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Urban Ambitions in an Agricultural Economy: Town-building on the Great Plains, 1870 – 1929


This dissertation appraises the role of white, middle-class businessmen as engineers of urban development, assessing the complexity of individual and group reactions to an array of economic, political, social, and environmental stimuli that residents of Kansas faced between 1870 and 1929 using Abilene, Wichita, and Dodge City as case studies. I explore the social dynamics that evolved among these local businessmen – as well as with other townspeople and those who lived outside their communities – to consider how these social interactions affected each town’s urban aspirations. This study traces the process of town-building from its inception when Abilene, Wichita, and Dodge City became cattle towns; through the towns’ transition into commercial centers during the boom of the 1880s; their struggles to negotiate the agricultural and economic depression of the 1890s; and their resurgence in the early 1900s. Over the period of sixty years, businessmen responded to major shifts in the surrounding agricultural economy; regional and national politics; and evolving transportation systems. In examining how these men negotiated with one another, with other residents, and with their rural neighbors to respond to these changes, I conclude that the communities that proffered the most cogent visions for development – and those which devised the most solid strategies and programs to achieve these plans – were those where businessmen actively and consistently collaborated with one another. In so doing, I identify local promotional organizations as an important site for sustained collaboration and explore early formal and informal attempts to establish these groups, while examining how collaboration became increasingly institutionalized in the first decades of the twentieth century.

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