Each week we’ll take a step back into the history of Great Bend through the eyes of reporters past. We’ll reacquaint you with what went into creating the Great Bend of today, and do our best to update you on what “the rest of the story” turned out to be.
Late August, 1942, Great Bend is saying good-bye to several of its boys who are headed off to fight in World War II. The schools are surging with students, population is growing like mad, and the community is looking for entertainment close to home. Great Bend High School dedicates its annual, entitled the Rhorea ( according to the 1920 year book, student Delta Seward Craig created the word for a contest to name the book, and “...as the Rhorea is in existence, the origin of its name will continue to be a mystery.”) to “Old Glory”, and to the former and present students of Great Bend High School who have offered their lives as a sacrifice that this flag might continue to wave “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
In the story “An Alligator Shipped Here in Cigar Box Nine Years Ago Now Has a Home at the City Park”, Meryl, the 5-foot long, 10-year old alligator was donated to the Great Bend Zoo by Jimmy and Haile Macurdy. They received him as a gift from their grandmother who sent the reptile to them from Florida in a cigar box nine years earlier. Meryl outgrew the pond where he lived in the Macurdy’s back yard, and would now become a permanent resident of the zoo. Jimmy Macurdy, was a recent graduate from Great Bend High School in 1942. Perhaps his parents simply felt it was time--with his imminent departure.
According to the story, Meryl was not given a warm welcome by the children that visited the zoo in 1942. Instead, they stoned him and poked him with sticks, something he’d never before experienced in his former home. To protect him, he was moved to a more secure environment--the south pond, with an island in the center where he could sun himself, far away from the taunting children.
According to zoo director Scott Gregory, there are no records available that give an account of the life of Meryl the alligator. Gregory questions whether records may have even been kept at that time. However, echoing the past, the Britt Spaugh Zoo recently adopted an alligator from Barton County Community College, who accepted it as a gift from a person who had tried to raise it as a pet, but it outgrew the available space. Gregory became the zoo director in 2009, and is laying the groundwork for the future of the zoo. He and his staff have tracked down the history of the current animals at the zoo, and have implemented a system of record keeping that includes five sets of back-up records. “When someone comes in here 50 years from now wanting to know about any of today’s animals, we’ll be able to tell them anything they want to know, down to what they ate last Tuesday,” Gregory said.
The story also mentioned the importance of the zoo at the time, as there was fuel and tire rationing in effect due to the ongoing war, and people could not travel far. The park became a very important recreation area for all of the people of Great Bend. But the citizenry needed diverse entertainment too.
Movies and movie houses
Two movie theaters advertised in the Great Bend Daily Tribune in 1942. The Kansan and the Plaza. The Kansan was located where the Crest movie theater is now on the south side of the courthouse square. The Plaza was located at 1210 Main St. Today, R.B. Teller occupies the building, which still has the faded painted sign on the northwest corner of the building advertising The Plaza Theater. Both theaters were owned by the Commonwealth Amusements Corporation, which went on to purchase the Great Bend Drive-in Theater, according to the Jan. 26, 1955 edition of the Great Bend Daily Tribune. The theater was originally built and owned by the Flynn family in 1948.
According to the website, http://cinematreasures.org, Commonwealth Amusements Corporations was bought up by Golan/Globus Group (Cannon Films) in the 1980s. They dismantled it and sold it off to finance movie production. The theaters were either shut down, demolished, or sold off to other theater companies.
Movie showing in late August, 1942 were mobster movies, cowboy movies, documentaries and comedies about the war and military people, and romances, of course. The Plaza was showing the following double features: “The Wife Takes a Flyer” starring Joan Bennet and Franchott Tone with “Our Russian Front” narrated by Walter Huston and “They Died with their Boots On” starring Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland with “This Above All” with Tyrone Power and Joan Fontane.
Daily reports of young men showing up to the Selective Service office to prepare to be sent to the war front filled the paper. At that time, black men were called separate from white men. In a story titled Nine to Army Fort: Call for Negroes, Another Quota of Barton Registrants to Leave Here Tonight, the following were named: Albert Harrison Bryant, Hoisington; Shelton Ryan Buhrle, Great Bend; Philip August Gerritzen, Redwing; Ray Virgil Gromwell, Hoisington; Champ Freddie McNett, Great Bend; Glen Everett Phillips, Great Bend; Harold Alfred Hartenbower, Ellinwood; and four black men, Lawrence Vernon Foster Porter, Great Bend; William Watson, Hoisington; A.D. Stennis, Hoisington; and Paul Marion Bowser, Great Bend.
Readers are encouraged to contact the Great Bend Tribune with information about these servicemen. There is interest in how they fared in the war, and if they later returned to Great Bend or moved on to other locations. Did any make a career out of the military? Were any killed in the line of duty or missing in action?
Population surge creates teacher shortage
In the story “Teachers Prove Problem In The Senior High Here”, the school had a surge of students. “In a school built for 450 students, the senior high school now has over 650 students and the far fetched idea of availability of instructors gets more and more acute every day.” Though the War may not be directly attributable for the shortage in teachers, the effects of being in a war economy may have much to do with it. Not only was Great Bend already in the midst of an oil boom in the late 1930s, plans were underway to build a B-29 Bomber training base in Great Bend. Military housing and base amenities would need to be built.
According to the earlier alligator story, rationing was underway. Tires, fuel, groceries, shoes--it seemed everything was being rationed. According to the U.S. Census, the population of Great Bend increased 63 percent between 1930 and 1940, and an additional 40 percent between 1940 and 1950. In 20 years, it more than doubled. Between 1950 and 1960, it would continue to increase at a slower pace, only 31.6 percent. Only slight declines happened over the next three decades, and once again, it is in a slightly increasing mode.
The jobs available and the need to find homes closer to work drove an increase in families coming to Great Bend. The base would remain active until the end of the war in 1945, and then went to inactive status until 1950. GBHS has had additions made over the years. In 2010, the high school accommodated 987 full time students, according to City Data, a public data clearing house.