Tuesday, July 16, 2013

WYMORE - the Gay Nineties, Roaring Twenties & Dirty Thirties




Through the early years of the 1880s, Wymore quickly became the Darling of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad and with that notoriety came the naughty along with the nice.  The city was built, block-by-block, with the railroad in mind.  Within a few blocks of the train depot, hotels popped up almost overnight. The first hotel, The Potter House, was completed in 1882 and shortly after came The Palmer House and the Cottage Hotel.  In the summer of 1887, Wymore’s crown jewel, The Touzalin, opened its doors.  




Imagine for a moment, stepping down from the station in 1890 to the sight of a fine Victorian hotel with a glimpse of a bustling city all around.  Just north on Nebraska Street past the hotel was the Livsey Opera House and across the street east awaited a livery stable offering the finest teams of horses and buggies in Southern Gage County.  If you were only in town for the day, a ticket on the Wymore Blue Springs Railway offered a ride past the town churches and on to the Blue Springs bridge and back.  The restaurants and saloons catered to the men of the Railroad as well as its customers.  Then, as now, the noon whistle announced lunch hour once intended for the men working in the railroad shops.


LADIES OF THE EVENING

During what may have seemed to be an ideal time to have lived, the railroad towns of the prairie were a world apart from ours.  Boredom came quickly to the single young men who were pushing westward in search of their fortune and with the coming of the railroad, the saloons and brothels were quite obliged to accommodate.  In deed, in the 1880s brothels were no more outrageous than saloons.  The madams and inmates of houses of ill repute were fined when too much of a fuss about them stirred the town and proceeds were placed into a town’s school fund.

In Kansas City around the train depot, whole neighborhoods of brothels opened their doors.  The train brakemen carried red lanterns as part of their job and took them along where ever they went. They paid extra for the madams to watch for their next train while they were otherwise occupied and set the lighted lanterns in the hallways or near the windows so they could be easily found before the train whistle blew. It seems there were enough brakemen lanterns to light the neighborhoods in the dead of night with an eerie red glow.   Hence – RED LIGHT DISTRICTS came to be.

Wymore, in those days, was no different from other railroad towns. Well, the difference was the houses of ill repute, three of them that we know of, weren’t near the Depot but on the outskirts of town, yet all within a block of the tracks.

There was the small frame house west of Fouts Street across the tracks over in Blue Springs where its been said the Prairie Doves would cool themselves on the front porch in the hot summer evenings while the town drove by close enough to try not to notice. 

And in the Roaring Twenties the large new foursquare just south of the Arbor State Park on  7th Street was rumored to house Painted Angels right through the midst of the Dirty Thirties.  By the end of the Depression, the house changed ownership and it became a respectable dance hall where the upstairs balcony overlooked the dance floor and the mill work was painted black.

Middy Gillhouse, a native of Concordia, Kansas purchased the old stone house on North 4th Street in 1909 for $1100. Middy’s marriage to Theodore Gillhouse had ended the year before but she was quite self-sufficient having made handsome investments in properties in Grand Island, McCook, Fremont … and Wymore. The rumor was she was quite wealthy from renting the properties for an outrageous sum of $5 a day.

On August, 10, 1910, the Gage County sheriff made an early morning raid on the house arresting Middy and one Ollie Clark and took them to a hotel in Beatrice for safekeeping. The front-page story in the Weekly Wymorean on August 18 titled the story:  STONE HOUSE CLOSED …”The blinds are down at the House on the Hill  and there is rejoicing and sorrow that it should be thus.”  Gillhouse was charged with leasing the property for immoral purposes and Clark was charged with being an inmate of a disorderly house. Middy bonded out for $400 and the Clark woman $100.


click to read full article

When court convened on August 30, twenty subpoenaed witnesses were present along with Middy's the defense attorney, Alfred Hazlett, who filed a mortgage claim on the house for $500 on August 16 so the ladies could make bail.  The ladies in question, it seemed, had other obligations on the court date and failed to appear.  Their hefty bonds were forfeited in lieu of probable lesser fines and that was that.

Perhaps more interesting was the statement in the newspaper article of how the old house had the reputation as a house of ill repute for nearly 20 years.  So just who owned the property before Middy came along ?  The Gage County Deed’s Office shows Samuel Wymore signing it over to The Lincoln Land Company in 1881 and it was the Lincoln Land Company who sold it to Gillhouse in 1909. 

