Did a whale really come through Kansas City in the 1950s?
Dan Werkowitch recently submitted a question to our “What’s Your KCQ?” series regarding a story he heard from his father: “My dad said when he was a child in the 1950s, a whale was brought into town on a semi and packed in ice. He paid a nickel to see it. Did it happen?”
Whale, yes, we think so.
In October 1953, three brief articles appeared in The Kansas City Times (the morning edition of The Star), detailing the exhibition of a 40-ton, 42-foot, embalmed gray whale named Winnie.
Winnie had met an untimely end a year earlier, when she encountered a U.S. Navy destroyer off the coast of San Diego and lost her tail. The DuPont Company built and attached a new plastic tail, and Winnie’s preserved remains were sent on a nationwide tour.
Other newspapers from around the nation describe how Winnie traveled the country on a specially designed trailer truck. Accompanying her was an exhibit of whaling equipment used through the ages.
Winnie was on display in Kansas City from Oct. 8-18 in the parking lots of various Katz Drugstores. Visitors could pick up a free ticket to the exhibit at any Katz location.
While some of the details of the story handed down to Werkowitch don’t add up (Winnie wasn’t packed in ice, and admission was free), the whale’s visit was certainly memorable. The Times twice noted how popular the attraction was.
On Oct. 11, about 3,800 people — including five full buses of children — turned up at the Katz store at 40th and Main to see her. During her time here, the paper later noted, a total of 74,788 people visited Winnie, a number that today would come close to filling Arrowhead Stadium.
The Katz Drug Company had a reputation for large-scale promotional events. Starting in the 1930s, the company sponsored various radio programs as well as parties at Convention Hall (later Municipal Auditorium) featuring vaudeville acts, celebrity appearances and bands. It also funded school children’s trips to philharmonic orchestra concerts and, once a year, distributed tickets to Kansas City Blues baseball games.
Coincidentally, there’s another Winnie the Whale swimming through Kansas City history.
In 1956, a two-ton, 16-foot-long concrete whale by the same name made its debut at the zoo. Children and adults could walk through its 7-foot-wide mouth and observe a goldfish tank inside. This Winnie was replaced in 1967 by the concrete Great Blue Whale, which remained an attraction until the 1990s.
How we found it
To confirm that the exhibit happened, we went to the newspapers. We consulted online and microfilmed archived versions of The Star and The Times as well as databases offering access to additional newspapers around the country. A guide to searching old newspapers can be found on the Missouri Valley Special Collections website.
Information and photos regarding the Katz Drug Company were located in a subject file on the company, the special collections’ General Photograph Collection (P1), and in “The Kings of Cut-Rate” by Brian Burnes and Steve Katz, which is available for checkout at any Kansas City Public Library branch.
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