Beechwood magical in writer’s memory

By Donald Willis | August 31, 2022

Beechwood residents lived in 400 barracks-style units.

Editor’s note: Beechwood was one of three neighborhoods built as “temporary” housing for aircraft workers and their families who flooded Wichita during World War II. While Planeview and Hilltop Manor survive, Beechwood did not.

Beechwood is gone, and I doubt there are many left who know it ever existed. This saddens me because it was a magical place for a kid to grow up.

Beechwood was built on Douglas between Rock and Webb, where the Independent School and Bonnie Brae addition sit today. Each of the 400 barracks-style units had an ice box supplied by delivery men and a coal burning furnace, supplied from housing authority bins. 

Many of its residents were employed at Beech Aircraft Co., close enough for them to walk or bike to work. The people who moved to Beechwood went there because of the economic opportunity afforded by the war effort. My father was a fireman in Pittsburg, Kan., who took the same job at higher pay at Beech Aircraft, leaving his family behind until he could find housing for us. Others came from smaller towns and farms, including a great number from Oklahoma. Beechwood had several Native American families from Oklahoma: the Tigers, Squirrels, Moons, Bobbs and Guydelkens are names I recall. The Tigers occupied the other half of our unit. They had six or seven kids, and we eventually had six, so we got along well.

It’s difficult today to convey how World War II colored everything in Beechwood. I still remember the parade and celebration that happened on V-J Day, even though I was 3 years old at the time and probably didn’t know what we were celebrating.

Slightly more than half the units were torn down shortly after the war. A tornado demolished more in 1948. I slept through it.

Beechwood had a grocery store run by George and Frank Jabara, a drug store and lunch counter run by Ed Jabara, a barber shop and tavern all occupying one building facing Douglas. Beechwood grade school and its gymnasium were the center of most activity. One night a week, a cartoon, serial or short and feature were shown there to a big crowd of kids. 

For kids, there was always something to do, limited only by our imagination and with very little involvement from grown-ups.

We would follow the creek north through the wealthier Forest Hills addition almost as far as 21st Street. We used to hide in the hedge rows and watch polo games, played by rich oil men, on a field that was located where either the Charles Koch home or Wichita Country Club are today. I suppose the players might have known we were there, but they never chased us off.

We knew we were considered poor by the folks living north of us, but that just tweaked our curiosity as to how the other half lived. One hot summer day we were on the creek just north of Central Street and could see people playing tennis and swimming in the pool at the Vickers mansion, where Kapaun-Mt. Carmel high school is located today. After considerable debate, we walked up to the place and asked for a cool drink. They were gracious, and probably amused, and did give us each a glass of water, and after taking in as much as we could we returned to the creek.

Ironically, later in life I worked for the Vickers Petroleum Company, but this was long after the family sold it.

There was one summer that we did not run around very much. In 1952, polio struck fear into many households, and some kids ended up in iron lungs or were crippled. My mother and many others thought that hot weather and being outside caused the disease; my younger brother and I were kept inside during hot summer days. The only good thing that came from this was listening to Dizzy Dean and Peewee Reese on the radio doing “The Game of the Day” baseball games. 

I think it was the year after this, in 1953, that television first arrived in the Wichita area. The cost of a television set was beyond the means of most of Beechwood’s inhabitants, but eventually a young childless couple did buy one. All the kids in Beechwood were wild with curiosity. I will never forget the nighttime scene around the home of the TV pioneers. Envision a blue glow emanating from within their living room, and surrounding the window were the heads of at least 10 window peekers, with several more standing around nearby whispering “they got television” while awaiting their turn.

Beginning in 1954, the government decided to tear down the aircraft worker housing. Residents of Hilltop Manor and Planeview hired lawyers and successfully fought the decision. I guess those in Beechwood did not, but I was only a kid at the time.

This initiated the diaspora of the Beechwood community. Some of the dispossessed found housing in Planeview or Hilltop Manor. My parents bought the only home they would ever own in the 1800 block of Windsor Street, near Harry and Woodlawn, and they and their six children moved in the summer of 1955. 

In September of that year, I started attending Curtis Intermediate School on Edgemoor Street and lost contact with my Beechwood friends. In 1958, when Wichita Southeast High School opened and Planeview High School closed, some of us met again, but it was not the same.

After the housing units at Beechwood were gone, only the school and administration building were left. And when the Pizza Hut headquarters — now the Ruffin Building — was built in 1978, all traces of Beechwood disappeared

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