The limestone house, sometimes known as 4 chimneys, long since covered in stucco and now standing in ruin, was built sometime during the 1870s. It was probably built around the same time Robert Wilson was building his limestone house on the road to the Blue Springs Cemetery between 1869-71.  The stone was most likely cut by hand from the same hill  – Mathew Hill just east of the river road out of Blue Springs.

In 1870, George Wymore held the patent to 160 acres of the land where the house stands. When he claimed his stake he was 23 years old and his wife, Louisa, was 17, their daughter, Margaret Jane, was 3 and son William was born that year.  It seemed impressive that this young man would cut the stone by hand for the small stone cottage but he and his wife and children were not alone in Southeast Nebraska.  The Wymore family had siblings and cousins scattered across Gage & Pawnee Counties and his older brother’s homestead bordered George’s property to the south.  While Samuel Wymore was fulfilling his obligations for 160 acres of homestead land, he was also buying up land in the area and in 1875 George sold his property to Samuel … which presents an interesting question: did George build the old stone house or did Samuel ?  For certain one of them did.

When Samuel Wymore negotiated his historic deal with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, he signed over his homestead and the land George had sold to him along with other landholdings to the Lincoln Land Company, a company the railroad incorporated to manage the sale of the lands they held title too and build towns spaced about 10 miles apart along the track.  Wymore’s homestead was in the Wymore Addition of town and George’s old patent was in the Summit Addition. Passing into the hands of the Lincoln Land Company in 1881, the secluded stone house near the railroad tracks took on its notorious reputation, apparently rented out to shady characters who capitalized on its close proximity to the railroad while the LLC and the City looked the other way.  That is until from time to time, the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union or some other local concerned citizen forced the sheriff to do something about the disgraceful goings on .. and that strung things along for about 20 years.  At one point, Charles Murdock, who worked as the agent for Lincoln Land Company and lived just down the hill, took his complaints to the governor of Nebraska, accusing the mayor and city police of allowing the operation of these businesses within the city limits … the governor refused to have them fired but suggested they rid the town of the houses … after which life went on much the same as before.  It seems odd that Murdock raised his voice at all seeing how he was agent for the company who owned the property and had control over what happened there.




THE VENDOME


Meanwhile downtown, The Touzalin Hotel opened its doors in late 1887.  Samuel Wymore invested a lot of money into the building, but he would never see a profit.  Elisha P. Reynolds & Company built the hotel and the final cost escalated to $62,000. In 1887, no less than 14 mechanic liens were filled by the contractors before the doors were even open.  With a Saloon, a fine Dining Hall and 65 well appointed rooms, the grand Victorian structure struggled to make ends meet and went through a succession of managers and owners.  In 1914, it was sold at a sheriff’s sale and the new owner changed the name to The Vendome. 

Since before the 1900s, the Nation had struggled with the effects of alcoholism on family life. Saloons as well as houses of ill repute were targeted by societies such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for the flow of liquor and its drain on family finances.  In the 1910, William Jennings Bryan took the side of the “Dry” track: 
"The fight against evil is always an uphill one, and the hill is never steeper than when you fight the liquor interests.” 

The citizens of Nebraska were deeply divided over the liquor issue; Lincoln for example considered itself leaning “Dry” while Omaha was most definitely at “Wet” town.  Times were changing and in 1916 Nebraska voters approved a statewide prohibition amendment. Prohibition passed in Nebraska almost simultaneously with limited woman suffrage, and with the full support of the Nebraska Woman Suffrage Association. By law, there would be no more booze when the law formally went into effect in 1917.  National Prohibition would not come to pass until two years later in 1919.  Looking back, perhaps Nebraska’s timing wasn’t so grand as bootleggers from other states poured into Nebraska to supply the large number of people who firmly believed the consumption of alcohol was not a crime. This went on until Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

In 1915, a tunnel was dug from the City steam plant (City Hall) to pipe steam to the Vendome Hotel, which kept the building warm and toasty.  The tunnel was large enough to walk through and encased in bricks.  Legend has it as the decade wore on and Prohibition became the law of the land, more tunnels were dug to saloons and restaurants making it convenient for people who didn’t want to be seen on the streets to move about the City.  The Vendome, it was rumored, housed a Speakeasy in the basement and when word came that the law was headed to the hotel; gambling tables, booze and probably a gangster or two were hidden behind a cellar door in the tunnels. How they thought that was a good idea when the City obviously knew about the tunnel .. is a question worth pondering. 

