(originally published 3/19/20)
To my dear readers: As you may know, I write a post a week here. To do so, I create a calendar of topics, some coinciding with real events or dates, but most just slotted somewhat randomly. Two weeks ago, I moved up a piece planned for later in the year, the one on the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. I’m glad I posted that when I did, for I think that event has lessons for our times, as history is wont to do.
By coincidence, this week’s post was planned to be on another public health story. This time, I tried to write it up, but I found I just couldn’t. Not now. I’ll save it for later, when our present uncertainty is behind us. There are enough messages out there, important and empowering messages that we need to read and to hear. We need reasons to be more hopeful, not more fearful. So, what I’ve decided to do for the next few weeks is to be more upbeat with KC Backstories. History’s stories are often big and important, but they are also small and whimsical, funny, and heartwarming. If my next few posts become just another of those quick reads online that bring a smile to your face, then that’s what I can do to help. That is, I hope it helps, at least a little. It’ll help me a lot.
In case you’re unfamiliar, the term shaggy dog story refers to a long joke full of twists and turns and irrelevant details that ends in an anti-climactic punchline or a pun. The stories offered here are not strictly speaking shaggy dog stories. Any sense of climax is pure happenstance, and there is no punchline, nor no – god forbid – pun. On the other hand, these are related stories from different tangents. And it starts with the story of an honest-to-goodness shaggy dog.
If you lived in the Brookside area in the late 50s and early 60s, you may remember the subject of our first piece. Or you may think you do. I’ve had lots of people tell me they knew Rags, but each story is different. But as far as I know, the real Rags was the only one to have his story in the paper.
Rags, Brookside’s Favorite Resident
He was just a mongrel from the pound, a scruffy mix of Airedale and sheep dog. He cost his owner, Hy Davidson, one whole dollar to take home to 63rd and Ward Parkway. Somehow, his affable, tail-wagging ways earned Rags a special place in the community. He was allowed to accompany the Davidson children to school – to Border Star and Southwest High School. And during part of his day – every day – Rags would make the rounds of Brookside. Better known (and better liked) than some of the merchants, Rags was a regular at the fire station, Hogerty’s Lounge, Lu Gaines Travel Agency, the Parkview Drug Store, Malang’s. He was greeted and fussed over wherever he went. Certainly, he had found canine heaven.
Then the Davidson family moved west, to 64th and Verona. But Rags, by then an elderly dog of ten years or so, would have none of it. He continued to come to Brookside when he could get away, despite the toll it took on him. So the Davidsons accommodated Rags. Each day, someone would bring Rags to Brookside in the morning, and fetch him in the evening. Rags would not have to do without his daily treats and pettings.
Rags continued his daily rounds in Brookside for four years after the Davidson family moved. On September 1, 1962, following a sudden illness, Rags was put to sleep, ending a special era for the merchants and patrons of Brookside. As one neighborhood resident said in a 1960 Kansas City Star story on him, “Somehow you get the feeling the feeling that Rags is more than just a dog.”
The fire station where Rags spent much of his time is the subject of the next story. The Station Building was a centerpiece of Brookside life, even before there was a Brookside.
The Station Building
Nichols’s decision to sell the property for the police and fire station to the City of Kansas City was more than an opportunity to quickly capitalize on his investment. He saw it as an anchor. In his residential areas, he looked for the wealthy buyers to secure the district’s stability. With the Station Building, he secured the city’s long-term commitment to Brookside.
The station’s architectural design is so in keeping with the other Nichols-built Brookside Shops that it is commonly believed that Nichols must have had a hand in its design and perhaps even its construction. It was certainly more handsome than any other station in town, with its leaded-glass windows, slate roof and a small fishpond in front. Structured with concrete and wood, its two stories accommodated the Police Department’s Station No. 3 on the east end and the Fire Department’s Station No. 29 in the center and on the west end, with sleeping quarters upstairs. There were two bays for the fire trucks and a holding cell for the miscreant. The barred windows of that cell still remain. Also remaining is the receiver for the old call box system. When an emergency happened, someone need only run to a street corner in town with a red call box fixed to a light pole, and pull the handle. In the station house, that triggered a ticker-tape printout of the call’s location.
The Station Building faithfully served the Brookside area for more than sixty years, but by 1978, it was too small and antiquated to retrofit for modern equipment. The city shuttered the building and moved these stations to new facilities farther east. There was plenty of potential in the property. According to newspaper accounts, about thirty businesses expressed an interest in the building. The Nichols Company was interested, too. After all, it owned the adjacent property. But the Nichols Company’s interest was not in retail—it had plenty of that. What it needed was more parking.
