Monday, December 24, 2018

From a spirit of Christmas past

*     *     *

To Kansas Citians of a hundred years from today:

I'm looking out my window on the morning of Christmas Eve, watching snowfall taper off after a heavy storm that began yesterday. It blew in from the southwest, from Arizona and New Mexico and Colorado, and swept across the plains. It now lies a foot deep across the city, and a driving wind has created even deeper drifts. I suppose it could have been worse. Western Kansas was hit harder, and parts of Oklahoma have as much as two feet of snow! Railroad men are calling it one of the worst storms they've ever seen. No trains are moving down at the Union Station. The place is full of passengers stranded for the holiday. Telephone lines are down. Mail delivery has stopped.

Traffic downtown is a mess, as you might imagine, and at the busiest time of the year for shoppers. There's a streetcar strike on (with some labor violence) so service was already limited before this storm hit. Now it's worse. Autos skidding on ice, clogging viaducts, abandoned in snowdrifts. Taxi and jitney drivers – those few who can negotiate deep snow – are taking full advantage, overcharging for rides. I hear some weary people couldn't get home last night – or wouldn't pay the profiteer's price – and simply checked into hotels.

We're only weeks past the Armistice that ended the Great War to End All Wars (surely you now enjoy Peace on Earth), but are only now receiving news of local casualties – the wounded, missing, or killed in action. Families will be without loved ones this Christmas, for even returning discharged soldiers are snowbound somewhere by this storm.

The influenza epidemic is still with us. Hospitals reported ten flu deaths here this week. Everyone has been trying to avoid large crowds, but that is a challenge this time of year. The weather is hardest on the poor, and on poor animals like working horses and stray dogs. Unemployed men down in the river wards, many without overcoats, shelter in dingy saloons and doorways out of the sharp wind.

All that on top of the usual crime – petty and violent – that seem to be part of city life these days. Through my window I see the sky and the pristine carpet of snow are darkening under sootfall from a thousand chimneys and smokestacks.

*     *     *

Blogger interlude: I've often said that reading old newspapers is as close as you get to time travel. Old newspapers have been the primary inspiration all along for this blog, 10 years old this month. Repeatedly they show how much has changed over time, and how much human nature remains the same. This often appears in the smallest stories, what might be called ephemera and minutiae, found in "news briefs" or police reports or "city notes" or classified ads. The kind of stuff that flies under the radar in today's journalism. Not that sensation and provocation aren't part of the past, too. But an old daily newspaper presents a panoramic world, both dark and light. There is History, yes. But also small-h history, full of nuance and quiet wonder.

*     *     *

Anyway, not all is dark. The young ones are out sledding, building forts and snowmen, including a Kaiser Wilhelm creation – mustache, helmet, sword – built for gleeful destruction. 

Down at the Union Station, people have waited all night for trains that didn’t arrive. But a choir sings Christmas carols from the south balcony, and the crowd below applauds after each selection. There are plenty of soldiers there. A round-bellied traveling salesman treats twenty of them to dinner in the Fred Harvey restaurant.  

The streetcar strike has actually helped improve the influenza crisis, and the city health director has lifted the ban on children attending large public events. He still recommends avoiding crowds if possible. 

There are Christmas trees in all the major hotels, and in the hospitals and orphans homes. Tom Pendergast will be feeding hundreds of down-and-outers (and several stray dogs) at his annual Christmas dinner in a North Side cafe. And a woman's club is again sponsoring a special dinner of oats for all working horses in the city. 

And it's a white Christmas, after all. People are making their way to work or to the stores for last-minute shopping. Some driving autos offer free rides downtown.  One man with a pair of homemade snowshoes seems to float above his fellow pedestrians. They slip and tramp and stomp through knee-high drifts in the streets, but many don't seem to mind. They make jokes and toss snowballs and shout to one another.

"Put on your Christmas smile," cries one, and many of them do.

Hoping you find many reasons to smile there in the future
– from Kansas City, 1918.

*     *     *

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A river town Thanksgiving

The ASB bridge once had an auto deck a level above the railroad tracks.
*     *     *
It’s the night before Thanksgiving. Henry, a cook in a restaurant at 18thand Prospect, is hitching a ride home with his boss, Vogel. Henry’s houseboat is moored on the Clay County shore of the Missouri River, below the Armour-Swift-Burlington bridge. As Vogel swings his car onto the bridge Henry spots a woman leaning on the railing near the south end. He rolls down the window, asks if anything is wrong. 

 “Had a toothache and got off the streetcar,” she says. She wears a red coat, a shawl over her head. Henry can see her jaw is swollen. He gets a bad feeling. It’s an 80-foot drop to the river.