BATHTUBS OF HOOTCH

Charles Fulton bought his property on North 5th Street in 1915. He built and paid for the house the same year. Most likely the 1000 square foot block garage with the easily spotted corner door was built soon after.  You might remember him as “Nig.”  Charles came from a large family, sometimes notorious, sometimes fondly regarded by the townspeople.  Through prohibition and beyond, Nig and Earl “Whitey” Fulton famously regarded the placement of alcohol beverages at their sole discretion whether or not that was how the law regarded it.

Nig grew up in a large family of 9 children including his famous heavy weight boxing brother Fred, the Rochester Pasterer.  Stories endure that Nig’s wife Edna had once been a Prairie Dove who liked to dress up in fine clothing and ride through town in a fancy carriage with a parasol shielding her from the sun. She died in her early 40s and Nig mourned her loss the rest of his life. The Census of 1900 listed the whole family in Wymore: Henry F. Fulton 35, Lulu 34, Charles ‘Nig’ 12, John A. 10, George 9, Fred ‘Rochester Plasterer’ 8, Roy ’Dub’ 5, Verna M. 3, Earl Maxwell ‘Whitey’ b. 1889, and Pearl E. b. 1904. 

It was a hot Saturday night in August of 1925 when State and Local Authorities staged a raid on Nig's alleged gambling house in Wymore.  The next day the headline in the Beatrice Daily Sun read "THIRTY-ONE TAKEN IN BIG ROUNDUPS."  Staging one of the most sensational law enforcement roundups in the history of Southern Nebraska, state and local officers last night threw out a dragnet at Wymore in which nineteen alleged gamblers were caught. (click headline to read the entire story

Nig was arrested numerous times through the 1920s, oblivious to the thought that bootlegging liquor was a bad idea.  In 1926, authorities raided his haunts and found nothing until they came to his house and discovered 3 hidden containers and enough hootch in the bathroom drain to provide jags for a small army.  Edna was arrested along with him that day.

Fulton often used his garage for gambling, cockfights and bootlegging.  Through the gangster years he was known to rent the garage out to notorious types as there was a lift in the garage and one car could be hidden on the lift, another beneath it.  It was rumored that Chicago gangsters parked their cars and used the tunnels to move around town without being noticed. This garage is also on the way to the Kinney area where gangsters were known to have hideouts around Kinney and Rawley hills.



FINK'S PARK


Lewis Fink's son was an architect who designed his parents lovely country home in Sicily Township. Lewis had raised two families and planned to live out his days on the farm but his health started failing and he was forced to put it out to rent in 1913.  Things didn't go well from the start, the elderly Fink was showing signs of dementia and he was troubled by the way his tenants let chickens and stock run at large over the land. He didn't believe other provisions of his lease were being carried out.  Things got out of hand when the tenants, armed with a pitchfork and clubs, refused to let him come on the premises.  On November 6, 1913, Fink's son-in-law arrived at the house with his father, who was armed with a shotgun, threatened the tenants. In February of 1914, a Jury found the elderly Fink guilty on the charge of assault and he was fined $50 and court costs.  His health deteriorated quickly that year and he passed away in October 1914. 

With so many children and a substantial estate, the siblings protested the will stating it was uncertain and indefinite and owing to disease and infirmities Fink had been incompetent to make a will.  The will was eventually settled  and in June of 1918, wife Hattie and Alvin, a son from Fink's 2nd family, bought the Sicily property from several of his siblings and moved from his home in South Dakota.  The fine country home just north of the railroad tracks once again occupied by the Fink family.

