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Exploring Kansas prohibition through an underground speakeasy

Ellinwood's Underground Speakeasy

A new Prohibition-themed Speakeasy has opened in the underground tunnels of Ellinwood. People gain entrance through the back alley door. (Video by Beccy Tanner)
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A new Prohibition-themed Speakeasy has opened in the underground tunnels of Ellinwood. People gain entrance through the back alley door. (Video by Beccy Tanner)

A Prohibition-era speakeasy has been brought back to life – in the dark, perhaps haunted underground of Ellinwood’s tunnels.

Chris McCord, owner of the above-ground Wolf Hotel, is hoping Kansans will make it a destination travel spot.

Ellinwood is one of those small towns in Kansas that doesn’t have a motel. But it does have the Wolf Hotel, a 121-year-old building McCord bought three years ago and turned into a bed-and-breakfast. The Wolf Hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

In April, McCord reopened the underground saloon, or speakeasy, and began serving Prohibition-era alcoholic drinks, much like what may have been served nine decades ago.

“Welcome to the Ellinwood Underground, a system of storefronts underground,” he tells a visitor.

Visitors must enter the underground site through the historic hotel’s back door in the alley and venture down a steep set of stairs. For those who may have troublesome knees and hips, the stairs may be a challenge.

But once in the tunnel, visitors are introduced to the dark underworld of Prohibition, where people can still find their alcohol and mix a bit of Kansas history in as well.

Ellinwood, less than a two-hour drive northwest of Wichita, was settled in 1878 largely by German Protestant immigrants with last names like Bockemohle, Steckel, Manglesdorf, Clemm and Wolf. And in recent decades, the town has become known for its underground tunnels.

The tunnels were dug as a way of opening up business space, historians have said, and the Germans who founded the town liked the perceived efficiency of basements and underground walkways. Stores that frequented the tunnels were often the 19th-century equivalent of man caves: barbers, saloons, blacksmith shops and bath houses.

In Kansas, more than half a dozen communities boast a system of underground tunnels and shops, including Caldwell, Lincoln, Leavenworth, Douglass and Fort Scott.

Ellinwood, though, has created a quirky tourist stop from its underground tunnels.

The tunnels originally ran on both sides of Ellinwood’s Main Street for two blocks, connecting Jung’s Barber Shop with the public bathhouse, Wolitz Shoe Shop, John Wever’s Sample Room, Petz Meat Storage and Drummer’s Sample Room, a merchandise room where salesmen from the train could display their wares.

McCord, 29, wanted to re-create the heyday of the tunnels by opening the speakeasy and showcasing Kansas history.

Kansas was the first state to pass a constitutional amendment forbidding the sale and production of intoxicating liquors. Kansas had prohibition from 1881 to 1948 – longer than any other state – and continued to prohibit liquor by the drink in bars and restaurants until 1986.

But that didn’t mean Kansans couldn’t find alcohol. Some found it by bootlegging and manufacturing their own; others found it by frequenting speakeasies. Still more obtained medicinal help for various ailments. Local drugstores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did a booming business. No prescriptions were needed.

Visitors in the tunnel weave past displays featuring the hotel’s first sign, a laundry, the first Barton County air conditioner and a re-created room showcasing the town’s first library, complete with library cards. The underground path is a hand-made rough-cut boardwalk that McCord’s father made for the saloon because the original rotted out years ago. Volunteers in Ellinwood helped create the tunnel’s atmosphere and ambiance.

Enter the saloon, and there is no mistaking its intent and purpose.

The alcoholic drinks have names such as “Giggle Juice,” “Hadacal,” “Bees Knees” and more.

“We are calling it the ‘Best little juice joint in Kansas,’ ” McCord said.

The underground speakeasy is open on 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Live bands and comedy acts play on some Friday and Saturday nights. The bed-and-breakfast is open year-round. McCord also opens the hotel and underground space for ghost and history tours, murder mystery dinners, weddings, high teas and dance balls.

A new Prohibition-themed Speakeasy has opened in the underground tunnels of Ellinwood. People gain entrance through the back alley door. (Video by Beccy Tanner)

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

Ellinwood’s underground speakeasy

What: Prohibition-themed speakeasy

Where: Wolf Hotel, 1 N. Main, Ellinwood. Enter through the alley back door on the north side of the building.

When: Open 8 p.m.-1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays

How much: No cover charge

Reservations: 620-617-6915 or 620-639-6915

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