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Christmas past in Kansas City: Cockfighting, train robberies, whiskey and gold

Before there was Union Station there was Union Depot in the West Bottoms, site of a bittersweet Christmas tale in 1912.
Before there was Union Station there was Union Depot in the West Bottoms, site of a bittersweet Christmas tale in 1912. .

So it’s Christmas Day. Presents have been strewn to the deserving. Aromas from the kitchen are reassuring.

It’s time to ask yourself: Is the rooster ready?

No? Perhaps you’ve forgotten that Christmas is a big day for cockfighting in Kansas City. At least it was in 1887.

That’s the kind of thing one learns scanning newspapers of yore. It was different then, yet some things never change.

Take the Kansas City Times of 1868, which had an ad for Hax and Sporleden: “You will find there buffalo, bear, venison, elk, rabbit, wild and tame turkey, goose, duck, partridge, quail, chicken, etc.”

That Christmas Eve issue was full of good cheer. President Andrew Johnson was pardoning all those who’d been “engaged in treasonable practice,” that is, fighting for the Confederacy.

Also Jim Peake (was he still at Snell’s Saloon?) was going to be treating the morning patrons to the unequaled and soothing concoction called eggnog.

In a “Starbeams” column of 1891, The Star grumped that “St. Nicholas seem to be the popular god just now. Ks Senator Ingalls says that the Christmas number of a leading juvenile magazine did not mention the name of Christ.”

The next day, an ad noted that velocipedes could be had for as low as $2.25, marked down from $2.75. These were not small, fierce dinosaurs, but large front-wheeled bicycles, with pedals attached to the front axle.

The year 1903 had been very good to Kellerstrass Distilling, which cooked up whiskeys named “Old Oscar Crook” and “Belle of Missouri Rye” in Paradise in Clay County and sold them mail-order from 14th Street, just steps from Main.

And it was very good for his employees, noted a Dec. 25 piece in the Kansas City Journal: “Probably the most generous Christmas giver in Kansas City yesterday was Ernest Kellerstrass, the big distiller, whose presents to those who serve him, all given in gold, amounted to just $2,710. Every man and woman in his employ, or who has been of service to him in the last year, received gifts ranging from $5 to, in one case, $1,000 in gold.”

All that was close to the busy City Market, where in 1904, M. Quinn offered “World’s Fair Mixed Candy,” in case none had been brought home from the St. Louis exhibition.

The store at Fifth and Main had sold so many Thanksgiving turkeys, supposedly, that it published this reassurance in the papers: “Determined not to disappoint patrons for Christmas, we have had our turkey buyer in Clay County for the past two weeks and he has captured over 500 fine fat turkeys near Barry.”

He also was proud to offer 5,000 cans of Yuba City peaches and 1,000 cans of fresh oysters.

In 1912, not one, but two trains heading to Kansas City were robbed on the morning of Christmas Eve. In Oklahoma, the bandit boarding the St. Louis and San Francisco Meteor was foiled.

But on the Chicago and Alton Hummer, thieves got away with a lot of jewelry packages, leading The Times to suggest that some ladies in Kansas City might not be getting their presents.

The same day, a new hire for R&H Parcel Delivery was sent out with 38 packages. That night, they found the horse and wagon at 16th and Grand, but nothing else.

A Star reporter looking for a story on a quiet day discovered a 6-year-old boy, apparently unaccompanied, down at Union Depot. Little Franklin McCoy said he was waiting for a connecting train, for the second leg of a Chicago-to-Seattle trip to join his parents, whom he’d not seen for some time.

“This ain’t much of a Christmas for me,” he said, “but it will be tomorrow.”

“The Card Greeting will be supplanted in England,” said a wire story in The Times that year. It was about the wireless fad making “the air tremulous with good will” with non-paper holiday wishes. Even the royal family was getting in on it.

Somewhere in Kansas City, young Joyce Hall felt a sudden chill.

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