South Central remembered for music, bikes and watermelon

By Pat O’Connor

The South Central neighborhood is one of Wichita’s oldest. The Orme and Phillips Addition was platted in 1876, six years after the city was incorporated. In the early days, travel to work downtown was a quick walk or streetcar ride. Some of the city’s grandest homes were built among the many middle-class and more modest dwellings.

ALAN KAILER 

Kailer left the city at age 21 and recently retired back here. He is active in Bike Walk Wichita.

“I grew up on 2227 S. Wichita. My parents bought a brand-new house, probably on the G.I. Bill. It cost $10,000, built in 1954. They thought they were rolling.

“There was an old watermelon stand on Broadway right behind the Pawnee Drive-in. That was definitely one of the highlights of our family activities. They had old picnic tables set up there, lights strung across the trees. There was a little corner grocery store at the southeast corner of Pawnee and Broadway, that my dad worked at nights as a second job.

“There were some older homes in the neighborhood. There were half a dozen homes on our block that were basically the same design. I went to Longfellow Elementary through the third grade, and then I went to Stanley. I walked to Longfellow, even in kindergarten; came home for lunch. Then Hamilton junior high and South High. I didn’t think Hamilton was rough — you got in a couple of fights. I was in the next to the last class at South that graduated as Colonels.

“I passed out handbills for a while before I was 16 — sort of like a paper route but you could do it anytime of the day. My first real job was at the Dillons store at Harry and Broadway. I worked there for four years, starting at $1.35 an hour.

“Lots of kids in the neighborhood. We played outside all day long. There were one or two vacant lots, and we played baseball, rode our bikes around. I had a red J.C. Higgins bike, 24-inch wheels. Sometime in high school, I got a racer from J.C. Penney’s, and in 1972, I bought a Raleigh Super Sports, a real expensive bike, $300. My first car actually cost $135. 

“I have one good friend, Dan. We were in the same grade. Dan worked at Dillons with me and later at a house that had been converted into a grocery store at Mt. Vernon and Water: Lynn’s Food Lane. I hung out there. Later he worked at Larcher’s on East Central. Now that was a nice store.

“It was neat growing up with all the kids around. It was a different world. You could be gone all day long, wander in and out of people’s houses. When I rode my bike as a kid, we didn’t go east of Broadway or past the river on the west or south. We rode up to Harry on the north. Next to the Dillons on Harry and Broadway there was a TG&Y. Mt Vernon and Broadway, there was a Peter Pan Ice Cream Store we went to, and the Dairy Queen a couple blocks north of that.

“Broadway back then was not glamorous by any means, but I didn’t think it was rough. I went to Tom Sawyer bike shop on Broadway, originally mowers and bicycles. I went there a lot. It was a different building back then.”

RICHARD BROWN 

Brown grew up in Planeview and graduated second in his class at Planeview High School. His tavern was at Hydraulic and Mt. Vernon, the eastern boundary of the South Central neighborhood.

“I started the Soccer Club tavern while I was still at Boeing. I got laid off. We offered music almost immediately, ‘73-’74. Phil Yearout played there up to the end, and Denise Stiff played there. She was later manager for Alison Krauss. She held the record for donations. We would pass the old beat-up soccer ball for the collection for the musicians. I guaranteed $20 for the night. 

“United Distributors had the first lease on the building. You could not have anybody else’s machines, even your own. And I was told if you rented a location from him, you had to have Schlitz on tap. I had three guitar winners from the Walnut Valley Festival perform here. We were pretty much booked up with regular performers. Didn’t have any trouble with customers. I had to cut some people off. 

“My location at one time was a gay bar, a biker bar. Toward the end, one of the older vice detectives came in. He said I had the least trouble of any bar in Wichita. ‘If you ever have any problems, we would give you the benefit of the doubt.’”

“The Wichita Wings were born in my tavern. One of the management guys came in and wanted to borrow some soccer magazines to look at the centerfold so they could do the same thing. I loaned him 10 or 12 magazines. ‘I’ll have these back to you in a couple weeks.’ Never saw them again. Also, AYSO [American Your Soccer Organization] Region 49 was born in my tavern.”

LARRY MONG

Mong is a transplant to Wichita. His observations give a more recent perspective on South Central. 

“I always push this neighborhood. If you didn’t grow up here in Wichita — this is not a bad neighborhood. I am six blocks from the river and eight blocks from downtown. I can ride a bike or walk. This house was built in 1906 by P. M. Randall, head salesman at the McCormick Machinery Company downtown. 

“We moved to Wichita because of this house. We used to drive up here antiquing. In 1999, a friend of ours was looking for a house, so we drove him up here and looked at this house with him. He didn’t take it, so my wife said ‘You want a different life?’ and I said ‘Yeah.’ I was a body [and fender] man, my wife was a schoolteacher. She got a job up here and I retired but I still work. My job is this house.”

“We’ve been here for 20 years, and I’m still working on the house. This was a working-class neighborhood even in the 50s and 60s. What happened — a lot of the properties turned into rentals because of the aircraft industry during World War II. They lost homeowners. But there are about 10 young couples who have moved into the neighborhood, bought up houses and are fixing them up. They are smart kids, hard-working young people who don’t believe in debt.

“A little bungalow in downtown Dallas is $300,000. House like this would be $1,500,000. We have good police down here and good neighbors. I have to admit, there is a spice of life. It’s city living. In the 60s and into the 70s, this neighborhood was a hell of a lot worse than it is now—drugs. 

“In Texas, you had to load the bicycles in the truck and drive somewhere to ride. Here, you have a bike lane right outside the front door. I love living here because of the biking and walking.”

These interviews were conducted as part of the Wichita Old Neighborhood Project. If you have a story about your old neighborhood, contact Pat O’Connor at wichlitsoc@gmail.com or (316) 832-0309.

For  Pat’s previous stories on Wichita neighborhoods, visti www.theactiveage.com.

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