Thursday, July 23, 2015

Postmark: July 23,1917

It's a Monday, hot. Mid 90s by noon. Circus Day.

The Ringling Brothers big top is set up on the grounds at 16th and Indiana, hard by the Belt Line railroad tracks. 1250 Actors. 300 Dancing Girls. 100 Musicians. Five Great Trains of Circus Marvels Including Scores of Foreign Features Never Before Seen in America. Childhood's Golden Dreams Come True. Half a mile back toward downtown the Blues and the Columbus Senators are taking batting practice at Association Park, trackside near 20th and Prospect.

Two miles further west, at Union Station, a slender, brown-haired youth from rural Kansas is waiting for a train east. In the Fred Harvey restaurant he buys a postcard.

The great station is now three years old. Its lobby, pictured in the postcard, provides an ever changing scene for the voyeuristic traveler.  Just this month, Russian envoys touring America. Amateur baseball teams. A man seeking to trade his Steinway piano for a small car. Female job seekers entering Room 252 – Fred Harvey headquarters – hoping to become Harvey Girls in some distant western hotel. A mustachioed Kaiser Wilhelm lookalike in military handcuffs. A middle-aged woman meeting her much older pen-pal romance for the first time. Coroners accompanying a body, the 18-year-old victim of a self-administered version of what polite society refers to as "a criminal operation" – an abortion. Heat-stressed vacationers heeding the Secretary of the Interior's advice: It is even more important now than in time of peace that the health and vitality of the nation's citizenship be conserved. Rest and recreation must materially assist in this conservation ... New Army draftees, fresh from crash courses in French language, bound for training camps and French battlefields.

The young Kansan watches. He takes out his fountain pen and addresses his postcard to Rural Route 3, McLouth, Kansas. He writes:

Miss Elma Jones
Dear friend. Will drop you a card & let you know that I am still alive but am a long way off. I am in KC now but will go to Mt. Leonard, Mo., in about 3 hours so good bye from 
Ray Roark
Malta Bend, Mo
that is where I am staying
will write more next time dear.

Later his Chicago & Alton train pulls east, rolling past the Blues and Senators and the grandstand at Association Park, and then the circus grounds and the sidetracked Ringling Brothers trains with their elephants and marvels, their dancing girls and their childhood dreams. Ray Roark is just 17, ineligible for the draft until next year. A full year to dream about dancing girls and French battlefields.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Still life on Gillis

In the darkness of early morning the men dug. There were four of them. They spaded Missouri clay from beneath the stone foundation, slowly carving out a dungeon-level space for hiding. Upstairs the children slept in apartments. The women dozed in cars outside. 

*     *     *

Down in the 500 block of Gillis street, just half a block north of the funky little Happy Gillis cafe, a row of old brick rowhouses wears a red, white and green banner celebrating LaPICCOLA ITALIA.

Little Italy. Time has brought significant changes. For one, an interstate highway long ago severed the neighborhood from downtown. The Italian character has faded since the 1920s, when it was called the North Side – the rough-edged home territory of Pendergast henchman Johnny Lazia and the Sicilian immigrants who ran groceries and fruit stands and a good chunk of the city's vice business in the shadow of the old city hall and police headquarters.

Still, it's not hard to imagine an early morning, 88 years ago today, when federal agents paid a visit to the red-brick row houses on Gillis street.

*     *     *

 It was 1927, the height of Prohibition. Liquor, though illegal, was nonetheless available just about everywhere in the United States through bootleggers. Law enforcement was spotty everywhere too – cops often were good customers of the drug stores, cigar stores, pool halls, soft-drink parlors and other places that sold booze. Public outcry from civic leaders brought periodic raids, and there were fines and jail time. Or not, depending on political connections. Especially in Boss Tom's town.

"The worst thing that ever happened to Kansas City was the putting into effect of the Volstead Act," said James R. Page, Jackson County prosecutor at the time. "In theory and practice that law is all right , but it is not enforced. The police department is not enforcing this law. It is reaping the benefits of it."

Despite lack of manpower, and sometimes poor cooperation from local police, federal agents made efforts to enforce the Volstead Act. Their prime targets were bootleggers.