“Don’t get funny and jump,” he says.

“I wouldn’t think of doing anything like that,” she replies, and walks on.

The day had dawned in a chilly drizzle as hordes of shoppers filled the City Market, seeking ingredients for a feast. The canopied stalls displayed fresh celery just in from California, radishes, leeks, hothouse tomatoes. There were oysters and pickles and mincemeat, lamb roasts, beef and ham. Live chickens, ducks, and geese, available for backyard slaughter. Turkeys, live or dressed, were scarce and pricey, owing to a poor season down south. 

Whatever the budget, thanks will be offered over a meal, as it has in America for three hundred and seven years. Even the King Joy Lo CafĂ©, a Chinese restaurant at 12thand Grand, promises a traditional Thanksgiving menu, with choices: Young Turkey with oyster dressing, Baked Goose, or Filet Mignon. Soup, Relish, Vegetables, Dessert. One dollar. Served from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Vogel’s Prospect Inn will be serving something similar too. But Henry’s not thinking about work as he leaves Vogel’s car and starts down the river bank to his houseboat. Looking up, he sees the woman in the red coat climb the bridge railing.

 *     *     *

There’s plenty to be grateful for on Thanksgiving Day in Kansas City. 

The day is bright and sunny after yesterday’s gloom. Feral cats who keep the old county courthouse mouse-free are happy the office worker who feeds them has returned from vacation. About a hundred boys who live in the Boys’ Hotel on Admiral Boulevard are pleased that someone has donated ten large turkeys for their feast today. The chairman of the Jones Store Company says “Kansas City should be thankful because we have the most American city in the United States, and one destined to be one of the greatest inland cities.” A newspaper editor, with Lindbergh fresh in mind, gives thanks for “that high spirit of adventure and of conquest ... that this year sent our explorers of the air to carry a message of deathless courage and achievement across the Atlantic.

Missouri football fans are happy to be able to watch this afternoon’s big game – their Tigers playing Oklahoma’s Sooners for the Missouri Valley Conference title – unfold play by play (a few seconds late) on the big “grid-graph” board at the Ararat Shrine Temple. Any local fans of the University of Southern California are tickled to get a chance to see their Trojans down at Union Station on a layover in their cross-country trip to play Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame team on Saturday.

Shoppers look forward to stores opening at 9 a.m. Friday. Kids know what that means.

Lovers of night life appreciate the opportunity to see the four Marx Brothers, live on the Shubert stage.

And who isn’t excited about tonight’s grand opening of the new dance palace down on Main street.
A man who lives on Woodland avenue is especially thankful today, now that his mother is back home. He hadn’t heard that she'd been out of town all week on business. He reported her missing. This morning the papers reported an unidentified woman last night had leaped from the ASB bridge. He worried because the description fit his mother. A cook named Henry said he had seen her climb the rail and jump, moments before hearing the splash. No body has yet been found. 

 *     *     *

Early next spring, after a long, frigid winter, an unknown woman's naked body will be pulled from the Missouri River near Waverly, some 70 miles downstream from the bridge. 

And today Henry is perhaps most thankful for his bootlegger.  It’s Prohibition, but tonight after work he’ll be down on the river, in his little houseboat under the bridge, hitting the bottle hard.

 *     *     *

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Return of the blackbirds

* * *

Late October, 1933: For weeks hundreds of blackbirds have been returning each evening to one block – the high ground of Olive between 35th and 36th streets. They roost nights in trees, clacking and squawking and irritating residents to the point of action. One, a streetcar driver by day, has been losing sleep at night.

“One shot with a small-gauge shotgun at random into the dark brought three out of a tree,” he says. “The others flew, but returned.”

* * *

Streetcars run on Brooklyn, two blocks west of the blackbirds. That’s the Brooklyn-Sunset Hill line, the city’s most democratic. It links east-side working-class neighborhoods to captains-of-industry Ward Parkwayvia what’s known as “the colored district” around 18th and Vine.

One day a Brooklyn-Sunset car stops at 36th and Broadway. Passengers board and a dog jumps in. A male German shepherd, gray with black markings. The operator lets him stay, but on the return trip, when no one has claimed him, the dog is put off where he got on.

During his ride the dog picks a newspaper off the floor and drops it in a man’s lap.

* * *

The newspapers carry ads for nightclubs. The Paramount Club (Kansas City’s Smart Night Club). The Pla-Mor (Tables for 1,000). The Silver Slipper (Spectacular Fan Dance!). The Hey-Hay Club (Hot-cha Negro Band). The Beetle (The Party’s On Till Dawn). The Harlem Nite Club (Exclusively White Patronage. Spend Your Halloween at the Harlem).

