Hidden Casper

2009-10-25T13:00:00Z Hidden CasperBy MARGARET MATRAY - Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online

These places are not recognized by a historic register or frequented by tours. They are not discussed in school.

Some don't even exist anymore. What's left of others are old receipts, mirrors, wall calendars stuck in time, doors in the floor.

They're like ghosts.

We pass by them every day, places we haven't much considered or noticed.

But they are part of Casper's history. They tell stories about what we used to be, what we built on to get to today.

1. Inside an elevator shaft, something unexpected

120-130 W. Second St.

It's no bigger than six by eight feet.

A wall calendar marks the day time abandoned this room: Wednesday, April 12, 1967. A clock reads 6:57. A countertop, chair and jug of talcum powder rest under a film of dust.

No one has seen it for decades.

Inside the Turner Cottman building sits an elevator shaft with no elevator. Instead there is a barber's chair.

Fred Cottman and Adah Turner Cottman erected this office building in 1924. It came at a time the city entered a new phase in development, and the TC building itself represented downtown expansion to the west, according to newspaper articles from the time. It has a basement and two floors, meant to be built taller over time.

Once completed, there was one thing left to install: an elevator.

But one was never put in.

It was too expensive, explains Cindy Cartier, current owner of the building and granddaughter of the Cottmans. They considered one elevator, but it went to another business in town.

So they filled in the shaft, turning it into closets on the second floor and in the basement.

That left the first floor open for a business.

Cartier remembers seeing him, the man who operated a barber shop out of the elevator shaft. She and her parents lived in the building for six months in between a move from California to Laramie in the '60s.

But she never knew his name.

A look through Casper city directories tells us this: Throughout the 1950s and '60s, a man named Howard H. Frundell operated his barber shop inside the elevator shaft.

His obituary tells us he came to Casper in 1952, and after retiring from the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, he opened shop.

It's unclear whether other barbers worked in that space over time, but the shop has been left as it was when it closed.

Cartier hopes to one day restore the building, fix the leaks, redo the electrical work. Maybe it can be an office building again.

But she can't imagine a person would want to have a business where the barber shop is now.

And to bring the building up to code, she'll likely have to install an elevator.

2. 'You have twenty-four hours to leave town. This is the vigilantes.'

The roofs of 166 W. Second St. and 147 W. Second St.

They were businessmen, doctors, dentists and lawyers. Thirty men "of proved dependability and character" ready to drop what they were doing at the signal.

Their identities were secret.

The Casper Vigilantes mounted their gun racks on top of the Townsend Building and Kline's store, across from the banks. An agreement was made with the Power Company: "... a certain number of blasts on the big whistle would close the town. For at the warning signal, all filling stations at the outskirts of the community would block the roads with impregnable blockades."

The chosen would scale the two buildings, take up their rifles sheltered by false fronts on the roofs. They would turn their rifles on the banks, at ready.

What is known about the vigilantes today comes from the journals of Bob David, Casper historian and spokesman for the vigilantes during their brief existence in the early 1930s. David donated his life's research to Casper College in 1964, beginning what is now the Western History Center.

The vigilantes formed to protect the city from bank robberies, which seemed to be striking every community larger than 20,000, David wrote.

And, according to David, it worked.

"Stories came to us frequently that criminal 'big shots' came to Casper frequently to look the possibilities over," he wrote. "When told there were thirty picked men walking around the streets incognito, they left."

Bob David delivered messages to the bootleggers through their kingpin, David Davidson. He met Davidson at night in a smoke-filled room that required a certain code of door knocks to get in, and he'd would warn the bootleggers to stay away from the women, children and businessmen of Casper. Tough-looking men stood around their chief liquor runner, who smoked big cigars.

Once, the vigilantes broke up a prostitution ring through which high school-aged girls were provided to travelling salesmen in local hotels, David wrote.

"Many were the nights that I stomped down hallways of cheap hotels, to knock on certain designated doors.

"A sleeping voice [would] answer, asking who was there.

"'You have twenty-four hours to leave town. This is the vigilantes,' I would call. Then I would stomp back down the hall again.

"Most of them did not wait even until daybreak, they were so anxious to get out."

As quietly as they formed, the vigilantes disbanded after three years. The portion of the journals on the vigilantes doesn't explain why.

" I hope," David wrote, "that we never know the time again when their use will be necessary."

3. A doctor, cremated

Lot 15, block 8; behind 136 and 134 S. Center St.

On Oct. 10, 1891, Dr. Joseph Benson cremated himself while incarcerated in Casper's first jail.