Miller Nichols, J.C.’s son and then president of the company, wanted to demolish the building and provide access to the parking lot behind it. Miller Nichols figured that between the influence of the Nichols Company and its dominant role as a property owner in Brookside, there would be no problem in acquiring the building. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Preservationists and neighbors filled the city council chambers to prevent the demolition. Public outcry brought immediate disposal of the property to a halt. Miller Nichols tried to mount a public relations campaign to change opinions, but to no avail. The city retained control of the property, and it was put under historic protection, the only building in Brookside to be so designated.
So the city became landlord, and in 1979, the building saw new life as home to Haas Motors Limited, then as the Brookside Savings Bank and then Roosevelt Bank. In 1994, tired of serving as landlord, the city put the property up for auction. By then, there were only two bids. One was the Nichols Company, which lost. In May 1995, the property was purchased by the owners of the Fiddly Fig, a longtime Brookside plant and flower shop. The station building remains the only Brookside property north of Sixty-third Street never to be owned by the Nichols Company.
I might not have learned about Rags and his visits to the Station Building were it not for articles in The Wednesday Magazine. Its role as a binding thread in the fabric of the Brookside area is often overlooked, but in its heyday it was the place to learn what was going on in shopping districts from the Landing to Red Bridge, and every place in between.
The Wednesday Magazine, Brookside’s Hometown Paper
The Country Club District Bulletin was one of J.C. Nichols’s first services to his neighborhoods. Nichols felt so strongly that the district’s success was tied to good communication with the residents that he not only published the bulletin but also reportedly wrote much of it himself in the early days. However, the bulletin was also one of the first services jettisoned during the cost-cutting measures of the Depression. Perhaps that was the opportunity Ernest Brown recognized when he started The Wednesday Magazine in 1937.
Brown was sixty-four at the time. He had always been in the newspaper business, as either a printer or publisher, and for a while had published a small newspaper called The Kansas City World. He had already retired once, but eleven years later he decided to start The Wednesday Magazine, as a hobby, he claimed later. His first market was the Brookside Shops, and the publication’s modest four-page spread was designed specifically to promote businesses to the residents of the Country Club District, with an initial circulation of four thousand. The Wednesday, as it came to be called, quickly expanded with the growing population of south Kansas City, its initial market. By the early 1960s, circulation reached twenty thousand. By the mid-1960s, it was up to thirty thousand. Commercial areas were quickly added to its advertisers’ list—Waldo, Prairie Village and Red Bridge. As the population in Johnson County grew, the paper added Leawood and Ward Parkway and then turned east to include the new Landing Shopping Center.
In 1966, The Wednesday made Brookside its headquarters when it moved into offices in the Brookside Plaza Building. The newspaper’s format was simple and folksy. Regular features included “This Week’s Chuckles,” “This World of Ours” and “100 Years Ago.” There were want ads, comics and crosswords, all the features of a regular paper. By now the paper was twenty-four pages, and each shopping area had a two-page advertising spread, buffeted by small articles about the area itself. The Brookside Merchants Association featured a “Merchant of the Week” column to promote its businesses. Focus was on the personal life of the merchants, and the piece always included mention of the owner’s family, hobbies, affiliations and the nickname by which everyone in Brookside knew him. The Wednesday was the place to read which Southwest High student had won the recent Brookside window display contest, what festivities were planned around the shops for the upcoming holiday and what would be playing at the Brookside Theatre. But TheWednesday was more than just an advertising piece. It was adept at covering stories of local interest, sometimes before they caught the attention of the larger papers. Such was the case in the late 1950s with the planned Country Club Freeway. And it frequently featured the work of Brookside photographer Norman Hoyt, providing an important visual inventory of Brookside over the years.
Once, however, its Brookside connection was no help in covering a breaking story. In the 1960s, a bank robbery occurred at Plaza Savings & Loan, directly across the street from The Wednesday’s second-story offices on Brookside Plaza. The paper was under deadline, however, and everyone was too busy to notice the commotion outside the window until the incident was over. The story wouldn’t appear until the next issue. To its credit, The Wednesday good-naturedly reported its gaff as part of the story.
Ernest Brown retired from the paper in 1955 but continued as editor emeritus and as a frequent poetry contributor. His son Alpha, his only child and an attorney practicing in Brookside, took over. Eventually, Al’s son Richard would take over from him, and the paper continued as a family endeavor. Finally, through a series of media company buyouts, The Wednesday became part of the News-Press & Gazette Co. of St. Joseph. Grouped with NP&G’s Sun Publications, the newspaper reemerged as The Wednesday Sunin 2006. It continues to serve the Brookside area to this day. (Update: In or around 2011, NP&G has closed all its Sun Publications.)
(Featured image: The front cover of the Wednesday Magazine, on occasion of its 25th anniversary in 1961. Author’s collection)
Note: Posts with titles beginning “BKS 100” like today’s are presented in commemoration of 100 years of the Brookside Shops, from October 1919 to September 2020. These above features appear in The Brookside Story in both the 2010 original edition, and the 2019 recent commemorative edition.