Community Spotlight: All Bottled Up

The history of southwest Kansas is a patchwork of stories shared through multiple generations. Most of the time, they’re passed along without a thought. In April 2018, TANNER RINDELS and JAN LEONARD learned there may be some truth to the tall tales told around Hugoton. The two had uncovered over 300 bottles of medicine secretly stored right under the streets.

Rindels, an insurance agent in Hugoton, recruited Leonard, senior director of Stevens County Economic Development, to help clean out portions of his hotel turned office. The building was once the Bundy Hotel, a landmark in the community. Rindels purchased the building in 2014 and was taken through the history of the small town.

“There are a lot of cool stories about the building,” said Rindels. “People were telling me that the building was haunted and that sort of thing,” Rindels said. “They also told me that there was a tunnel in the basement. At the time, it didn’t really mean much to me–it just was cool to hear. Then, Jan hit me up and said that we should check it out and see if we can find anything.”

Removing the old wood paneling revealed a sealed door. Leonard urged Rindels to tear it open and the two were greeted with the rumored tunnel entrance.

“When we pulled off the door, it just looked like a big mess,” said Rindels. “Dirt had caved in, there was mold and you could see stuff poking up through the debris. We started pulling out some of the bigger objects but kept finding more and more.”

The two began clearing portions of the tunnel, uncovering light fixtures, doorknobs and even medical bottles.

“Looking back on it now, I don’t know how they got it all in there,” said Rindels. “I mean, I thought that someone just threw in a bunch of stuff and forgot about it. The more I thought about it, I knew that someone must have taken the time to organize this.”

Leonard, armed with a hazmat suit, spent a week uncovering bottle after bottle of mysterious medication. By the end, over 367 bottles and 300 ampoules sat unearthed, along with the question, “what is in these, exactly?”

Dr. Bundy

Leonard and Rindels knew little about the hotel’s namesake, other than he was a doctor and the bottles had to be connected. Leonard reached out to the representatives from Clenderning History of Medicine Museum (associated with the University of Kansas Medical Center) in hopes of finding answers. Intrigued, the museum started researching Bundy and asked to test some samples from the collection.While waiting for the results, Leonard conducted his own research tracing the Bundys through genealogy websites. He found the names of Bundy’s grandchildren and reached out to them through social media.

“I sent them a message, and before I knew it they got back with me,” said Leonard. “They were proud to hear about the find and it was interesting to get their perspective on their family’s history.”

The grandchildren shared the story of their grandfather, the recipe for his elixir and other information about the family. The family of Dr. William Bundy arrived in the town of Hugoton in the early 1900s hoping to find opportunities on the Kansas prairie. Bundy, famous for his experimentation in salves for skin lesions, had purchased a hotel as a place to practice his medicine. The family’s bathtub became his laboratory as he spent time mixing a “cancer elixir” and storing it in old bottles. Iodine, blood root, chlorine and more—the elixir supposedly drew out cancer through the skin. It was a painful process and many stayed at the hotel during their treatments. He remained a part of the community and continued his practice until his death. With his practice coming to a close, the family began leasing the hotel to make ends meet.

Results from the samples tested at the museum soon arrived. Vitamins and various medication filled the smaller vials and ampoules. In the larger bottle, compounds related to the recipe of Bundy’s elixir. For Leonard, this cemented the bottles’ origins and he turned his attention to the tunnels.

Blackie and Jewell

Many in town have heard about the alleged tunnels lacing under Hugoton’s Main Street. However, Leonard and others became curious about whether their use could be tied to another local legend—Bonnie and Clyde’s stay in Hugoton. The 1930s saw boom in the town. The discovery of natural gas and oil brought many new faces (friendly and not) to the Hugoton community. The story goes, a peculiar couple made their way to Hugoton, looking for a fresh start. They rented a small house in the country and Clyde (under the alias of Blackie) worked for a local farmer as a hired hand. Bonnie (going by Jewell) ran a small café on Main Street, right next to the Bundy Hotel. During this time, the hotel had become a hot spot for gambling, drinking and other pleasures. Blackie was thought to have spent many nights gambling in the hotel’s basement and speculation began that Jewell’s Café was a front for a bootlegging operation.

“We can’t really say if the tunnels were used for bootlegging,” said Leonard. “But we’d guess that they had to have been used during that time for something, with all that was going on.”

One story shared with Leonard tells of citizen Don Wilson’s meeting with Jewell. In his story, Don was delivering ice to the businesses that dotted Hugoton’s Main Street. Jewell’s Café had placed an order for a small amount of ice. He entered the café and made his way toward the icebox, only to be stopped by an attractive, black-haired woman. She told him it wouldn’t be necessary to put the ice in the box and had him leave the block on the counter.

He never encountered her again, but continued to make his deliveries. One day, he made his way into the café and no one was there. He then lifted the ice-box lid and saw a collection of whiskey bottles. He moved the bottles aside, delivered the ice and went on his way.  At the time, he didn’t think much of it. The Prohibition era saw many making and storing their own brews.

Further suspicion of the couple started to surface, as stories of their unneighborly behavior began popping up. In one account, the city marshal found Blackie (allegedly Clyde) wounded with several cuts on his face, neck and body. The cuts were earned during a poker game and Blackie was sent to a hospital to get patched up.  A few weeks later, the marshal was sent to arrest a drunken patron at Jewell’s Café. Rumors have it that the marshal was slipped “the mickey” (a drink laced with drugs) and was murdered. Others reported the marshal was already drunk before entering the café and someone took advantage of the situation. Regardless, Blackie and Jewell were said to have disappeared from the town after the events of that evening. However, this wouldn’t be the town’s last encounter with the two. When Bonnie and Clyde had their final run-in with the law and died in a fatal shootout, Texas Rangers found a receipt book from Jewell’s Café among the possessions in their car.

“It’s been cool listening to all of the folk stories shared over the years and seeing how they piece together,” said Leonard. “It’s fun to think that they may have a little truth to them after all these years.”

Sharing Stories

Since their discovery, Leonard has been busy sharing the story with anyone willing to listen. The past year has been filled with news interviews, museum collaborations and even visits from film crews.

“People seem to really be interested in the story and we’ve have had some great opportunities to get the word out,” said Leonard. “I hope we can use the momentum to bring some tourism to the area and showcase a little about our community’s past.”

Leonard has sent samples of the collection to the Smoky Hills Museum (Salina) and the Kansas Museum of History’s (Topeka) “105 Counties 105 Stories” exhibit.

He is also looking at opportunities o share the story locally. Leonard and Rindels have discussed plans to renovate the Bundy Hotel and turn it into a museum. The two of them are working to ensure its history doesn’t get buried again. “There’s got to be something to bring people by our small towns,” said Rindels. “If we could get folks to just stop while they’re driving through, that’s something better for the community. If anything, this helps get our community’s name out there.”