There are ads for Halloween party favors and costumes: Clowns and pirates and devils and bats. Puritans and Mexicans. Daniel Boone and Felix the Cat and Popeye.

There’s an article about someone on Olive Street, lighting Roman candles and shooting them at blackbirds in trees.

And a story about a man who lives in Midtown, a short walk from the Brooklyn-Sunset line, with a sick relative who’s lost her companion – a dog named Duke. The man has been delivering hand-bills all over town. Three thousand hand-bills describing Duke: Male police dog, dark-gray streaked with black. Black face. Front legs scarred from surgery. Missing some teeth. Small in stature. Carries head high. Playful. Reward: $10.

And stories about pre-Halloween vandalism. Gangs of boys soaping car windows, tipping garbage cans, cutting clothes lines, setting fires, slashing tires, throwing rocks and eggs, shooting out streetlights with .22-caliber rifles. About a man answering his doorbell, finding two small boys who offer to get their gang to quit bothering him if he will give them some candy. The man says he thinks he’ll call the police instead.

Halloween costumes, 1933.
Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.
* * *

Down at police headquarters the mail brings a handwritten letter. “Dear chief of police,” it begins. “I promise you I will not soap any cars or windows. I will tell the other children not to do it too.”

The letter is from an 8-year-old boy whose parents have told him the Spirit of Halloween doesn’t approve of vandalism. Only harmless pranks. Knocking on windows, ringing doorbells. That sort of thing. The return address on the letter is the Emerson Apartment Hotelon Linwood Boulevard, a 10-minute walk from the chattering trees of Olive Street.

* * *

The day after Halloween, the 8-year-old says he and his group of friends tapped on a few windows and rang some doorbells. Says he convinced some other boys they shouldn’t set fire to some leaves in a yard, and stopped some older girls from soaping car windows.

The police name him an unofficial assistant chief-of-police. They’ve had another busy night, answering 75 reports of vandalism, from the east-side working-class neighborhoods to the well-to-do blocks of the Country Club District. Almost citywide. Almost. The Kansas City Call reports “not a single such call was received in the colored district.” 

One family in that district – they live near 16th and Troost, a few blocks from the Harlem Nite Club and its all-white patronage – is now $10 richer, having dialed a midtown telephone number to report a gray-and-black German shepherd at their home.

Duke, 15 pounds thinner, is headed back to his sick companion.

And out on Olive Street, the fire department has answered a call and aimed a high-pressure stream of water into the densely populated trees there. Finally, the blackbirds have flown. One firefighter is not convinced.

“We’ll be getting a call from some place about six blocks away,” he says.

* * *
This is a slightly different version of a post from October 2009.

* * *

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Retouched by time

A matchbook cover made use of the famous paintings.
 *     *     *

The green art-deco barstools still swivel in what used to be the Savoy Grill of the Hotel Savoy, now the bar/lounge of a chef-driven restaurant called the Savoy at 21c. There was the recent complete edgy makeover by the 21c Museum Hotel group, which calls itself “North America’s only multi-venue museum dedicated to collecting and exhibiting art of the 21st century.” For anyone curious about what that might mean for a beloved old-school room originally inspired by a pair of 19th-century wagon wheelsA swiveling art-deco barstool is a good place to see how time changes history. 

 “’Untouched by time’ would be an understatement,” said Anthony Bourdain when he brought an episode of “No Reservations” here in 2012. “They don’t make rooms this beautiful anymore.” 

So today it’s satisfying to see the room still exists. Much of the old remains. The dark-clubby feel, the wood-and-tile details, the booths where old U.S. presidents dined. And the murals – a dozen paintings of the old Santa Fe Trail journey from Westport Landing to New Mexico, scenes of riverboats and wagons, plains and mountains, an Indian attack. Not exactly art of the 21stcentury.

A corner barstool is close to the artist’s signature at the edge of the first mural:

As a young artist Edward J. Holslag had worked on the decorative painting staff at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and created ceiling murals for the new Library of Congress building in Washington, D.C. He eventually made a name for himself as an interior decorator of public spaces – banks, courthouses, theaters, and hotels.

In 1899 Holslag designed the interior of the grand new Hotel Baltimore here in Kansas City. The Baltimore's proprietors also ran the Hotel Savoy. Which probably is how he was selected to create murals for the new grill.

