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Economic Development

Advances in technology were important to economic development in Kansas in the early 1900s. Soil conservation methods such as dry farming were introduced. Dry farming methods included rotating crops to different fields each year so that unplanted land would conserve water during the years it was not used.

Crop yields were increased with the introduction of new seed hybrids. The invention of tractors, threshers, combines and other machines resulted in more efficient farming methods. More roads and rail lines gave Kansas farmers easier access to their markets. Harvested crops could get to the customers sooner and reduce the amount of spoilage.

The increase in rail lines and rail traffic also resulted in new immigration. Many Mexicans were recruited by the railroads to come to Kansas to help build and maintain the rail lines. These new immigrants often suffered discrimination in the form of lower wages and segregationist policies.

thresher.GIF (97135 bytes)

A threshing rig used in the early 1900's (Photo courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society)


The discovery of oil and natural gas in Kansas gave a boost to the state's economy during this time. The mid-continent oil field began operating at the turn of the century. By 1905, production was high enough to lower the price of oil. In 1915, the rich El Dorado field was opened. The Hugoton field in southwest Kansas, the largest gas field in the United States, began production in 1928.

An oil and natural gas processing
plant near McPherson

The mining of coal and other minerals, such as lead, dramatically changed the economy of the southeastern part of the state. Large numbers of foreign workers came to the area. Problems arose in these industries because of low wages and poor working conditions. The United Mine Workers (UMW) called for a nationwide strike of the coal industry in November, 1919. The strike included the coal mines in the southeast corner of Kansas.

In response to the strike, President Wilson extended controls on labor unions put in place during World War I that continued the wartime ban on strikes. The union called off the strike, but Kansans ignored the government and their union and struck anyway. The State of Kansas took over the mines and asked for volunteer labor to ease the hardship on its citizens caused by a coal shortage. Three weeks passed before an agreement between workers and management ended the strike. 

Trying to gain control over labor problems, Kansas created the Court of Industrial Relations. This court was opposed by labor, who perceived it as favoring industry. Kansas Governor Henry Allen's close friend, William Allen White, opposed the Court because of its apparent unfairness, and was arrested for picketing during a 1922 railroad strike. White's editorial about this experience, To an Anxious Friend, won a Pulitzer prize. The court was eliminated by the Kansas Legislature in 1925 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned many of its rulings.

Automobiles became important enough that a small automobile industry thrived in Kansas. Terry Stafford developed a 7-horsepower engine and, in partnership with Anton and Clement Smith of Topeka, manufactured the Smith Veracity Auto. The company was out of business by 1912, replaced by cheaper assembly-line models. 

The aircraft industry became a major factor in Kansas' economic development. Clyde Cessna created a monoplane and flew it at fairs after 1912. He established Cessna Aircraft Co. in Wichita in 1927. Other aviation pioneers in Kansas were Walter and Olive Beech, the founders of Beech Aircraft, also located in Wichita.

Additional Resources

bulletLearn more about aviation history in Kansas at the Kansas Aviation Museum.

Study Guide Questions

  1. How did advances in technology affect the lives of Kansas farmers during this period?
  2. How did mineral discoveries impact the economic development of Kansas during this period?
  3. What were the reasons for labor conflicts in the coal fields of southeast Kansas? How did Kansas respond to the strike by coal miners?
  4. What was the Court of Industrial Relations and why was it soon eliminated?
  5. Who were two aviation pioneers that had a major impact in Kansas?

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