In June 1927 the biggest bootlegger in Kansas City was said to be Frank "Chee-Chee" DeMayo. That month DeMayo was indicted (and eventually went to prison) for violation of the Prohibition laws, including the manufacture and sale of counterfeit revenue stamps. DeMayo was thought to have a client list that included some of the city's well-to-do citizens and to offer them the finest imported liquor through his connections in New Orleans and Detroit. It turned out much of his product was homemade moonshine, bottled and labeled to masquerade as the real thing.

Frank DeMayo

DeMayo didn't make his own hooch; he was smarter than that. He employed a network of small distillers, always personally checking for quality, but never at the source. He preferred the safe distance of his office, across the street from the federal building downtown.

*     *     *

 It had been a big year for still-busting in Kansas City, including a February raid on an ersatz feed-and-seed company in the West Bottoms that housed a 1,500-gallon apparatus. That month federal agents seized a record 40 local stills. It was a record that stood until June, when 51 bit the dust. 

That number included eight taken in the early morning hours of June 28, when agents raided the red-brick row houses on Gillis street. One address yielded two stills; next door surrendered another. A quantity of corn mash turned up in another apartment and four stills were discovered in the garage out back. At the last address agents arrested four men with shovels. They were digging a sub-basement below a 75-gallon still.

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Ephemeral city: Marbles

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Let's pause here to recall the City Marbles Championship of 1941, held the 10th of May during that final spring between hard times and wartime. That such an event ever existed seems kind of amazing, and speaks to an age when too much radio was a concern to parents.

The championship – sponsors included the recreational division of the Work Projects Administration –  took place in the Municipal Auditorium Arena as part of the Sportsman's Show. Contestants were the winners of nine district tournaments around town. They had nicknames like Stinky, Knucksy and Mouse, and carried good-luck charms, perhaps a pocket knife or a Kansas City Blues button.

The tournament produced two citywide champions. The under-12 trophy went to Norman Vidricksen, age 10, (who withstood a challenge from a 5-year-old prodigy). To qualify, Norman had won the Sheffield Park district title over two of his brothers, Fred and Bennie.

The Vidricksen kids – there were five, all under 15 – lived with their widowed mother, Ruby, in a rented two-bedroom bungalow in the rolling hills above the Blue River, near the eastern city limits. It was a blue-collar neighborhood where families lived on paychecks from the factories in the Blue River Valley.

Apparently it was a marble-playing neighborhood, too. Seven medal winners in two different district tournaments came from the same block where the Vidricksens lived.

*     *     *

Fast forward through time. The Vidricksens, who had moved in the late 1930s to Kansas City from Salina, Kansas, to be near family after Mr. Vidricksen's death, returned to Salina during the war. Ruby Vidricksen ran a popular restaurant there many years. Her children, including marble champ Norman, made careers in the food-and-beverage industry. Bennie eventually became Senator Ben Vidricksen and served more than 20 years in the Kansas Statehouse.

Today, over east in the rolling hills above the Blue River, there's a tiny, run-down bungalow with a plastic tarp pulled taut over its roof to keep out the rain and the critters. The old Vidricksen house, pushing 100 years old, has been home to a steady stream of working-class families. Now it's a total rehab project, being taken on by local jazzman David Basse.

You might know Basse as an award-winning deejay on public radio, with a regular Saturday afternoon gig as well as a syndicated overnight show. Or perhaps as a musician and vocalist who for decades has channeled the spirit of Kansas City's golden age of jazz. I know him as a friend, so when he first told me about the old house, which he came upon through other friends in the neighborhood, I offered to look into its history.

He really wanted one of the old tax photos from 1940. As it turned out, his house was one of many little thumbnail prints that had been lost over the decades. So I researched other sources, including  newspaper articles and the 1940 U.S. Census. I told him about the City Marbles Championship of 1941 and the Vidricksen family.

This week I drove over to see the house. Basse said he's found plenty of artifacts from previous residents – moldy suitcases, dried-up animal carcasses, pictures of Catholic saints. He held up a plastic bag containing several dozen brightly colored marbles.

Then we recreated the missing 1940 tax photo of the old Vidricksen place:

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