Edward J. Holslag
When he painted these scenes Americans still romanticized the Old West, still celebrated the pioneer spirit of 19thcentury expansion. When the restaurant was briefly known as the Pioneer Grill, the murals were used in advertising. One scene of wagons crossing a stream appeared on matchbook covers and postcards. 

The years were hard on the murals. Grease, dirt and neglect turned them into dark and dingy wallpaper. The Old West eventually became more kitschy than heroic. But to longtime customers the paintings were symbols of something meaningful and essential, so in the 1980s a restoration specialist was hired to clean the murals. He worked for six months, using oversized cotton swabs and trisodium phosphate. When he was done they threw an unveiling party with a jazz band. 

*     *     *

Edward Holslag died at 54 in 1924. An obituary remembered him as “a great artist – a really great artist, with the temperament and sensitiveness which are ever associated with the artist soul.”

Just a few years earlier, the Fine Arts Journal had published a review of an exhibition of his work. “The paintings of this artist are contemporary, they are modern, but not faddish,” it said.  “They are of today, and yesterday, yet they are neither prophetic nor inventive of some unusual and generally unaccepted tomorrow.”

And now, in yesterday’s tomorrow, the lounge of the Savoy at 21c has a sculptural installation by New York artist Brad Kahlhamer, who is of Native American descent. It comprises many silvery dream catchers – traditional Native American protectors against nightmares. And it hangs in front of the Holslag scene of the wagon train crossing the creek. The accompanying description reads:
The work highlights the role of the artist as healer or shaman, bringing a sense of balance, compassion, and inclusivity to a space originally designed to celebrate European-American expansion and the mythology of manifest destiny, as illustrated in the historic murals in the historic Savoy lounge. … [It] transforms a space of the past into a forward-focused one of the present, acknowledging the complexity of history and the potential for progress, a reminder of the advances made since the restaurant’s first incarnation – visual confirmation that art is the highest form of hope. 
As someone with the artist soul, Holslag would probably welcome how the new hotel has brought him into the 21stcentury. He might even forgive the restaurant’s website naming Edward Holsang as the mural artist. Because time changes things. 

An old green barstool is a good place to raise a glass to change, to hope, to remembrance. All in the strange comfort of knowing that sooner or later we’ll all be forgotten.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The day the world got smaller

All eyes were on the western sky.

*     *     *

By morning, most of the best vantage points had been grabbed, occupied for hours. A day earlier, when the estimated time of arrival was sometime around midnight, people began positioning themselves on downtown rooftops, on the hill opposite Union Station, in cars parked along the mall leading to the Liberty Memorial. WDAF radio had put an announcer on top of the Kansas City Star building, broadcasting nonstop into the night. Floodlights were aimed skyward. All eyes and ears strained toward the southwest. Is that a constellation there? Is that a locomotive rumbling or ...?

But Texas headwinds kicked up down in El Paso. Kansas City would have to wait until daylight. Skywatchers dozed in place. The radio played musical interludes between progress bulletins. It would be sometime between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m., said the announcer.

At 9 o'clock the temperature was 70 degrees, the sky hazy-cloudy, laced with smoke from the railyards and factories. Visibility was poor for the thousands now stationed on blankets and rooftops. The two-hour window passed. Then at 9:35 the big whistle blew loud from the Armour packing plant in the stockyards. Three minutes later the nose of a giant emerged from the mist above Southwest Boulevard and Summit street. Then the whole giant, dark gray, three city blocks long, a thousand feet overhead, engines roaring, cruising northeast towards Union Station. Small airplanes circled the giant, appearing to one observer like "mosquitoes buzzing a colossal bumblebee."

The pale disc of the sun briefly managed a few bright shafts, turning the giant silver. From the ground, those with field glasses could make out tiny figures in cabin windows. Large red letters on the silvery sides were clear: Graf Zeppelin.

The Graf Zeppelin over Union Station, August 28, 1929.
*     *     *
For three weeks Kansas Citians, like the rest of the world, had been reading about the great journey of the Graf Zeppelin – around the world in record-breaking time. Leaving Lakehurst, New Jersey, on August 8, 1929, the airship had flown across the Atlantic Ocean, Europe and Asia, across the Pacific Ocean and half of the United States by August 28, when it broke through clouds above Kansas City. In another day the adventure would end back in Lakehurst. Twenty-one days, five hours, twenty-five minutes, the fastest any humans had circled the globe.

Two days before the arrival in Kansas City.