"How long he lived in the agony of death, suffering all the tortures of a death by slow fire, or whether he was quickly suffocated by the smoke will never be known," explains a Wyoming Derrick newspaper article from Oct. 15, 1891. "The body was so badly burned that it could not be recognized."

4. 'Well, I heard ...'

323 S. David St.

The lilacs outside still grow here.

Larry Clapp knows they were planted by the girls.

It has been confirmed by people who lived nearby, the ones who tell him stories that begin: "Well, I heard ..."

Most haven't just heard, Clapp says. They know.

"This was the uptown place," Clapp said. " ... This was the madam's house."

The house at 323 S. David St. has been many things since it was built in the early 1900s. It was a private residence, a hub for bootleg liquor sales, a beauty parlor, a flower shop and a gallery.

When Clapp moved into the building in the 1980s, he started researching. He talked to those who remembered past lives of 323.

They remembered a madam, and that Casper's bars lined Center and surrounding streets. The alley behind the building provided easy access.

Girls who worked for the madam -- the ones who planted the flowers -- were thought to work in the hotel next door.

Clapp found a trapdoor on the first level, where a desk now sits. The house has a false front, a perfect storage area for bootleg liquor.

Deeds to the building link it to bootlegger David Davidson, to whom the Casper vigilantes delivered their warnings.

Davidson was perhaps one of 323's most colorful residents.

In his journals, Casper historian and once-vigilante Bob David recounts his experiences with Davidson:

"One still was raided out in the country and was found to be Davidson's," Bob David wrote. "The reason for his countrywide reputation for the excellence of taste of his product was discovered at that time. He threw old used rubber boots into the mash.

Many people as far away as Denver have remarked to me many times that Dave Davidson's bootleg whiskey was the best they had ever tasted."

Clapp has heard stories of gold buried on the property. Small cuts in the concrete floors show efforts of past inhabitants to find the treasure, which Clapp believes could have belonged to Davidson.

Clapp hopes to write a book about the house. It will include everything he has researched and seen himself: the trapdoor, the search for gold, all those stories that begin: "Well, I heard ..."

5. Behind the curtains, more than just mirrors

119 S. Center St.

Casper has always loved old theaters, says Randy Pryde, but few know what's in the basement.

Behind the movie screen and down the stairs you'll find dressing rooms still intact. Mirrors still lean tilted against the walls.

This is where the chorus would change costumes, put on makeup, when the America Theatre performed live shows decades ago. The theater went through a major renovation in the early 2000s, but the past still lives offstage.

"It wasn't hurting anything, so we just left it," said Pryde, co-owner of Movie Theatres Inc., which operates the downtown theaters. In the dressing rooms, several boxes remain below the countertop. They're stuffed with invoices, employee payrolls and correspondence between the theater and film offices. Pryde has spent hours reading through them.

From the basement you can see a small gap in the wall. By slipping through the opening, musicians entered the orchestra pit. Actors would wind their way through the long hallway and up the stairs to get to the stage.

A blue curtain from the 1930s still hangs from the rafters backstage, right next to a CinemaScope screen from the 1950s.

On a recent trip to the theater, Steve Schulte, whose family owned the theater for years, showed Pryde a large envelope filled with photos his father kept.

There was the America in 1927, the day the Jazz Singer opened. And again when King Kong came out in 1933.

The America opened in 1918, 89 years ago this month. The first movie it ran was one of Wyoming, "The Branding Iron," by Katherine Newlin Burt.

6. A door in the floor

245 S. Center St.

When Kistler Tent and Awning moved into 245 S. Center St. in 1930, workers needed a wide open space to sew together large sheets of canvas. They made sheepwagon covers and sheepherder tents.

So they put the machines on the ground.

The floors have since been recovered with plywood, covering any indication of the sewing machines' place in the floor.

Long gone are indications of what else used to be here: a billiard parlor and, most recently, Eva Babcock's Westerner news and bookstore. The bookstore closed in the early 2000s.

The only thing that remains is a door in the floor. It's one foot wide, five feet long. A tug on the circular handle will lift it. You'd have to squeeze sideways to get down the stairs, now laced in cobwebs.

The basement below would have provided storage space, and possible access to Casper's underground system of tunnels. Filled in long ago, the tunnels are thought to have carried steam heat to the buildings, said Western History Center archivist Kevin Anderson.

Anderson has looked for information on the tunnels, but few answers turn up. Most of what he hears are just rumors, he said. He thinks he may have started most of them himself, and they gradually make their way back to him.

* Research conducted for this story was assisted in large part by Kevin Anderson, archivist for Casper College's Western History Center, and Tina Wulf, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.

Reach features reporter Margaret Matray at 307-266-0535 or margaret.matray@trib.com.

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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