Indian Creek wound its way through the farm and artesian springs feed clear, cool pools in the low lands. The family arrived home one summer from visiting parks in Colorado. Their home,  they decided, was the perfect place for an amusement park.  Fink's Park opened in June of 1921 with a spring fed swimming pool, a small dance hall, a small store stocked with grocery items, candy and tobacco products and a counter where hamburgers and ice cream was served.  Tourist cabins were popular in those days and several cabins were offered for rent on a weekly basis furnished with cots, mattresses, table, chairs and a kerosene stove for cooking. Row boats were available for use on the lake and on Indian Creek which had been dammed.  A fond memory for many who spent the day there was the swinging bridge over Indian Creek that connected amusements on both sides of the creek.  The open air dance hall featured weekly bands booked out of Omaha and Kansas City, Lawrence Welk was among the artists who performed there. There are wonderful stories of Church picnics, sweethearts meeting for the first time, 
fireworks over the lake on the 4th of July, and Model T's arriving on a late Spring evening then struggling to leave the grounds when a rolling thunderstorm turned the dust to mud.   

Alvin amused himself with imported pheasants who were kept in pens on the grounds and the flocks were replenished from time to time when mischievous lads opened the gate and let them fly the coupe. Hattie amused herself with travel and entertaining the local lady's societies with afternoon tea.  In 1934, Hattie regaled her friends with tales and treasures brought home from a trip of see the Chicago World's Fair.

As the Depression and the Dust Bowl closed in around them, Alvin was known to travel to Omaha frequently on business and darker more troubled summer nights at the park forced parents to keep their kids away.  Strangers drifted through, keeping to themselves at the cabins and raising eyebrows when their high powered cars rumbled by. The Dirty Thirties dried up the Springs and the park was forced to close in the mid 1930s, about the same time as when Prohibition was repealed.  Alvin & Hattie moved back to South Dakota.  The old Victorian was rented out again over the years, stood empty for many atop the hill overlooking the countryside and when the descendants of the Fink family sold the property at the turn of the century, the old house came down.

HEADED OUT OF TOWN IN A HAIL OF BULLETS

On Saturday May 26th 1928, the Farmer’s & Merchants Bank of Wymore was robbed. Bandits entered the bank about 9:35 am and forced officials, employees and customers (including 4 school teachers) to lie on the floor.  They left the bank with $54,000 in cash and bonds and opened fire with at least one machine gun outside the bank, a barber in a nearby shop was grazed in the arm by one of the bullets.  They fled north out of town in a red Nash with stolen license plates and deterred pursuers by throwing nails on the streets to flatten tires. Suspects were later apprehended but witnesses could not identify any of the men and the real bandits were never found.  The troubled bank on the corner of 7th and F Street was finally forced to close in January of 1930, when the depositors made a run on the bank.

The First National Bank of Fairbury was robbed April 4, 1933 by the infamous Ma Barker/Alvin Karpis Gang.  Six gangsters terrorized employees and customers during the robbery, and made off with nearly $28000.  During the most violent robbery in this area, Sheriffs hit the streets quickly from the Court House across the street and opened fire as the robber’s tried to escape using two bank employees and two women as human shields. The deputy sheriff was wounded in the leg and a man standing with him from Des Moines was shot in the shoulder. The bank employee who was being held as a shield was caught in the line of fire and wounded five times, he died a short time later. The black sedan with Iowa plates left Fairbury headed north and the two women were released unharmed two miles outside of town. On the run, one of the gang named Earl Christman took a bullet from the bank security guard and was taken to a Kansas City safe house where he died the next day. The gang buried him in an unmarked grave. The Barker/Karpis gang’s rein of terror far exceeded other well known gangsters of their day. Ma Barker and her son were gunned down in Florida in 1935 and Karpis was apprehended in 1936. Alvin (Kreepy) Karpis was the last "Public Enemy #1" to be taken. He also spent the longest time as a federal prisoner in Alcatraz Prison, serving twenty-six years. He died after his release in 1979. 

Rumors have it that John Dillinger spent several weeks in an unknown location in Wymore, it seems the only credible link to Dillinger in Wymore is one of the Barker gang, who was known to have made arrangements for a safe house in Chicago for Dillinger while he was on the lam and the Barker gang was certainly familiar with this area.  Stories go that early in their career the Dillinger gang was also known to ride the trains, and Wymore was well known from Omaha to Chicago in the 20’s and 30s as SIN CITY. 

