Purple Crackle Becomes The Pony

On our way over to Thebes this afternoon, we passed The Pony, a “gentleman’s club” that used to be the Purple Crackle. I commented that I didn’t think I had ever been in the Crackle or the old night club near it, The Colony Club.

Mother said, “I’ve danced there.”

I assumed that meant that she and Dad had gone there in its heyday for a nice evening of entertainment, but I’ve watched enough lawyer shows to know that it’s a bad idea to ask a question that you don’t know the answer to. I let the topic drop and pretended an interest in the road construction along the way that has apparently stalled.

A typo made the Purple Grackle the Crackle

You can tell when you start calling up old newspaper stories that every rewrite pulls stuff out of what we called, in the old days, The Morgue. You can count on reading the same accounts and anecdotes every time an editor says, “We haven’t done a story about so-and-so in five or 10 years. See what you can dig up.” You hustle out to find some minor new peg, then go back to see Sharon Sanders in what’s now called The Library.

So, I don’t know if it’s true or not that the place was supposed to be named the Purple Grackle when it opened in 1939, but a 1979 story quotes owner Clyde “Bud” Pearce Jr. as saying “The club didn’t have a very extravagant beginning. It opened with a bottle in a box and a crap game. And the name — Purple Crackle — was a mistake. My father had named the club the Purple Grackle, after the bird, but I guess the crack of the dice led everyone to call it Crackle, and the name stuck.”

Since I have no direct knowledge of the facts, I’ll perpetuate the story like any good reporter.

Goodman, Ellington and Herman played up front

Up front was band music played by the greats: Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Woody Herman. Hometown boy Jerry Ford played the trumpet there when he was 15. The house band, Jack Staulcap’s Orchestra, made more than 850 appearances before the club’s format changed in 1979. The club was known for having some of the first and best Chinese food in the region.

In the back, legend has it, was gambling.

The landmark business transitioned to a “gentleman’s club” in 2006.

Clubs kept blowing up or catching fire

I can remember hearing people talking about mob activities in Southern Illinois. Night clubs and juke joints seemed to blow up and / or catch fire on a regular basis. Dad said you’d better keep your life insurance paid up if you were in the pinball machine business in Illinois.

Missourian reporter Ray Owen mentioned that “The first bomb dropped on United States soil was in Williamson County [Illinois] when members of the Shelton gang flew over the Charlie Birger roadhouse and tossed three dynamite bombs at the Shady Rest. The only one to explode did little damage.”

One-Shot Frony came into The Missourian sporting a new telephoto lens one afternoon. “What are you going to do with that?” I asked him.

“I going to stand over here in Missouri and shoot corruption in Illinois,” he growled.

The Purple Crackle burned at least twice, with two men arrested for arson in a 1984 fire. A 1982 fire was blamed on a neon sign.

East Cape depended on Purple Crackle taxes

Purple Crackle owner Bud Pearce was instrumental in the birth of East Cape Girardeau. In 1975, when the area reached a population of more than 400, he led the drive for incorporation.

His business was essential to the city. When it burned in 1982, the village board had to cancel plans for landscaping and equipping the city park due to the loss of tax revenue from the night club. Pearce estimated that he paid about $500 a month in sales tax to the village. When the club burned again in 1984, the tax roll took a similar hit.

Stories about the Crackle and East Cape

I’m sure some of you have stories that are more interesting than the ones from The Morgue. Just don’t share any about my mother dancing.

Jerry Ford’s Gordonville Grove

My old high school campaign manager, Bill Hopkins, said I needed to read Jerry Ford’s new book, The Gordonville Grove: Tombstones, Tambourines, & Tammany Hall. I didn’t know if Bill really liked the book or if Jerry was giving him a cut of the sales, but I headed over to Amazon anyway. The book arrived in the mail this morning and I knocked it off in a couple of hours.

Jerry was a few years older than my crowd, so I knew him by name, but not really in person. His family ran Ford & Sons Funeral Home, so I mostly knew him from chasing his ambulances.

Funeral homes provided ambulances

See, back before cities got fancy, it was customary for funeral homes to run to wrecks and other unfortunate happenings because they were about the only folks who had a vehicle large enough to carry a patient.

John Carpenter, left, and Walter Joe Ford remove Dale Smith from a car in which he was a passenger when it struck a pole in front of the Montgomery Ward store on Main St. in 1966. Smith had a broken jaw. John “Doc” Carpenter eventually became Cape County Coroner. Even though he was from Sikeston, he and I were good buddies from Scouts and debate. As early as his teens, Doc said he wanted to work in the funeral industry. He died of colon cancer in 2000. Walter Joe Ford, was author Jerry Ford’s older brother.

“Swoop and scoop”

I was on a rescue squad in North Carolina with some guys who used to work for funeral homes doing ambulance work. “Tell me, Red,” I asked one of them. “Isn’t in the best interest of the funeral home for the guest of honor to arrive not alive at the hospital? Were you ever told to take it slow on the way to the E.R.?”

Red, a linthead from one of the town’s dying textile mills thought for a while (they always had to pause to figure out what to say, me bein’ a Yankee and all), then replied, “There was always two schools of thought about that.”

“Most folks would let the funeral home that picked up the body keep it, but there was always the danger that your competitor might pick up one of the survivors and sell him a funeral on the way to the hospital. I was always of the ‘swoop and scoop’ school, myself.”

Jerry Ford’s book illustrated by Don Greenwood

Cape artist Don Greenwood illustrated the book. I’ve been a fan of his for years, particularly after he was kind enough to let me use one of his illustrations for my bike blog logo.

Gordonville Grove may not be for everyone. You almost have to be from the area to appreciate many of his stories. On the other hand, I found myself putting names to some the characters he left nameless to protect the not-so-innocent.

I may have to steal the disclaimer in the front of the book: “The opinions herein are solely those of the author. …cannot warrant any of the information in this book and can make no guarantees as to the accuracy of the situations and dialogue expressed. Certain physical characteristics and other descriptive details in this book may have been embellished for the sake of storytelling.”

Integration comes to the funeral business

The chapter titled The Deal made the whole purchase of the book worthwhile. I learned something I had never known about Cape.

Up until the mid-60s, no white funeral home had ever buried a black person in a traditional funeral setting, Ford writes. The only exceptions were one or two private burials of domestic workers employed by some of Cape’s wealthiest families. Sparks Funeral Home was the only option for most blacks.

At the request of a respected member of the black community, Jerry’s father agreed to see if the color barrier could be broken.

The funeral industry is fiercely competitive, but all of the local funeral directors brokered a deal: the first black family that wanted a funeral in one of their establishments could pick the one they wanted. After that, all of the homes would go into a rotation so that¬† no one establishment would suffer the “stigma” of dealing with blacks.

As it turned out, it was a non-issue. Cape Girardeans had no apparent problems with formerly white funeral homes holding black funerals.

Jerry Ford’s swing band

Jerry’s Ford’s 13-piece swing band has played throughout the Midwest for over 50 years. He writes about playing in all of the local clubs like The Purple Crackle and The Colony Club.

He’s performed with or watched most of the big names of the era: Henry James, Harry Ranch, Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd, The Blue Rhythm Boys, Bob Sisco and Jack Stalcup.

The Fords, the Limbaughs and the Rusts

The Fords, Limbaugh and the Rust families were the big political movers and shakers in the Cape community. The Fords were Democrats, and the latter two were Republicans. Jerry writes about how politicians from the different parties could work together for the common good without the partisan gridlock we see today.

Ordering the book(s)