering short orders, lunches, and sandwiches in Wichita and Hutchinson. In the early 1940s Valentine purchased a sheet metal business and began to design and sell portable steel sandwich shops across the nation. With names like Flo-Inn and Dyne-Quik, the buildings were small, square, eight-to twelve-seat diners, and easily moved from place to place. Production continued until the mid-1970s. Valentine diners are still in operation across the nation, including several in Kansas.
The car culture reshaped Kansas communities along highways and Interstates, as they changed to meet the needs of tourists. Locally owned businesses continued to operate as long as the highways brought traffic to the communities. As businesses declined when highways were rerouted, newer national chains took their place along busier routes, attempting to recreate the charm of the originals. Fortunately, Kansans today can still find seats at a few home-owned diners.
Entry: Car Culture in Kansas
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2010
Date Modified: June 2011
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.