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· Ed Cunningham (1896-1971)
It’s Wednesday, July 1, 1936, in Hutchinson, Kansas.
“Well, look what the cat drug in,” said Fay Brown, owner-operator of the Brown Wheel night club, as plain clothes city detective Ed Cunningham walked in the door.
Fay Brown and Ed Cunningham were old chums, lawmen, who had worked on the Hutchinson police force in the early 1920s and had teamed up as sheriff and under sheriff of the Reno County Sheriff’s office from 1927 to 1931.
“I needed to get outside, to feel rain on my face,” replied Ed, referring to the rain shower that had interrupted eight straight days of century temperatures.
“You’re early,” said Fay. “Our inaugural opening for this new location will be at 6 o’clock tomorrow night. But come on in and have a seat. Business or pleasure?”
“Brownie,” said Ed, as he remained standing, “it’s always a pleasure to see you.” Ed looked around the large space and nodded. “I thought it was time for me to see your new headquarters.”
Ed viewed the dance floor surrounded by booths and tables. He examined the bar with its neon lighting fixtures.
“We can seat 125 people, but I expect over twice that tomorrow night,” said Fay. “The crowd will dance to the Ray Close orchestra, and the Miss Dorothy Woods dancers will stage several floor shows.” Click to see advertisements for Dorothy Woods dancers: Dorothy Woods
“You’re forgiving,” said Ed. “I remember you objecting to Governor Reed granting a citizenship parole to Close because the felon had been convicted of a new crime, a car theft.”
“That was 1930, I think he’s changed,” replied Fay.
“Well, this clubhouse beats your old barn on the Sylvia pavement’s wet block.”
“Now that I own this property, I won’t have the clubhouse sold to build a chicken hatchery,” said Fay.
“By the way, we have reason to believe that Ray Waldo will wave his preliminary hearing on the larceny charge of stealing your overcoat from your cloak room,” updated Detective Cunningham. “If so, he’ll be bonded over to district court.”
“Thanks for the update,” said Fay. “How’s Esther doing?” he inquired.
“She’s well, thanks, and Cora?”
“Fine, she’s amazed at how quickly we’ve been able to purchase this property and construct the building. It’s 44 feet by 36 feet, the dance floor 25 by 18.”
“Remember when you were first hired on the police force?” asked Fay.
“I remember you taking me under your wing,” replied Ed. “Thanks again.”
“When the officers first heard that Ed Cunningham had been hired, they knew something was wrong,” remembered Fay as he laughed.
“Yeah, my name had preceded me,” Ed replied. “The colored Ed Cunningham liked to get drunk and hit women.”
“We’ve had some close calls,” said Fay. “Ed, you gave us all a scare the night you were shot in the face by Bowen the black bootlegger. When I heard about it, I was in shock. I kept repeating, ‘Not Ed, not Ed, dear god, not Ed.’”
“The prayers were appreciated,” said Ed. “Whether I want to or not, I remember it every day.” He raised both hands and massaged his temple. “You know about my headaches.”
“When the officer took Clint Bowen to Methodist Hospital to be identified by you,” said Fay, “I’ve got to admit, I thought the worst, that they wanted you to identify your assailant before you died, but you healed up pretty quickly once they removed the bullet from your neck.”
“I was too stubborn to die,” said Ed.
“Cora and Verna got closer because of that, so something good came of something bad,” recalled Fay. “Genevieve was just a one-year-old, wasn’t she?”
“Yes, she was still a baby,” agreed Ed. “Donald and Marvin followed in 1924 and ‘26.”
“How’s George Allison getting along with your boss?” asked Fay.
“All right, I think.”
“Do you know if he’ll go another term as sheriff?” Fay asked.
“Probably, he’s popular, but as you know, you never know with politics.”
“I think George’s job is harder than when we were sheriff because the people are more desperate,” said Ed. “Dust storms and drought destroy any hope for agricultural progress. This morning’s rain is welcome but it won’t be enough to stop the grasshoppers. More sodium arsenite is needed.”
