Long-hidden stash of empty bottles hints at Prohibition-era secrets

Posted March 22, 2012, at 9:31 p.m.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Homeowners live in dread of the contractor’s phone call involving a “surprise.”

A nest of termites. A hidden crack in a foundation wall.

Kansas City, Mo., resident Anne Smith took one of those calls recently from contractors working on the Coleman Highlands home she and her husband had purchased as an investment.

The surprise?

A hidden room in the basement. A tall steel vault door. Inside, a collection of approximately 40 empty jugs and liquor bottles, themselves awash in an almost ankle-deep tide of close to 1,000 corks, glass caps and stoppers.

And a plank of wood from a wooden crate reading “TJ Pendergast.”

At first glance, Smith said, the discovery seemed a window into Kansas City’s Prohibition past, a small corner of the vast empire ruled by Tom Pendergast, Kansas City’s machine boss during the 1920s and 1930s.

The truth might be more complicated, and the Smiths are curious.

“We are still trying to figure this out,” she said.

Since the contractors made their discovery last month in the neighborhood near 31st Street and Southwest Trafficway, the Smiths’ response quickly has evolved from “What?” to “How historically significant?” to “Now what?”

“We want to be respectful,” Smith said. “But we’re not sure what to do with all this.

“Local expert input is welcome.”

But first, some background.

From the time of Prohibition’s enactment in 1920 through its repeal in 1933, some in Kansas City chose not to honor it.

Federal agents routinely raided home distilleries or poured barrels of confiscated spirits into the Missouri River. One Kansas City federal judge, Merrill E. Otis, commenting on the long docket of cases he had to hear involving small speakeasies and home distillery operators, once explained that he scheduled cases during night court session “on the theory that it is appropriate to try them when the moon shines.”

The caps and corks found around the bottles suggest imbibing was done on-site.

But Bill Ouseley, a retired FBI agent and author of “Open City: True Story of the KC Crime Family 1900-1950,” isn’t sure the speakeasy scenario passes the smell test.

“I don’t recall reading much about speakeasies or joints being run out of private residences,” Ouseley said. “More likely the vault was put in by an upscale homeowner just for his own use, or when throwing private parties.”

Maybe. But that steel vault door suggests someone who had a budget.

The door also offers clues as to when it was installed. “Harrigan Safe and Iron Works, Kansas City, Mo.” can be read on its surface.

Kansas City directories from the Prohibition years list such a company at 917 Broadway.

The same directories list the Coleman Highlands home’s resident as Richard G. Winstead, a former dairy company bookkeeper who by the 1920s was office manager of the Franklin Ice Cream Co.

Hmm. The name “Faultless Condensed Milk Co.” appears at the top of the vault door. Condensed milk was, and still can be, used to make ice cream. Based in Kansas City with a plant in Tonganoxie, Kan., Faultless appears to have existed only a few years, from about 1908 to 1911.

Two contractors found the vault behind a sheet of stucco on a basement wall.

Rob Jones, a Pleasant Hill carpenter, said he and a colleague were taking down a bank of wooden cabinets when they came upon the stucco.

“I knew it couldn’t be part of the foundation,” Jones said.

A tap on the wall yielded — just like in the movies — a suspicious hollow sound.

They took down the stucco and there was the vault. There was a first, larger room. Inside, the vault door was off its hinges, leaning against an interior wall. Then there was a second, smaller, room.

There they found the bottles, and all those caps and corks.

Smith is sticking by her conviction that people partied at the house, built in 1914. Her contractors, examining the handsome garage out back, have found something else: The garage’s foundation could not support the weight of a car. That lends credence to still another rumor she’d heard, that the garage had been used for card-playing by neighborhood night owls.

Jackson County property records documents that John and Evelyne Lyman, both now deceased, purchased the home in 1961. John Lyman was a photographer for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1964 through 1989. Antique cameras and other photography equipment were still in the home’s basement when the Smiths purchased it.

“My uncle knew everyone from the Mafia to the mayor, but I’m not sure he knew about this safe,” said Roy Lee Petrie, a nephew of John Lyman who lives in Stover, Mo.

After John Lyman’s death in 2005, a member of the armed forces purchased the home and years later sold it to the Smiths. He didn’t know about the safe either, said Smith.

Not long after they moved to the Coleman Highlands district in 2010, Smith and her husband began to hear unusual stories about the neighborhood. “I’ve heard various things about tunnels and Pendergast,” she said.

George Baggett, who has lived the bulk of his life in Coleman Highlands, wasn’t surprised.

“There’s a lot of hyperbole about this neighborhood,” he said.

The neighborhood was platted on a bluff in 1907. The legend of tunnels probably dates to the years when areas just to the northwest of the neighborhood were being mined for limestone, Baggett said. Some homeowners complained the mining contributed to cracks in their foundation walls.

But the Pendergast connection is genuine, said Baggett.

For years Tom Pendergast Jr. lived in Coleman Highlands, just three blocks from the home with the vault.

Following his death in 1990 and that of his widow in 1996, their home was listed for sale. A long line of visitors arrived at the residence’s open house, eager to inspect its various curious features. Those included an unusually high cyclone fence, a two-way mirror in the back door, a closet that appeared to have been used for storing jewelry, and an auxiliary generator powered by a six-cylinder Ford engine.

Baggett remembers the younger Pendergast as a neighbor who didn’t mind him and his friends riding bicycles past his home, but who clearly liked his privacy.

“That’s easy to understand,” he added.

The biggest find in the Smiths’ discovery of a hidden vault may have been a single bottle bearing the brand of the Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Co.

Its label, largely torn off, includes a “T” and a “J.”

“You can almost see the ‘P,’?” Smith said.

Pendergast, with partners, established the T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Co. in 1911. Upon Prohibition’s arrival, Pendergast shut the company down, said Lawrence Larsen, co-author of a 1997 biography of Pendergast.

The boss later claimed that he turned down a chance to sell his bonded distillery liquor for a $2 million profit during Prohibition after learning the buyers intended to divert 14,000 barrels and 1,500 cases to bootleggers.

“Any Prohibition violation would have brought in the feds,” Larsen said.

Pendergast went right back into the liquor business after repeal, and that was his main occupation until his 1945 death, Larsen said.

On April 12, 1945, the day Harry Truman became president upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Truman had received a letter from James Pendergast, a nephew of the then-deceased boss, asking for help in securing wartime supplies of bottles needed to distribute 11,000 barrels of whiskey stored in Kentucky.

In later years Tom Jr. operated the company.

In 1995, Bob Pendergast, another nephew of the machine boss, showed a visitor an empty bottle of Old Grimes Straight Bourbon Whiskey, bearing the Pendergast name on the label. He and his wife, Margaret, both now deceased, displayed the bottle in a china cabinet at their south Kansas City home.

Today bottles bearing the name of the Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Co. occasionally turn up online or in antique stores — but not in concealed basement vaults.

Smith insists the discovery is not a hoax inspired by the much-hyped 1986 stunt of television correspondent Geraldo Rivera who, on live television, opened a Chicago vault allegedly linked to Al Capone.

His discovery: a few empty bottles.

“I wish I had that kind of time,” Smith said.

 

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