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. 

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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.

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 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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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Right here at the Muehlebach

The postmark puts us in Kansas City, Mo., at 2 o'clock on the afternoon of April 30, 1927. It's a cool, spring Saturday and there's a chance of rain. Front-page headlines tell of disastrous levee breaks along the swollen lower Mississippi River and a sensational love-triangle murder trial in New York. On page 7 we learn that a Captain Charles Lindbergh is flying his yet-unnamed monoplane from San Diego to New York. Sometime in the next few weeks he'll try to make the first successful solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

The rains here have brought out fantastic spring blooms. Spirea bushes, in particular, are said to be so full they resemble snowdrifts. Out in the verdant southern residential district Mrs. Jacob Loose has signed a contract to purchase the 80-acre former Kansas City Country Club and give it to the city for a public park as a memorial to her late husband. "Mr. Loose loved children," she says, "and I feel it would be his wish to have the park a place of winding paths, flowers, green grass and trees where little children could go and enjoy the fresh air and the beauty of nature."

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce is leading an effort to industrialize the city.  “Many industries are leaving the Eastern districts to locate in the Middle West,"  says Lou Holland, chamber president. "Kansas City should be prepared to receive them on an even basis with other cities.”

Actually, the city's best-known "industry" might be vice. Federal Judge Albert Reeves is working on that, having just fined or put in jail 14 violators of the Prohibition laws. And a former federal agent has been found guilty of accepting a bribe from a man accused of selling liquor. Still, it's not hard to find a drink here, or a bawdy house, a girlie show or a place to gamble. Even if you're staying at the city's finest hotel – the Muehlebach, at the corner of 12th and Baltimore – you're an easy stroll away from an illegal dice game, perhaps at one of the cigar stores or pool halls along Baltimore and Wyandotte streets.

If you're a female guest of the Muehlebach, you probably have more genteel activities in mind.  Perhaps a little shopping (though you can buy cocktail shakers and flasks along Petticoat Lane). Or a guided tour on the city's new 30-passenger sightseeing bus, departing a block away at 11th and Baltimore. Or luncheon in the hotel's Plantation Grill, with its dance orchestra. Or you might just buy a hotel postcard and write home:

Blundon Family!
I'm here by 
invitation of 
New York Life for 
this wonderful spring meeting. 
A great opportunity! 
I want to tell 
you about it.
 Hazel N. Moore

*     *     *
Hazel N. Moore is a 41-year-old widow from Salina, Kansas. A former kindergarten teacher, she's been Salina's representative of the New York Life Insurance Company since the previous agent, her husband, died on a trip to a Shriners Convention back East. Hazel has two sons, 9 and 7. They live a five-minute walk from the Blundon family in Salina.

The Blundons are two sisters, Edith and Ruth, in their 40s, and Edith's son and daughter, 17 and 9. The sisters both teach music at a Salina college. Ruth's late husband, a judge, died after having his appendix removed. The Blundon and Moore children are playmates.
*     *     *
Here on April 30, 2015, we know some of what happened after Hazel mailed her postcard on April 30, 1927. Lindbergh made it to Paris. The Mississippi River flood was the worst in U.S. history. Industry came to Kansas City, but vice never really left. Ruth Snyder and her lover went to the chair for the murder of her husband. Little children of many generations and colors still enjoy the fresh air and beauty of Loose Park.

Hazel N. Moore raised her sons in Salina, then moved to Seattle and returned to teaching. She died in 1964 and was buried in Salina. The Blundon sisters taught music into their old age, giving piano recitals and private lessons. They died five weeks apart in 1977, Edith at 97 and Ruth at 89. When Edith was 96, New York Life declared she had outlived the life policy she had bought after her husband died in 1922, and paid her its face value. The local newspaper marked the occasion with a feature story. Edith remembered she had bought her policy from a Hazel Moore.

Finally the Hotel Muehlebach is an under-appreciated, all-but-neglected appendage to the newer, sleeker Marriott up the street. But it's still standing, and next month it celebrates the 100th anniversary of its opening.

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