Beer City: Built on booze, an Oklahoma ghost town's history continues to haunt

As its history of misdeeds and murder is being retold onstage, an Oklahoma ghost town finds the present is not straying far from its past

BY DERRICK HO

For The Oklahoman

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The Red Barn Cafe in Balko, OK, was the site of one of the Beer City Gals' recent performances.
The Red Barn Cafe in Balko, OK, was the site of one of the Beer City Gals' recent performances.PHOTO BY DERRICK HO

With less than two hours until showtime, a woman sits at a diner booth while the rest of her cast fumbles around, positioning microphone stands. She's the only one still not in costume.

Finally, Pauline Hodges gets up and flashes a black skirt from her bag. "It's new! I just got it from a small town when I was in Florida," she proclaims proudly and heads to the bathroom to get dressed for the performance.

It doesn't take much for the feisty 82-year-old author and historian to transform into her impression of the sassy and shrewd "Pussy Cat" Nell Jones, a real-life saloon and hotel owner from the 1880s in Beer City, a ghost town once hailed as Oklahoma's "Sodom and Gomorrah."

Within minutes, Hodges saunters out in a more revealing black top. A popping pink jacket props on her shoulders. Not done yet, she brushes her cheeks with more pink blush. The final touch: an oversized hat embellished with plastic pink roses.

For more than seven years, Hodges has directed and assumed the lead role in a gritty reader's theater performance that tells the true story of "Pussy Cat" Nell, performing more than a dozen times to audiences as large as a hundred. It's a role she has taken upon herself, and Hodges does it with the authority from 40 years of research and several published books on the Panhandle. It helps that she grew up in the region, too.

"It's a good story," said Hodges. "And it's totally to get people interested in the unique history of this area." At the invitation of the Balko's Lions Club in rural Beaver County, she and her cast once again tell the story of Beer City through the eyes of "Pussy Cat" — and how the ghost town's notorious legacy continues to linger.

A story of toil and tumult, liquor and ladies

The 'Beer City Gals' re-enact the history of one of Oklahoma's rowdy pre-statehood towns. Performing in costume are, from left, Pauline Hodges (as 'Pussy Cat' Nell Jones), Earlene Schaefer, Pamela French, Virginia Frantz and Vicki Shelburne.
The 'Beer City Gals' re-enact the history of one of Oklahoma's rowdy pre-statehood towns. Performing in costume are, from left, Pauline Hodges (as "Pussy Cat" Nell Jones), Earlene Schaefer, Pamela French, Virginia Frantz and Vicki Shelburne. PHOTO BY DERRICK HO

It was a place and a time before law had come to the Oklahoma Panhandle, once known as "No Man's Land." Unclaimed by Texas, which marked its northern territory in order to remain a slave state — and with Kansas Territory setting its southern border at the 37th parallel, a 34-mile-wide strip of land sat on the edge of civilization, barren and lawless.

In the late-1880s, the Santa Fe railroad reached across the Great Plains and into Liberal, Kan.

"It was a town to serve the ranchers, the cattle trails that went through near here. It was the perfect place to load cattle for shipment to larger markets," said Hodges in an interview before the performance.

The arrival of rail brought in droves of cowboys and cattle dealers, many looking for liquor and ladies after a long journey. With rigid prohibition laws in Kansas at the time, enterprising business owners quickly flocked to the lawless strip of land, setting up shop to satisfy those demands. Beer City was born; the year was 1887.

The city was initially referred to as White City — named since it was basically a town made up of white-roofed tents. But as the kegs piled up and girls streamed in on horse-drawn carriages from Liberal, the town turned into what John Morris describes in his book "Ghost towns of Oklahoma" as a "mélange of red lights, saloons and dance halls."

Among the entrepreneurs who came from Liberal was "Pussy Cat" Nell Jones. A slick businesswoman, she bought the Yellow Snake Saloon and ran a hotel above it. The Yellow Snake would be one of the two permanent fixtures in Beer City; the other was the Elephant Saloon.

Jones' business wasn't so much a hotel as a brothel, and she quickly earned her reputation as madame of the den.

"It was raucous and rowdy here on most nights," Hodges said. "It seemed to do a lot of business, especially in the early hours of the morning."

The two saloons would also stage dances, horse races, boxing and wrestling matches, and Wild West shows to keep their customers amused between drinks.

Beer City was a bustling and rowdy place for cowboys to visit in what would become the Oklahoma Panhandle.
Beer City was a bustling and rowdy place for cowboys to visit in what would become the Oklahoma Panhandle.THE OKLAHOMAN GRAPHICS

"It was easy after dark for Liberal citizens and other folks to sneak out there, if you will, and have a very good time and get home by morning — all in the dark."

Beer City merchants would also advertise in various newspapers, inviting folks to move to "the only town of its kind in the civilized world where there is absolutely no law," according to Morris' book.

It was also an invitation for violence, which regularly erupted, and presented another opportunity to profit.

Businesses needed security and often hired "enforcers" to keep away pickpockets and what are today's equivalent of bouncers. Amos Lewis Bush, decided to take it further and proclaimed himself sheriff of the town. In return for patrolling the streets, he would demand businesses pay a "tax," which incensed many in Beer City.

Brash and brutely, he apparently swung his shotgun and six shooters to keep order, and was slick with a knife, too. Bush decided one day to increase the taxes he was collecting from Jones. It was a move that proved to be fatal.