The ship, a German accomplishment, carried forty crew members and a multinational passenger group of twenty, including one woman. Lady Grace Drummond-Hay was a well-known British journalist whose daily dispatches were read in newspapers worldwide. On that Wednesday she wrote:

Kansas City waved us a welcome this morning as we sped overhead and circled about, preparatory to setting our course for Chicago, which will be our turning point and our own special gateway toward the East. A score, it seemed, of welcoming airplanes soared about this giant silver ship, greeting us and photographing from all conceivable angles. It was ten minutes ahead of schedule, at 9:40 o'clock, that we flew over Kansas City, and it was ten minutes later that we left it, to the accompanying sounds of whistles and sirens below.

*     *     *

The Graf Zeppelin's circle here appeared to center on the three-year-old Liberty Memorial – from Union Station east to about Prospect, south and west over Linwood boulevard, north along Broadway – before it continued downtown, over the Missouri River and vanished again into the clouds.

Headed north, over the Missouri River.

A few shouts arose when the airship was first sighted, but for the most part spectators fell silent as they watched the massive thing, propelled by five great engines, soar over them. At the time the fastest they could travel from coast to coast was via train-plane combo – plane in daylight, train overnight – in forty-eight hours, weather permitting. Air travel was shrinking the planet, but perhaps that was just now dawning on some.

As one Kansas Citian later said, “How amazing it was! How altogether incredible! But one short week ago this ship was forging her way across the lonely, unexplored wastes of Siberia.” 

*     *     *

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Postmark: July 24, 1955

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Kansas City was expanding in the heat of summer 1955.

A hundred thousand more people since just before World War II. New freeways and viaducts and cloverleaf interchanges. A new bridge rising over the Missouri River at the foot of Broadway, and a new underground parking garage across from Municipal Auditorium downtown. It was the first summer as a major league city. The Kansas City Athletics, having moved from Philadelphia the previous winter, were playing their first season at Twenty-second and Brooklyn in an enlarged Municipal Stadium. 

The Kansas City Zoo welcomed a new baby elephant named Casey, born in the wilds of Africa and purchased for the zoo by Arnold Johnson, the new owner of the A’s. The longtime team mascot was an elephant.

By the weekend of July 23-24, the A’s were not the worst team in the American League, but had lost 10 straight games, including three straight to the worst team, the Baltimore Orioles. Now here came the New York Yankees – Mantle, Ford, Berra, etc. – also in a slump but clinging to first place. The A’s somehow took the Friday night and Saturday afternoon games, then dropped a double-header on Sunday.

After games, major league ballplayers – A’s and visitors – often had dinner at the Majestic Steakhouse at Thirty-first and Holmes, run by Tudie Lusco, a veteran of the wide-open nightlife days of the Pendergast era. (In coming seasons Lusco would attend each A’s spring training in Florida and cook steak dinners for the team.)

The Majestic was a decade old, among established favorites like the Savoy, the Golden Ox, the Wishbone, Nance’s, Italian Gardens, Jennie’s, and the Forum. Putsch’s Cafeteria advertised its 11 a.m. opening, “plenty of time to get to the ballpark” for a day game. Joe Gilbert’s restaurant at the downtown airport was “open ‘round the clock,” and used the image of an elephant in advertising. 

Gilbert’s former partner at the airport, Nathan “True” Milleman, now owned perhaps the city’s trendiest restaurant, the year-old Milleman’s at the corner of Pennsylvania and Ward Parkway on the Country Club Plaza. Newspaper society columns gave details of wedding parties, club meetings and retirement tributes at Milleman’s. A year earlier a front-page article in the Timeshad documented the restaurant’s soft opening. Highlights included a cocktail lounge called the Web Room, “with a jeweled spider and fly entwined in a large black web that overhangs the bar.” And the Fountain Room, upholstered in green and styled as an outdoor patio with a central fountain. 

Another fountain just outside the entrance featured a mascot of sorts. Not an elephant, this one was drawn from Greek mythology. “Pegasus” was a small bronze flying horse, which sat on a pedestal in the fountain on the sidewalk. Inside the restaurant, “Pegasus” had his name on a second bar, and he starred in advertising. 

Milleman’s patrons found white tablecloths and waitresses in long skirts and starched white blouses. They dined on steaks and roasts and fresh seafood, and afterward could buy a souvenir postcard at the front counter. As so happened that Sunday evening, when such a postcard was mailed to a suburban address outside Houston:

Sunday nite 7-24
Rita & Frank just took me to dinner at this ritzy restaurant – its lovely on the inside. Saw the K.C. A’s beat the N.Y. Yanks Sat.
Love, Jerry    

*     *    *

Milleman’s lasted until 1957, when Wolferman’s bought it and renamed it the Empire Room. In the early 1960s it became the Embassy. And for more than fifty years it was Plaza III.

