Ancestors, Legends & Time

Les Ulmer's pool hall and back room were popular men-only entertainment options

Jeanne Newby

We often paint a glorious picture of the “golden years” when kids could walk all over town without parents worrying about them. Mama stayed home to take care of the kids. Three meals a day were put on the table at a scheduled time. If you were late, you missed dinner! And whatever Mom put on the table that was dinner for that night… take it or leave.

Television was new and clean. Computers didn’t exist yet. (They were in the developmental stages.) Going to the movies, playing miniature golf, skating, and local amusement parks were some of the entertainment highlights.

When we went to the movies, there would often be a scene of the big cities where people would visit establishments (usually basements) and knock on the door. A smaller door within the door would open and the visitor would say, “Joe sent me.” The door would open to another world where there was gambling, drinking, and all kinds of carousing. It was almost impossible for us to fathom because here in the Midwest we were wholesome folk who didn’t live those lifestyles… or were we?

We are about to take a trip down memory lane into a world not often visited in this area. This venture was a hidden area to many of us. Hop on board the memory train with a young man from the 1940s in Webb City. The young man wished to remain anonymous as he might have been where “he hadn’t oughta been.” These are just the memories of a young teenager. Here is his story.

I do not know how long it was in existence, but there was a gambling hall on the second floor of a building about a half block west of Main Street on the south side of Daugherty Street. The first floor was a pool hall with a billiard table, two snooker pool tables and a half dozen regular pool tables . As teenagers, we spent a lot of time playing pool,  there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment around town.

The pool hall had a teletype unit with a a glass dome over which the Western Union would send the Major League baseball scores during the season. One wall had a huge blackboard with the names of major league teams followed by nine inning spaces. One of the employees would read the tape and climb a small ladder and post the scores after each inning of each game. In those days there were only about 11 major league teams, so it wasn’t as complex as today.

Upstairs in the gambling room, I am not certain of all the games available, but I do know there were table craps, poker, and black jack. This area was off limits to the young patrons of the pool hall. You knew you had reached manhood when you were invited to go upstairs to watch the game in action.

Now this action wasn’t found in Webb City only. Joplin had quite an active establishment above Wilder’s Restaurant on the second floor. It had the same games offered in the pool hall, and probably a few more.

When election time rolled around, one of the candidates for sheriff ran on a “stamping-out-vice-and-gambling campaign.” He was elected and he followed through on his campaign promise. It was during the summer of 1947 or 1948, not too certain about the exact time. There was an evening raid on the Webb City gambling hall. (I believe there was also a similar raid at Wilder’s in Joplin.) There was quite a commotion in Webb City, as gambling equipment was broken and tossed out the windows onto Daugherty Street below and hauled away.

When things had cooled off considerably, crap tables were reinstituted in the back room of the pool hall for many years to come, but none of the youth were ever allowed to venture into the back room.

Many youth have fond memories of playing pool in Webb City. The young man sharing these memories also has fond memories of the proprietor of the establishment that we have referred to. This businessman had a business that was limited to certain clientele, but he was also very active in the community. He attended church, donated many volunteer hours, was active in local youth sports and loved his family. This young man is just sharing some Webb City history, not condoning the activities within. Many of you may have stepped inside the pool hall without venturing upstairs, and many memories have been shared with pool games, telling stories, joking around with friends, and just having a good time. Of course the rule of “no girls allowed” kept the young women from joining in on the activities.

A special thank you to the young man who shared this information. Having been active in the pool hall activities of the 1940s may question the age of this young man, but memories keep you young.

Jeanne’s new book, “The Zinc City, Webb City, Missouri” is now available at Webb City Chamber office and other local retailers, such at Maggie Jane’s Gifts, at 8 S. Main St.

Jeanne Newby

A lot of us appreciate the Bradbury Bishop Fountain, but Jeanne actually worked behind the counter making sodas while she was in high school. She knows everything about Webb City and is a member of the Webb City R-7 School Board.