"He had it comin'! He was robbin us blind. It all started in May when he demanded a 5 percent take on the wrestlin' matches ... and then, he wanted a tax off the earnings on my Yellow Snake Hotel, and when I resisted, the big bully done pistol whupped me," Hodges called out, this time in character as Jones, reading from her script.

Who shot the sheriff?

While there have been several accounts surrounding the sheriff’s demise, the most popular one is that Jones later would gather other citizens of Beer City to aid her in getting back at Bush. She would shoot him with a double-barreled shotgun, while the other men would riddle Bush's body with bullets, too.

"The other merchants liked her enough, and hated him enough that 14 men shot him also. And because he had 74 bullet holes in him and nobody knew who killed him," Hodges said.

Bush's body was likely thrown into a grave and covered up with trash, but later brought back to his hometown for a proper burial, Hodges said.

While Jones got away with the murder, a newspaper story from the Aug. 2, 1889, edition of the Woodsdale Sentinel showed a dispatch from Paris, Texas, stating that a John Brennan "had an examination before U.S. Commissioner Kirkpatrick today for the murder of Amos Bush, also white, at Beer City, No Man's Land, last May."

Brennan "was committed without bail to await the action of the federal grand jury," the paper wrote. The newspaper also records that Bush was killed by a "vigilance committee" and that "Seventy-four Winchester and piston shots were fired into Bush's body."

Hodges said another man was arrested, but no one eventually paid for Bush's death.

"Ironically, one of them accidentally escaped and the other was exonerated. So nobody, really, was punished for that," Hodges said.

When the Panhandle was eventually added to Oklahoma Territory in 1890, law and order came to the strip of land, and Jones was eventually forced to shut down her brothel. As businesses moved out, Beer City faded from the land.

A notorious legacy lingers on

'Beer City Gals' cast members start to set up before their performance.
'Beer City Gals' cast members start to set up before their performance.PHOTO BY DERRICK HO
Pauline Hodges shows off a new skirt she plans to wear with her rose hat when she portrays 'Pussy Cat' Nell Jones, proprietor of the Yellow Snake Saloon.
Pauline Hodges shows off a new skirt she plans to wear with her rose hat when she portrays "Pussy Cat" Nell Jones, proprietor of the Yellow Snake Saloon. PHOTO BY DERRICK HO
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Today, an unincorporated community exists on the land where the white tents of Beer City once stood.

Although, the economic roles of Liberal and the area of what was once Beer City have reversed.

Businesses are far and few between. "If we want to buy any major products, we usually come to Liberal — it's the shopping center for the Panhandle," said Hodges. And when Oklahoma was dry in the 1950s, those looking for a drink would cross into Kansas.

Some have crossed the Kansas state line into this unincorporated area in Oklahoma because "life is cheaper." Another draw could be the Turpin School District, with a high school that houses one of the largest student bodies in the area and is well-acclaimed for its athletic successes; among its alumni is former Dallas Cowboys defensive back Lynn Scott.

But some might contend Beer City is haunting this flat plain.

Like Beer City in its heyday, the evening crowd is often rowdy, said Beaver County Sheriff Reuben Parker Jr.

At dusk, fights ensue. Gunshots have been heard.

"It's prevalent because it's right there across from Kansas and they can come around over into Oklahoma and do something and hop right back to Kansas. And it's kind of hard to get them identified," Parker said.

The sheriff said he has tried to convince officials that some businesses are causing a nuisance.

But no one's listening, he added.

As the sun sets on the ruckus coming from area bars and clubs, the sounds eerily echo those from the past, now retold by Hodges and the Beer City Gals.

CONTRIBUTING: Additional reporting by Larry Lambert


What really happened in Beer City?

BY LARRY LAMBERT

For The Oklahoman

While most people have heard of Wyatt Earp and Tombstone, few have heard of Amos Bush and Beer City. While the outcomes of the men and cities differed, they were more similar than a person might initially think.

Both Tombstone and Earp and Beer City and Bush (sometimes called Lewis Bush) are surrounded by a violent history and controversy. The historical background and geographic location of Beer City made that almost inevitable.

Beer City sprang up during the 1880s in the Panhandle just a few miles south of Liberal, Kan. It was a community born of opportunity, or necessity, depending on your point of view. Prohibition had come to Kansas, and the Oklahoma Panhandle was in the midst of a 70-year period where legal jurisdiction was murky at best, and nonexistent at worst. The result? Beer City.

Depending on whom you choose to believe, Amos Bush was either a conscientious lawman or a self-appointed opportunist who eventually pushed local business owners too far.

Here are three possible scenarios:

* Supporters of Amos Bush portray him as a lawman who was the only law for miles around in a lawless area. According to said supporters the lawless element of Beer City grew tired of being reined in by Bush and eventually concocted a false rumor illicit enough to gain support to eliminate him.

The story allegedly fabricated was that Bush pistol whipped the proprietress of one of the saloons, “Pussy Cat” Nell, in a shakedown effort. Locals were reportedly so incensed that a number of them shot Bush to death. The idea behind multiple shooters was to make it impossible to tell who actually killed him. So goes one story.

* A second story says Amos Bush really did pistol whip “Pussy Cat” Nell in a shakedown attempt and she retaliated by shotgunning Bush to death. That story has been passed along verbally by longtime residents of the area for years.

* And, still, another account states that Amos Bush lost the mayoral election of Beer City, then proceeded to get drunk. Reportedly, Bush was not only a drunk, he was a disagreeable drunk. After creating havoc among the locals for a good bit of the evening, a number of the citizenry rose up with a variety of firearms and put a definitive end to Bush’s post-election activities.

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