The Kansas City A’s moved to Oakland after the 1967 season.

True Milleman died in 1973 at age 84.

Casey, the zoo’s African elephant, died in 2003. Thought to be 52, he was the oldest African bull elephant in North America at the time.

“Pegasus” was moved to a pedestal at Forty-seventh and Broadway in 1963. In 1990 he was stolen. His replica now stands on Broadway near Nichols Road.

*     *    *

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The unkissed pedestrian

Twelfth and Baltimore in the heyday of Kirby McRill.
Anderson Photo Company Photograph Collection (K0489). The State Historical Society of Missouri.
 *     *     *

Kirby McRill has not been forgotten. A few years ago there was a 5K walk named for him in Tonganoxie, Kansas, near the land he once farmed. He’s immortalized in a few books, notably Tom’s Town, a definitive account of the Pendergast years in Kansas City. He even has his own web page. That some memories of him are incomplete, or inaccurate, probably would not have mattered much to Kirby, so long as his name was still out there. He hasn't disappeared, as he did for a time in the summer of 1920, weeks after following railroad tracks out of town, on foot, toward a different life.

 *     *     *

Fifty years ago, a Kansas City Times reporter recalled seeing Kirby McRill downtown in the 1930s, “silhouetted against the sun, moving hell for leather behind his loaded wheelbarrow.” Passing gambling joints along Twelfth street he “pounded through Baltimore avenue, his great red beard and his shoulder-length tresses quivering, clad in his 1918 baseball pants and a shirt as green as the gamblers’ aprons.” 
Kirby McRill late in life.
This is the Kirby McRill that evolved from the summer of 1920, the eccentric old man in the weird outfit who walked around town wearing a sandwich sign for a pet store or pushing a cart full of splintered wooden boxes that he rebuilt and sold for income. The guy who lived in a fleabag hotel near the city market, who did time in the municipal farm for creating a fire hazard with his pile of broken wood. Guards there held him down and shaved his hair and beard. He filed a $160,000 suit against the city, without success. 

That old guy resembled his younger self only in that he walked everywhere.

  *     *     *

In the summer of 1920 Kirby McRill was 44 years old. He farmed more than two hundred acres of Kaw Valley bottomland in Leavenworth county, northeast of Lawrence. He had his own threshing equipment, which he hired out at harvest time. He tinkered with his machinery, traveled to implement shows, and in winter sometimes worked at equipment dealers in Kansas City. 

Back then Kirby was tall, dark, blue-eyed and handsome, with carefree hair and a thick mustache. He didn’t consume alcohol, coffee, or tobacco, was a Shriner and a member of a group of bachelor farmers in his rural neighborhood. He was a big eater, favoring rare beef and blackberry pies. He enjoyed walking. A lot. 
The younger Kirby.
For years he had walked to Tonganoxie and Lawrence and Topeka, for business or pleasure. In 1911 he covered the forty miles of Union Pacific railroad tracks between Lawrence and Kansas City’s old Union Depot in nine hours and seven minutes, against a head wind. It would have been quicker had not several trains come along.

Sometimes business and pleasure mixed. He’d start from home around midnight, arrive in Kansas City mid-morning, and check into the Baltimore or Muehlebach hotel, Twelfth and Baltimore. Then bathe and eat a big meal, visit a few threshing companies, and start home in the late afternoon.

In 1917 jury duty in Leavenworth meant twenty-seven miles each way in the snowy cold for several days. A local newspaper took notice. “Americans don’t walk enough,” Kirby was quoted as saying. “If they walked more they would have better health; it is the best exercise in the world.” His favorite walking uniform consisted of his old amateur baseball uniform, wide-brimmed hat, and size 12 shoes.

As Kirby kept walking, reporters kept writing about him. In the spring of 1920 he announced he would walk to Chicago, visit a few threshing houses, take in the Republican National Convention, see the sights. With permission to use the Santa Fe railroad right-of-way he set out on May 14 and pulled into Chicago eight days later.  The Chicago Tribune published a small story:

Days later the Tribune ran a story about five young Evanston women seeking husbands, promoted by the local justice of the peace. Soon Kirby showed up at the judge’s office, saying he’d read about the women and would like an introduction, having decided he “ought to a got hitched up long ago.” Unfortunately, the judge was out of town, so Kirby walked on. 

Next day the Tribune’s front page story began:

 “I haven’t ever kissed a girl,” he had told the paper. “And I’m 44 years old.”