“The Republicans need to give the New Deal a chance,” said Fay. “Governor Landon is out of touch and a poor choice for president.
“Ed, we’ve spent most of our years in law enforcement. We’ve been fortunate to not have to make a living off the land.”
“Farmers deserve a medal,” said Ed. “I couldn’t do it. They were losing money back in the twenties despite excellent crops, before the drought, before the Crash, and the increased ferocity of dust storms.
“When the dust storms arrive, they continue to hurt my business,” said Fay. “It’s understandable. It’s inconvenient, even dangerous to go outside. It’s hard on cars and clothing, and it takes a toll on your eyes and breathing.”
“The other day the dust was so thick a prairie dog was seen burrowing ten feet in the air,” quipped Ed.
Looking just as serious, Fay asked, “Was that the same day the crows were flying backward to keep dust out of their eyes?”
“Recently, I stopped to assist a family on the side of the road,” said Ed. “They were from back East. The driver said the wind was blowing pretty hard. Like any good Kansan, I replied: ‘This ain’t nothing. Our farmers use log chains to gage the wind. When the chains stand straight out, you can figure the wind is picking up.’”
“The county commission keeps cutting,” said Ed. “I recall when the commissioners threatened to reduce our staff. I finally agreed to accept a 10% reduction in our salaries. I had no choice.
“When the state attorney general recommended law enforcement should be better equipped against bandits, the commissioners didn’t budge. ‘No,’ they said, they would not be purchasing machine guns, gas guns, or bullet proof glass for sheriff’s cars. Understandably, there were higher priorities.”
“Like sheriffs before us, the county allowed Cora and me comfortable living quarters at the sheriff’s residence when it was on Avenue B,” said Fay. “Ed, you were the last sheriff to live on the fourth floor of our new courthouse. Sheriffs will never be able to honeymoon in the suite like you and Dorothy did back in 1931.”
“Not anymore,” said Ed. “I know George has complained to the commissioners about the loss of the courthouse residence, but they say that the courthouse space is at a premium. Meanwhile, George and Charline are living at their regular home. In the long run, leaving the courthouse every day, instead of practically living in jail, may be a healthier choice for all future sheriffs.”
“You and I lived it 24 hours a day,” said Fay. “It was a call of duty, and through it all, we had a fulfilling job.”
“I’m still loving it,” said Ed. “As long as my health holds up, and the mayors don’t replace me, I’ll keep working for the city force.”
“We may not be farmers, helping feed our people,” said Fay, “but we have served the public, helping protect property and keeping the peace.”
“Yes,” agreed Ed, “I was born in Indiana and raised in Colorado, but Hutchinson, Kansas, is important to me. Unlike some others who have gone west, we’re not leaving. With fond memories, and friends, and family, we have faith in the future and we’re here to say, ‘It’s home.’”
Click to see “Reward” or “Wanted” postcards, including mug photos, of four criminals from 1932-1933: Harold Johnson 1932, Charles L Schott 1933, W E Johnson 1932, and Jack Weiter 1932.
Until next time, happy writing and reading.
Ha! Prairie dog and crow jokes!
Jim Potter says
When conditions got really bad, you could always count on a Kansan to use humor to make things better.
Marilyn Bolton says
Very interesting, Jim. As a former (and old!) history teacher, I found the Dust Bowl description fascinating. Farmers’ issues haven’t really changed over time, have they?
Jim Potter says
There are a lot of heroes, not all of them are healthcare workers. My father lived through the Dust Bowl in Morton County, Kansas. When the children set the kitchen table, they never placed the dishes face up. They always put them face down so they wouldn’t collect dirt before they began the meal.
Pat Bussen says
That old-time photo of that dust storm is magnificent. That’s gotta be scary to see that coming at you. I’m sure those storms clogged air filters, carburetors and radiators on cars very badly.
I like those old mug shots, too. You put together a good assortment of photos to accompany this story. Nice work.
Jim Potter says
Yes, it must have been terrifying to see the storm approaching. There were people who got lost in dust storms and died from suffocation.