In Sept of 1934, 4 bandits known as the Denning-Limerick Gang rented a two story house in the little town of Kinney from Hugh Berry, an Odell man who had been running a dice game in the house. They paid him $6 a day for rent, which was a hefty sum.  Folks in the area reported the suspicious characters to the Sheriff. The group was described as several expensively dressed men and just as many women who spent their days target shooting in the fields and spending money without worry at the local markets. 

The gang had a history of burglaries and robbery’s before they robbed the Security National Bank of Superior on November 22. They used revolvers and a sub machine gun to force all of the employees and customers into the back room while they waited for the timed vault to unlock itself.  They went out the door with $7900 in cash, forcing the cashier and bookkeeper to ride the running boards of the getaway car, acting as human shields until they were out of the city limits. Gage county authorities were quick to set up a raid on the suspects living in the house at Kinney.  

On a chilly night in November, 18 lawmen closed in on a property in Kinney .. trouble is they targeted the wrong house at first which tipped off the gang that they were being raided.  When the officers turned their guns on the two story house the Sheriff gave the bandits 15 minutes to surrender.  Two men walked about 50 feet from the house with their hands up and then made a dash for the hills. One of the men, named Keeling caught a bullet in his side and collapsed in a ditch about a half mile away, he died in a Beatrice hospital the next morning. Harper made his way to Beatrice where he hijacked a trucker and was later seen in Kentucky.  

The two bosses of the gang, Denning and Limerick, arrived back at Kinney around midnight to find authorities waiting for them and ignored sheriff’s orders to halt, speeding away through a flurry of gunfire. Their stolen car was found abandoned in a barn near Odell but there was no trace of the bandits. Limerick was arrested in St. Joseph MO in May of 1935, he confessed to bank robbery’s and was sentenced to life in prison, in Leavenworth Kansas and was later transferred to Alcatraz.  Denning was never seen nor heard from in Nebraska again. On July 20, 1936 after the death of Dillinger associate John (Red) Hamilton, the FBI named Maurice (Blondie) Denning Public Enemy #1 and he stayed on FBI radar until the 1960s.  He was never apprehended, making him the most illusive Public Enemy.

When authorities searched the house, they found money stashed in a radio and inside pocket doors between the rooms, there were piles of fancy clothes and other luxuries seldom seen in those days.  When word got around about the loot in the house, treasure hunters tore the house apart over the next decade looking for money left behind.

Bonnie and Clyde were rumored to have toured through the area before they were killed in May of 1934, but if they were here they wouldn’t have been seen driving through town or robbing banks.  Clyde was predominately a petty thief, stealing cash from gas stations or robbing grocery stores.  They stayed in rural tourist cabins, like those at Fink’s Park and traveled 100s of miles a day at high speeds, Clyde’s stolen car of choice was a 1932 Ford V8.  They circled state lines wherever they went and preferred the borders that ran north and south from Texas to Minnesota.  State officials couldn't cross their state line to pursue a gangster, but in the early 30s Hoover’s FBI made it a priority to get them when they did cross state lines and fell under Federal jurisdiction.  

The Blue Springs State Bank was robbed on June 24, 1936. Staff and customers were told to lie on the floor while the bandits scooped up $788.80 and sped away in a Ford V-8. The night before, J. E. Chalmer’s of El Paso, Texas stopped at a filling station in Wymore for gas and asked if he could sleep in his car for a while before heading on to meet up with his wife in Minnesota.  After the filling station closed for the night, a man tapped on his car window and demanded he open the door, 3 men took over his car and forced him to ride along with them through the countryside all night. They stopped at Union Center School and went through all of his personal belongings looking for a gun and took $89 dollars of his traveling money.  They stopped at the Union Center store and woke up the owner for gas.  Chalmers was finally released near at a hideout on Rawley Hill (which is a mile west of the town site of Kinney). The leader of the bandits told Chalmers “When you get back to Wymore, tell them that you have had a ride with Maurice Denning and that he is not as bad a fellow as some people believe.”  As was a ploy to divert attention from his own identity, he tried to hang the heist on Denning, the man who escaped the Kinney Raid a year and ½ before. Chalmer’s car was found a week later abandoned in Des Moines, Iowa.   The real robbers were later apprehended and did time in prison. 

Somehow, through the all of the revelry, the hootch, the dust and the gunfire Wymore survived to face another decade .. World War II.