By August, worried friends and relatives had not heard from him in weeks. Meanwhile, Kirby continued walking, visiting Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. His crops and business were suffering from neglect. When he finally returned in early September, the bank had foreclosed on his livestock. But Kirby would not stop walking, or seeking publicity. He began spending even more time in Kansas City.

Now the stories were in papers nationwide, usually referring to him as The Unkissed Pedestrian. The Heart of America Walking Club here in town recruited him to help promote walking and the city. He participated in publicity stunts. In 1921 a Post reporter ambushed him with a showgirl named Flossie Devere. “You can’t tell me he’s never been kissed before,” she said after planting one for the camera. Kirby looked surprised, but not displeased. He was still searching. 
Kissed at last.
Finally, in the summer of 1922, he was seen with a young female walking companion. A trainee, he called her. She was Daisy Belle Hicks, half his age, daughter of a neighboring farmer in Leavenworth county. All that fall, as Kirby trained for another Chicago walk, this time sponsored by the HOA Walking Club, Daisy Belle was there. Though he hoped she would soon be ready for long-distance walking, he paid for her to attend barber school in the meantime. “She's going to get a job in one of these here lady barber shops,”  he told the Post.

In December, leaving the steps of city hall in Kansas City, bound for Chicago, he passed her school whistling “The Girl I Left Behind.” She waved goodbye with her clippers.

  *     *     *

Of course, Daisy Belle Hicks ran off with another man. Kirby never recovered. As a silent protest he grew his hair and beard long, and sued Daisy for breach of promise. The suit was thrown out of court. 

Walking had become an obsession. He lost his farm. His plan to break the transcontinental record of Edward Payson Weston never materialized. Kirby was growing old, and the only walking left was behind a wheelbarrow in the streets of Kansas City. 

“This never would have happened if I had not been kissed the first time,” he told a reporter. “Kissing is a dangerous habit. It is like opium. The more you get the more you want. I wish the women would leave me alone forever now.”

  *     *     *

The end came for Kirby McRill in 1950, when he was hit by a car on Third street in the cold hour before a January dawn. At first no one claimed his body, but four hundred Kansas Citians filed past his wooden coffin at the Lapetina funeral home on Campbell street. Finally, some relatives and friends buried him in a little cemetery near his old Kansas farm. 

Some of them recalled the old Kirby, before his walking became newsworthy. 

“After that,” said one, “Kirby wanted nothing greater out of life than to get his name and his picture in the newspapers.”
In death, he made the front page of the Star.

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Sunday, May 27, 2018

Elegy for Elmhurst

Etched in stone on Pennsylvania street, near Valentine road.
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The old stone wall looks like others around town, low barriers built long ago to encircle institutions or cemeteries or private estates. This one, with crowned pillars and rusting ornamental ironwork, is a remnant running along two sides of the Broadway-Valentine shopping center, north of the Uptown Theater. Its unique feature is the ghostly name cut into a limestone slab on the less-traveled Pennsylvania street side: Elmhurst. And its story originates in loss and sadness.

History-minded midtowners might know Elmhurst, built in 1898, was the home of Joseph T. Bird, president of the iconic Emery Bird Thayer department store downtown. Newspapers described it as a "five-acre estate with a huge southern colonial house" and "one of the show places of the town, which is in the midst of a large lawn shaded with massive trees." Bird was said to enjoy walking the three miles from home to work, where he kept a picture of Elmhurst in his office.

Elmhurst as it appeared in the 1930s.
Bird died in 1918 while on vacation in Colorado. His widow, Annie, carried on the store's business and lived at Elmhurst until her own death there in 1937. The Birds were prominent philanthropists, and early benefactors of Children's Mercy Hospital. They adored their leafy estate, and filled the large house with collected antiques and artwork. Their memorial services were held there.

Annie and Joseph Bird, top, and their store.

But the story of Elmhurst predates the Birds. It was the dream of one John Perry, a native of England who in the late 19th century became "one of the wealthiest men in Kansas City," according to news accounts, by selling coal. Perry and his wife, Kate, had four children and lived in a grand house of their design at 27th and Troost. Elmhurst would be an even more palatial home to grow old in. Each of the children would have a room, bearing their name.
John Perry.
By late June 1898 the foundation for the new house was in and contracts let for the frame construction. The two oldest Perry daughters were graduating from a convent back east and the parents and their young daughter and son traveled to New York for the ceremonies. They intended to return to Kansas City, but while in New York the family decided Kate and the four children would sail to Europe for the summer on the French liner La Bourgogne. John Perry came home alone.

