A must-see for visitors to Barton County for years has been the Ellinwood Underground tour. Now, thanks to the efforts of Wolf Hotel owner Chris McCord and his loyal volunteers, that tour offers not only a chance to imagine what it was like in the early days of the Santa Fe Trail town, but a chance to experience it firsthand.
People in Ellinwood didn’t know this part of the “Underground” remained two years ago when McCord took on the project of renovating the Historic Wolf Hotel, he said. And while the east side of Santa Fe Ave. has been available for tour for some time, the new updates make a trip back worthwhile.
McCord took this reporter on a tour. Access used to be from two external stairwells that were removed decades ago, he said. Now, there are three internal stairwells that provide access through the hotel.
As we emerged from the basement of the hotel into the area that used to be the boardwalk in the days when the railroad first arrived, it was like stepping back in time. But, instead of oil or gas lights, McCord and his father have run electricity, which lit up the boardwalk in vintage splendor. Over the years, the original boardwalk had rotted away, but McCord and his father tore out the old and rebuilt it.
“My dad actually recreated it. He cut down this old oak tree, milled it all himself. It’s all true dimension and it’s even put together with antique square nails.”
Where there was once a coal bin, now there are vintage bricks, and the modern concrete supports have been boxed in to continue the vintage feel.
The Underground Wolf Saloon
At the end of the boardwalk, in what was at one time Ellinwood’s first public library, is the saloon. A century ago, there were 11 saloons throughout the underground, McCord said.
Fortunately for McCord, one of his greatest talents is infecting others with his vision of what the historic hotel can become.
It’s because of his passion, he’s attracted a host of volunteers who are eager to put their signature touches on every inch of the structure, and this underground party venue is no exception. From hand-epoxy stained floors to vintage-inspired chairs and tables, a quaint and pretty water-closet type rest room, a hearth that adds to the warm and inviting atmosphere, and a large, expertly custom-made bar, it’s no wonder groups looking to book the hotel for weddings and other parties are taken with the new space.
“The oak mantle came from visitors from Lake of the Ozarks. They liked our project, and agreed to meet us in Kansas City,” he said. “It provides a nice chunky focal point for the corner.”
Every saloon worth its salt has an amazing bar, and the Underground is no exception. Lonnie Schrag, a local retiree with a passion for woodworking, is the designer of the bar.
“A mutual friend told me about him,” McCord said. “He’s a very talented man. He’s on board now helping with many things around the hotel.”
The dark, elegantly finished bar is not only attractive, but fully functioning. McCord plans to use the space for catered events for now, and in the future would like to hold murder mystery dinners and weekend mixers with period drinks at the bar. It’s been over 50 years since there has been a public event in the tunnels, and the thought of bringing them back excites him.
From floor to ceiling, the space hearkens back to a time when gentlemen would stop in after a long train ride for a nightcap, and when traveling salesmen would set out their wares on display between legs of their journey. In fact, this was the original use of the space long before it contained books, and it was called the Sunflower Sampler Room. McCord has antique brochures stashed away in his office that include advertising for the room, encouraging guests to “drop down and see me under the Bank of Ellinwood.”
A space to remember
McCord didn’t waste any time after finishing the space making it available for private parties. Vern Rossler and his wife, Great Bend, celebrated their 60th anniversary just hours after it became available. Not only were they thrilled with the space, they have cherished memories of their special day.
It was about that time that the staff of the Family Crisis Center in Great Bend learned it would not receive a large grant they’d been counting on, spurring them to jump into action on a fundraising campaign.
“Chris didn’t hesitate for a second,” said FCC Director Laura Patzner. A week later, on July 31, an invitation-only event found the FCC board members and their patrons entering the world of the 1920s speakeasy, complete with a young doorman in overalls and newsboy cap outside the back-alley door whom they had to give the password. Down the stairs they went, entering the long-forgotten underground, for a magical night which saw McCord himself tending bar alongside a friend, both dressed in period costume.
“We didn’t even have to decorate, leaving us time to come up with a signature cocktail for our guests from the period,” Patzner said. The drink, called “The Bees Knees,” was a tasty concoction of lemonade, honey syrup and gin. With the help of caterer John Reyes, the event was a great kick-off to the center’s sustained giving campaign.
More to come
McCord isn’t satisfied yet, and that’s no surprise to his friends and family. Next door to the saloon is another room he’s used as his personal office. Now, he has plans to move into the “haunted” boiler room. No spoilers behind the haunting here though. The new space has billiards and darts written all over it, McCord said. And then, there is always the next space down the boardwalk. Oh, and the tunnel on the west side of the saloon could be restored someday too. As long as McCord has the vision and his volunteers are willing to pitch in, there’s seemingly no limits to what The Wolf could become.
“We’re really lucky to have something like this here in our own back yard,” Patzner said. “This is the kind of place that makes living here in this area so special.”