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Out of the Morgue
1937: Hobbits, oil wells, car crashes and construction
otm vlc auditorium-ad.gif
The Portland Cement Company capitalized on the auditorium project in this advertisement which ran in the Tribune this week in 1937. - photo by Tribune file photo

 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.

Eighty years ago today, “The Hobbit,” or “There and Back Again,” a children’s fantasy novel by English author J. R. R. Tolkien, was published to wide critical acclaim by George Allen and Unwin in London. It went on to be nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction. The book remains popular and is recognized as a classic in children’s literature.
We had no expectation of finding mention of the book in The Great Bend Tribune in September, 1937. The first American release of the book wouldn’t occur for at least half a year. But, interestingly, as we look back at the Tribune on this date, there were articles referencing the rise of Adolph Hitler and the budding relationship between him and the Italian dictator Benito “Il Duce” Mussolini, concerns expressed at the American Legion annual convention at Madison Square Garden warning of Nazi influence in the U.S., and the evacuation of an American embassy in China prompted by actions of the Japanese.
While the timing of these events was likely coincidental, the relationships between them were not. In addition to being a pioneer of the Fantasy genre, Tolkien was a World War I veteran, and many scholars have advanced their theories that “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” are allegory of either of the two World Wars. Tolkien refuted these theories, but did admit that characters and scenes were inspired by what he experienced in the trenches, and his concerns for his sons who fought during World War II.

Oil drives local development
In the Great Bend of 1937, oil drilling was big news. The Sept. 20, 1937 article “Barton County the Hot Spot of Oil Drilling Activity With More Development Indicated” sat front and center, above the fold on the front page of Tribune.
“The importance of Barton county as an oil producing area frequently is cited by The Tribune with official reports to substantiate claims. This fact now is becoming generally known throughout the state and was featured in Sunday’s Wichita Eagle with a 2-column cut that showed the big oil producing fields.
“In the short space of a few months Barton county – the hot spot of western Kansas drilling activity – has become the leading oil area of the Sunflower state,” the article stated. It went on to note that “Great Bend, the county seat, is the new western Kansas oil capital and most of the major companies have district offices there.”
It also noted a building boom was on to satisfy the desperate need for adequate housing for oil personnel, and mentioned the city auditorium under construction at that time.
Since then, oil has remained a big driver for the local economy, though there have been downtimes to be certain. The mid 1980s saw the area particularly hard hit, but the area has seen better times since then too. The big oil companies no longer office here, however, and that has been a sad loss.

Joy ride ends in disaster
With the discovery of more and more oil, both locally and around the world, supplies of gasoline were abundant, and all of that fueled the hunger for automobiles. As the country began to emerge from depression, the news from places like Great Bend seemed to be looking up. But there are always exceptions. With automobiles becoming increasingly ubiquitous, younger people were beginning to drive them with at times disastrous results.
On Sept. 24, 1937, Great Bend learned of the death of 13-year-old Jaunita McCaskey of Great Bend. She was joyriding with friends, John Brown, 16, and Dorothy Bledsoe, 14, around 12:30 a.m. when the accident occurred.
Officers who investigated the crash learned Brown had taken the car from Spruill Motors, Main and 16th Street, between 11 p.m. and midnight. The car was owned by State Highway Patrolman Rhoades.
According to the eyewitness account of Bob Doonan, who also took the kids to the hospital, it was a case of inexperience meeting real life.
“Brown told me that he always had wanted to drive a V-8 and was riding his bicycle past the north side of the Spruill agency when he saw some new cars on a transport parked there,” Undersheriff Hoadley said. “He said he got off his bicycle and looking over the cars discovered that one, Rhoades’ 2-door sedan, had the key in it, and decided to take a ride in it, later picking up the two girls. They were on their way back to Great Bend from Hoisington when the crash occurred.”
From the report, the two girls were at the Graves drug store where McCaskey worked when he picked them up at 11:30 p.m.
A car with very bright lights met them on coming home. It was raining, and McCaskey was in the center seat, attempting to make the windshield wipers work. In 1937, windshield wipers were manually operated by turning a knob located on the inside of the windshield. Electric windshield wipers were only available in luxury cars at the time. Brown was blinded by the oncoming headlights and went off the road and collided with an electric light pole. It was learned in a later investigation that Brown had the car in overdrive at the time of the accident. Both girls were thrown out of the car.
Interestingly, days before the crash, there was a report about a new initiative of the State Patrol to encourage use of dimmers.
“Flashing red lights on 22 state highway patrol cars now remind forgetful Kansas motorists to use their dimmers ... Whenever patrolmen encounter cars on the highway with blinding lights they have orders to turn on the red pursuit light just below the headlights on their car. Motorists jump for their dimmer switches when they see that red light.”
The car was a complete wreck, and the report stated it “was pulled into Great Bend this morning and parked on the east side of the Spruill motor car agency building.”
Surely there were a number of people upon reading the report that passed by to get a look at the telescoped front end. The report also noted that Brown had been a carrier of the Tribune for several years, so he was likely a familiar person to many.
Other reports followed throughout the week of accidents involving young people locally, from Larned, and from points further. The county attorney filed a general complaint against Brown.

Local architecture takes form
This month in 1937, two noteworthy examples of local architecture were under construction. One was the Tribune Model Home and the other was the Great Bend Auditorium. Out of the Morgue spotlighted the Tribune Model Home back in September 2012. It was one of the first of this column series. Located at the corner of 16th and Monroe, the house looks like a storybook English cottage to this day. It was completed early in 1938, and was on public display for four days in March. One innovative feature was the lighting.
“The Great Bend Tribune Model Home will give its many visitors an opportunity to see in actual practice the full effect of correct lighting for the modern home.” The lighting was designed by Kansas Power Company by lighting engineers that used light measuring meters to determine if the proper amount of lighting was available for different activities.
This week in 1937, forms had been built and concrete was to be poured for the new auditorium.
“Work is progressing rapidly on building the arched roof slab forms on the supporting wooden falsework of the municipal auditorium and it is expected to commence pouring concrete for the floor of the state of the auditorium on the west end of the building sometime this week,” the architect Lee H. Sentman said.
The works sounds “old school” compared to today.
“The concrete is mixed at the north side of the building and is hoisted about 20 feet to a run-way and taken the full width of the building to the south side by means of two wheeled carts.”
Keep in mind, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would not exist for another 34 years. And that’s probably why in our 2012 Out of the Morgue, Don Bowsher was able to share his childhood memory of playing with friends at the auditorium shell while it was under construction.
“Us kids would play in the sand pile while the workers worked all around us,” he said.

Tribune file image
Auditorium ad
The Portland Cement Company capitalized on the auditorium project in this advertisement which ran in the Tribune this week in 1937.

Courtesy Model A Ford Club of America
Wiper blade
In 1937, most cars were equipped with hand wipers similar to this older Model A wiper. Seat belts weren’t manufactured until 1955. The lack of both electric wipers and seat belts were factors in the death of one Great Bend youth in 1937.

Courtesy, the J.R.R. Tolkien Copyright Trust
The Hobbit dust jacket
The final version of the dust jacket for the 1937 first edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” was illustrated by the author, and included three colors: black, blue and green. September 21, 1937, marked the first printing of the now classic fantasy tale.