Just before dawn on July 4, La Bourgogne collided with an English ship in a thick fog off the coast of Nova Scotia, and quickly sank. More than five hundred people drowned, including John Perry's entire family. It was thought they probably never escaped their quarters.

The sinking of La Bourgogne.
Perry went east and made arrangements to sail the waters near the wreck in a futile search for the bodies. Back home by August, he attended a requiem mass for his lost family at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, then carried wreaths to decorate empty graves at St. Mary's cemetery.

The thought of living at Elmhurst was too painful for Perry. The project languished until he decided he would build it as a home for orphan boys. That plan was scuttled by deed restrictions, but by spring 1899 he was building the orphan home at the corner of 43rd and Westport (site of today's Westport Landing shopping center). It would be a memorial to his family. 

He also renewed his building permit to finish Elmhurst as a private home. Then he sold it to Joseph T. and Annie Bird.

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In May 1937, a few months after Annie Bird's death, the Birds' daughter made the decision to have Elmhurst demolished and make the property available for business development. More than twenty years later, the city approved rezoning from apartments to retail. And in late 1960 the Broadway-Valentine shopping center opened, retaining a remnant of stone wall with its reminder of what had been lost all those years ago.

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Friday, April 27, 2018

A hard and brutal business

Centennial Methodist Church, 19th street and Woodland avenue.
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It was a fair and cool Tuesday morning, seventy years ago today, the last time Jackie Darthard went to church.  For some in the 18th and Vine neighborhood April 27, 1948, was a day of anticipation. That afternoon the Blues were to play their home opener in the ballpark up the hill at 22nd and Brooklyn. That evening Sarah Vaughn and local product Charlie Parker, rising stars in the jazz world, would be performing downtown at Municipal Auditorium. But for those who showed up that spring morning at Centennial Methodist, corner of 19th and Woodland, it was a day of sadness.

Nine days earlier Darthard, just a couple weeks shy of his 19th birthday, had attended Sunday services here with his young wife, Ernestine. The pastor, Rev. E.L. McAllister, had called him to the front of the congregation that day and praised his strong faith and clean living. Some in attendance remembered Darthard as a Boy Scout. Or they knew him as hard-working bootblack with a stand on 18thstreet, shining shoes and flashing an easy grin. Some knew he hoped to go to trade school to study the tailor’s art. That would come in due time, after he retired from the ring.

Because they knew him best as a fighter, a two-time Golden Gloves champion here in Kansas City and now a promising professional, a national contender for the middleweight crown. In two years he had lost just one fight and won thirty-five, most by knockout.

Jackie Darthard
His next fight was on the Wednesday after Rev. McAllister singled him out in church. The opponent was a veteran, Bert Lytell, recognized as a strong and hard-hitting middleweight. The two had met in February at Municipal Auditorium here, slugging to a draw. The rematch would be in Milwaukee.

Kansas City fans who watched him train at the gym on 18th street described Jackie Darthard as tough, vicious, a terrific puncher who never backed away from an opponent. His trademark was a little blue baseball cap he wore to the ring for good luck.

Bert Lytell
Good luck deserted him that night in Milwaukee. Bert Lytell pummeled him in the third round and again in the sixth. Lytell’s manager tried to get the referee to stop the fight, but rules prevented handlers from speaking out during a match. In the sixth a brutal right to the head sent Darthard staggering to his corner. He complained of a headache, said he couldn’t see, then passed out. There was a rush to the hospital, surgery to remove a huge blood clot from his brain, but he never regained consciousness. He died the next morning. Bert Lytell wept. 

The news made the front page of the Kansas City Star at a time when sports stories, let alone about African-Americans, seldom did. It was the third death in a U.S. boxing ring in 1948, the sixth worldwide. The next day the Star’s sports editor recalled an earlier fight, “the agonizing minutes” he had spent watching another boxer die in the ring. “Death was not intended, of course, but where the main objective is the rendering of a boy or a man into a state of unconsciousness, death is just a step or two beyond. It’s a hard and brutal game, the prizefight business.”

So that following Tuesday Jackie Darthard went to church a final time, lying in a box carried by fellow fighters, including Bert Lytell’s brother. A thousand mourners packed Centennial Methodist’s auditorium and balcony and vestibule. Another fifteen hundred stood outside in the street. There were flowers and songs and tears. “He always fought the good fight; he neither asked nor gave quarter when in the ring. Prizefighting is hard business,” said the Rev. McAllister, echoing the Star editorial.

“But the most astonishing thing is that grown people will go to such fights and stand and cry for blood and not be satisfied until one or the other of the participants is knocked down and out.”

Jackie Darthard and Bert Lytell after their first fight.

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