Century-old medicines unearthed in Hugoton
The town of Hugoton is known for its natural gas fields.
But town leaders are hoping its connection to 1930s gangsters can supersede that.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow are reported to have spent time in Hugoton, where Bonnie ran a café.
And in far southwest Kansas, where tourism dollars are few and far between, this town is digging quite literally for any Bonnie and Clyde artifacts it can find.
In April, a partially collapsed tunnel was discovered under a building that the couple frequented – and though it didn’t contain any direct relics from the two, there is still plenty more to dig up.
"I always wondered why nobody pushed this," said Jan Leonard, who recently took over as executive director of Stevens County Economic Development. "I've been wanting to bring this out for 20 years, but it never has happened. We opened up the tunnel and it has helped.
"The interest is there."
Bonnie and Clyde in Kansas
There is scant documentation of Bonnie and Clyde’s time in Hugoton, but town leaders can recall specific details, passed down through the generations allegedly by eyewitnesses.
During the Great Depression, the newly discovered Hugoton Gas Field drew thousands of workers to town.
That apparently included a young Bonnie and Clyde, who went by the names Jewel and Blackie Underwood.
Clyde reportedly worked in a farmer’s field and Bonnie ran a café on Main Street called Jewel’s Café, where locals theorize the couple ran a bootlegging operation.
When Bonnie and Clyde were killed in 1934, the FBI found receipts from Jewel’s Café in their car.
Neal Gillespie, former economic development director for the county, said his grandparents were neighbors of Bonnie and Clyde, who lived in the country outside of Hugoton.
Once his grandfather “ran them off for stealing gas,” so it wasn’t all roses – but other than that, the two lived a fairly nondescript life in Hugoton, he said.
From Jewel’s Café, the two would allegedly sell bootlegged alcohol during Prohibition, and Clyde would gamble in the basement of the Bundy Hotel next door.
"I think the majority of the people here knew that there were rumors about them bootlegging and there were poker games on — and some of them got a little rough," Gillespie said, adding that Clyde was apparently stabbed during one poker game.
Bonnie and Clyde apparently left town shortly after the Hugoton City Marshal was killed in October of 1931 during an attempt to arrest a local for public intoxication.
Digging for artifacts
Just steps from where those poker games were played in the old Bundy Hotel, Leonard found a tunnel behind a boarded-up wall.
It was filled with dirt and black mold, which he spent nearly a week in a Haz-Mat suit cleaning out, he said.
In decades past, a system of underground tunnels connected some buildings in Hugoton – but most have collapsed as time has passed.
In the tunnel, Leonard found various remnants of the past – rusty door knobs, lighting fixtures, an old sink – but one find was particularly interesting, he said.
The Bundy Hotel once belonged to a Dr. William Elwood Bundy, a Hugoton doctor whose homemade cures were said to cure skin cancer.
And in the tunnel, Leonard found 367 bottles filled with an unknown liquid, as well as scores of little vials filled with Vitamin B and other vials with blackish-red liquid inside.
The consensus, Leonard said, is that these may be some of Bundy’s homemade remedies – brewed in the 1920s in a bathtub and preserved under all that dirt.
Samples have been sent to the Clendening Library and Museum at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Leonard said.
Eight vials are scheduled to be tested in Kansas City, said Jamie Rees, assistant librarian and museum curator at the Clendening Library and Museum.
“There’s a lot of people, especially in Kansas, who seem to have an old doctor’s bag in the attic, but the fact that this was found in a building that they know who the owner was, what he was doing, and the fact that it was a sealed-off location for many decades, almost makes it like a time capsule,” Rees said.
Bundy’s descendents, whom Leonard tracked down, have been quick to provide information and in some cases the doctor’s personal belongings.
KU now has a copy of Bundy’s medicine formula, as well as his state medical license and other pertinent information, Rees said.
“I wouldn’t normally test unlabeled vials, but will in this case because of all the information we’ve got,” Rees said. “They were fairly famous in Hugoton for treating skin cancer. … I think it’s fairly unique for Kansas medical history.”
Leonard hopes the medicine discovery will draw stories of Hugoton’s past out of the woodwork.
He said he’s already been inundated with calls from older Hugotonites wanting to pass along their memories.
He plans on trying to excavate under a few other downtown buildings known to be bars from the Bonnie and Clyde days, he said.
If all goes well, he said he’d like to create a tourist attraction like the Dalton Gang Hideout in nearby Meade.
Now, the building that once housed Bonnie’s cafe is a hair salon, owned by Lacey Vertrees. The Bundy Hotel is now the office of Tanner Rindels, an insurance agent with Farm Bureau.
Gone are the remnants of the old Jewel’s Café, which has been a variety of businesses since Bonnie’s day.
But longtime locals still know it as the Bonnie and Clyde haunt, Vertrees said. When she first moved in, older men asked her if she was going to be “the next Bonnie,” she said.
“It’s almost like the buildings have this new life,” she said. “They’ve provided this amazing life for my family, but they have this really amazing historical life that we didn’t know.”