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The Saloons Came–J. P. Moore’s “This Strange Town–Liberal, Missouri”

Checking with the copyright catalogue, I find copyright was made in 1963 by J. P. Moore but was never renewed, which means the book has entered the public domain. The author is long since deceased.

THIS STRANGE TOWN–LIBERAL MISSOURI
A HISTORY OF THE EARLY YEARS
1880 – 1910

BY J. P. MOORE
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The Saloons Came

[pages 61-65]

Proscribed, thought they were in the beginning, and although the drouth [sic] was already broken in Pedro, the saloons did come to Liberal in due course of time, and thirsty ïnfidels” no longer needed to journey to the Christian town of Pedro to find an oasis where they might quench their feverish thirsts, so to speak, or to moisten their dry and dusty throats. Not only come there one, but in time others followed.

Just when the first saloon came is no longer accurately remembered. But from the best information available it is believed to have been about 1887, when a man named Brumlet opened a saloon on Main street, and in about 1890 one M. L. Rockwell or Rockwell remained in business. If he succeeded Brumlet or opened a new place is not now known. There is presently available no information of just how long Mr. Rockwell remained in business. But it is reasonably accurate to say that Rockwell sold to Sam Horn about 1895 or 1896. Horn was already in business when this writer came to Liberal in 1899, and apparently had been for some time.

Sam’s saloon was in the old Betz opera block, which was located where the Farmers Exchange building presently stands on West Yale street.

In 1900, B. F. Argo opened a saloon in what is now the east wing of the Edwin Lipscomb building at the northeast corner of Main and Yale streets. Mr. Argo’s son Rolla was associated with him in the business. It is the recollection of this writer that Rolla did not like the business. So in 1904, after four years in the saloon, they sold to Powers Richardson, who continued in business until voted out by local option, in about 1907.

The elder Argo was operating a whisky distillery, two miles west of town, just across the creek noted for its name brand whisky, Öld Iron Bridge, a popular sour mash product. Present day imbibers will drool to learn that six-year-old Iron Bridge could be bought for $4.00 per gallon at the distillery. The price of four-year-old was $2.50 per gallon. Newer whisky sold for less at the distillery. A half pint over the bar at any saloon was twenty-five cents.

Mr. Argo sold the distillery to Oxford Brothers in 1910. The Oxfords sold to a Joplin, Mo. firm in 1914. About a year later the distillery was destroyed by fire and was not rebuilt.

Horn closed his saloon here in about 1902 and moved it to Mindenmines. It was said he was losing too much of his business in his competitor. After the closing of the saloons by local option, bootlegging, speakeasies and “blind tigers” prevailed, more or less until repeal of the Volsted act.

The near date of Mr. Rockwell’s entry in the saloon business in Liberal is established by the records, which show that in 1890 he bought from Hiram E. Irey the residence property presently owned and occupied by Mrs. Zanetta Harvey, at the north east corner of Maple and Denton streets. Irey, who had operated a general store, built this house in 1883. While Rockwell has long since been gone, he did leave a monument to his memory. He edged each side of the front walk, from the porch steps to the sidewalk, with a line of beer bottles, upended and sunk in the ground to walk level. These bottles may yet be seen in their original position–bottoms up and showing.

While Pedro had the dubious honor of being the first to have a saloon, Liberal not only followed with two, but maintained such an oasis long after Pedro’s saloon had become only a memory.

An amusing little story is remembered in connection with Sam Horn’s saloon. Fred Clark, a son of the late Dr. J. W. Clark, was tending her, and Jack Langley, an old sailor, a Pedro character and something of a sot, was sweeping out and mopping the floor of the saloon each morning for a small fee and the drinks. One winter morning Jack went to a well out back for a bucket of water to do the mopping. He was gone so long Fred became uneasy and went out to look for him. Jack had fallen into the shallow and poorly walled well. After Fred fished him out Jack said, “Well, don’t that beat hell. I sailed the seven seas for forty years, then come out here and drown in a damned mud hole.

Of course Jack didn’t drown, but he was wet and cold and felt pretty miserable. It probably took several drams of good whisky on the house to restore his composure. As a means to such an end Jack might have been willing to dunk himself in the well again, but if he ever did so, there is no account.

Liberal’s first saloons did not entirely escape the wild capers that were more or less common in saloons in new towns in that far-off day, when some liquored up smart alec gave way to his high feelings.

Charlie King, one of our older citizens, and who was a boy at the time, remembers seeing one well-soused young buck ride his horse into Brumlet’s saloon. It was with some difficulty that the rowdy and his mount were expelled. The late Tom McKay, who was born, raised and spent his entire life west of town, told this writer of an incident that involved a young man who was working on the McKay farm. This young buck rode into town one Saturday night on a spirited pony that belonged to Tom’s father, the late Judge Bent McKay. The young man got himself liquored up to “the Devil may care”stage and attempted to ride his mount into the saloon, and got the law after himself. To escape the law he rode the pony, top speed, west and ran into a barbed wire fence, near the Missouri Pacific depot, and got the pony badly cut up.

It nearly ruined his horse, but apparently the rowdy youth escaped without permanent injury. It is my regret that I failed to get the name of this young man from Tom, if he remembered. But now it is too late.

The only person yet living at the time of this writing who was in any way associated with the real saloon business in Liberal is Rolla Argo, who now resides at Sunland, California.

The old Iron Bridge still was destroyed by fire in about 1915, but for a time a considerable quantity of bonded whisky was kept in a warehouse on the premises. This attracted looters and resulted in a tragic incident there. On the night of February 13, 1920, W. E. (Earl) Gowdy and O. L. Holland, owner of the warehouse property, surprised a gang of three men in the act of breaking in. A gun battle ensued and Gowdy was felled by a shotgun blast.

According to newspaper accounts at the time, the three men were Arthur Dean, Bob Slack and August Pancher, all of Mulberry, Kan., or area. All escaped immediately. But they were identified within a few hours through a tip-off by an alert Mulberry man, and were eventually captured and given penal sentences. The last of the three to be caught was Slack, who was purported the killer. Slack had fled to South America where he was picked up about five years later.

There were 218 barrels of whisky in the warehouse at the time of the attempted robbery. The gang in making their getaway abandoned a pickup truck and four empty wine kegs they apparently had intended to fill. An additional clue was a fur cap lost by one of the men as he crawled through a barbed wire fence in his flight.

The owners soon thereafter removed all the whisky from the warehouse. So all semblance of the old distillery, once a busy place and an oasis for bulk purchasers of the sour mash product is gone forever.

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