· Konrad C. “Koon” Beck (1876-1947)
It’s Thursday, October 20, 1927 in Hutchinson, Kansas. Julia and Houston Whiteside are making plans to attend a Saturday show on the south end at Riverside Park. The Wallace Bruce Players will be performing on stage.
“As much as I enjoyed Buster Keaton’s masterful performance in the 1916 movie, The Bell Boy,” said Julia, “years earlier, before his silent movie, the musical-comedy stage production at Riverside Park was tops.”
“We saw that production in 1910,” remembered Houston. “Those were the days. The crowds were immense, the streetcars overflowing, but that was before everyone had an automobile. Once people purchased a motor car, they drove it night and day and didn’t want to get out of it.” Holdeman Motor Car Company 1910 Advertisement
“Koon Beck is still a showman and a live wire,” said Julia. “I remember him telling me how he quit school when he was 14 years old so he could go hunting and trapping. He was passionate about learning, but he needed a hands-on approach. He’s become a respected zoologist and conservationist without a college degree.
“Beck’s traveled all over the United States, South and Central America, collecting water fowl, becoming one of the most widely recognized authorities in the world on the habit and habitats of these creatures.”
“And it paid off,” said Houston. “After several years he had such a collection of animals, especially water fowl, that he was visiting numerous county fairs every summer. They paid him because his educational exhibits attracted the public.
“Eventually, because of Koon’s success, he was invited to move his headquarters from outside Nickerson to Riverside Park in Hutchinson. He brought all his wild animals along to exhibit and to winter here.”
“He made a success of it,” said Julia. “‘The Coney Island of the Midwest’ had a roller coaster, swimming pool, skating rink, carousel, and a miniature train. The vaudeville shows and musicals, exotic animals, open-air dancing pavilion, and the Canals of Venice, drew people to Hutchinson from all over the country, including Wichita. Things were constantly in motion at Riverside.” Riverside Park 1912 advertisement
“I can still see those colorful painted horses, hear the music of the carousel, and watch the world spin by,” said Houston.
“Since the amusement park was only open during the summer season, it gave Koon more time for importing animals, especially birds, from all over the world,” said Julia. “He’s supplied animals to the Bronx Zoo (New York) and the Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago), and he’s one of a handful of wild animal dealers in the United States permitted to import and export animals.
“The waterfowl preserve that Koon established at the park held over a thousand birds. Some of the zoo animals were lions, chimpanzees, elephants, dwarf kangaroos, and Tasmanian devils. The ostriches were allowed to roam the park and beg for popcorn.”
“I marvel how Koon and his brother John were even-keeled about being arrested for working their employees on Sundays,” said Houston.
“Remember City Commissioner Oswald?” asked Julia. “He battled with Mayor Martin who tried to pass a Sabbath ordinance after a delegation of ministers visited him. The ministers complained that the Sunday shows were hurting their church attendance. Oswald argued that citizens had a right to enjoy a day off with recreation and entertainment.”
“And Konrad was sheriff at the time,” recalled Houston. K C Beck for Sheriff “It’s a wonder he was reelected, the way the local ministers riled up their congregations about Riverside’s girlie shows.”
“A majority of people viewed his shows as clean entertainment, which they were,” said Julia. “Beck was a showman; he enjoyed publicity. He soon learned that music, girls, and comedians were what the pubic wanted.”
“After all these years, Koon’s still in the fight,” said Houston. “Just a couple of years ago he was again charged with breaking the Sunday labor laws. At the jury trial every prosecuting witness was cross-examined. One by one they admitted that on one or more occasions they had their employees work on a Sunday.”
“The business manager of the Hutchinson Herald, a witness, agreed that his employees had to work past midnight on Saturday’s in order to get Sunday’s paper out.”
“Sheriff Beck threatened to arrest all men who employed anyone on Sunday, including the witnesses,” said Julia.
“One of the biggest mistakes a man ever made with Beck was to interfere with the health and well-being of his animals,” continued Julia. “I remember when the state game warden confiscated a shipment of 60 Chinese ducks that were being sent by mail to Pennsylvania. The warden said it was a violation of state law.
“Koon called the Kansas attorney general and explained how the delay was illogical and illegal. Beck said that if he was violating the law then proceed against him anytime, but don’t hold up the shipment of his ducks. He said, ‘if you’re going to do anything, do it to me, don’t take it out on my ducks.’
“The AG told him to go ahead and ship the birds.”
“Tom Fowler was murdered in December of 1910 while he was waiting for criminals to return to their stash of hidden burglar tools,” said Houston. “Sheriff Duckworth’s second term of office was almost complete when Fowler was shot and killed during the arrest.”
“It was a sad day for Tom’s family,” said Julia.
“The Anti-Horse Thief Association (AHTA) got busy and helped bring the murderer to justice,” said Houston. “Henry Bowers, who was known as ‘Hiney’ Bowers, was captured in Ottawa, Kansas, and brought back to Hutchinson by Sheriff K. C. Beck and members of the Association. I recall Hiney claiming his profession was a bank robber.
“In all the years I’ve lived here, since 1872, I don’t recall an arrest, confession, and sentencing to occur so quickly. Bowers was in fear of being lynched by a potential mob and told the judge he’d prefer life in prison. Sheriff Beck was soon on his way to the penitentiary with the convicted murderer.”
“The year 1911, our state’s golden anniversary, was also memorable because President Taft, a Mason brother, visited Hutchinson,” said Houston.
“It was nice meeting him,” said Julia. “He wasn’t here long, but he seemed to enjoy his visit.”
“People remember the president as giving a speech at the dedication ceremonies of the Convention Hall,” said Houston, “but he was mostly busy at the state fairgrounds or at the Bisonte Hotel before his train departed for Topeka.”
“As we remember 1911, two judges stand out to me,” said Julia. “Judge Banta, of Stafford, convicted a 17-year-old girl for stealing, and then sentenced her to be placed in the custody of Alta Barnes Beck, Mrs. Sheriff. I remember Alta giving girls the proper care they needed while she found each of them a good home. Whenever possible, she wanted to keep the girls out of the bastille.
“But Police Judge Hoagland takes the cake,” continued Julia. “He was what a Christian judge should look like. I remember that a man was caught red-handed stealing coal from the Rock Mill and Elevator Company. The judge had no alternative but to find him guilty. He gave the man the smallest fine possible allowed by the law, $5 and costs.
“The prisoner only had $1, which he put up. The judge, learning of the man’s financial condition, his wife and children being cold with no coats, returned the $1 to the man’s wife and had the county supervisor take a load of provisions to the house.”
“Do you recall which Reno County sheriff was the last to be arrested while in office?” asked Julia of Houston.
“Let’s see,” said Houston, “Sheriff Hooper was arrested for intent to kill, but a jury found him not guilty of shooting Al Olson. Beck was arrested while in office and again a couple of years ago for Sunday labor law violations.”
“Neither of them,” declared Julia as her grin widened. “Fay Brown was arrested Tuesday night by a city patrolman on the Hutchinson police force. Sheriff Brown was charged with failing to stop at a stop sign. He admitted to the violation and paid his $2 bond at the police station.”
“I hadn’t heard about that,” said Houston. “Most likely, Fay was set back a few bucks in court yesterday. Unlike Koon Beck, he wouldn’t hire an attorney to fight it, and he doesn’t need the publicity.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading.