Depression-Era Paper Boy Remembers the Public Square: A Mini-Memoir

By Russell Keller

Left, Russell Keller
I started selling newspapers on the public square in Springfield, Missouri, in 1928, when I was eight years old. Back then, the square was a cement circle edged in brick with a flagpole in the center and was called the pie. My three older brothers worked for the newspaper on the circulation desk. They were in charge of getting subscribers and managing some of the delivery boys.

My dad, Henry, was a letter carrier. He later became public administrator for the county. My mother, Nellie, didn’t work outside the home. She had her hands full
taking care of her boys. There were five of us, including my younger brother.

I made two cents per paper
Several restaurants on the pie were open all night, so I got up early to make my rounds and catch the breakfast crowd. The newspaper office was at the corner of Jefferson and McDaniel. We lived twelve blocks from there, and it was an easy walk for me. I picked up twenty-five papers. Each paper sold for a nickel and I got two cents. I sold papers on the pie until I was thirteen, and then got a paper route over on Grant street north to College and College to Market and Market to Rollins and to Main and Mt. Vernon. I delivered the papers on foot. I got up at four o’clock, delivered papers, and then was at school by 8:15.

One of the policemen who had a beat on the pie was Harry Bartlett—great big man. He and I became friends. There were four stoplights, one for each of the streets that came into the pie. Harry said, “Now, Russ, if I’m not up around the pie at 7 o’clock in the morning, you go out there and turn the stoplights on.” I felt pretty important turning on the stoplights.

National Cigar Store was on the pie in a two-story building. On the second story was a dentist called Dr. Hermann. I don’t remember his first name. Next door was Woolworth’s, then Newberry’s, then the Mozark Theatre.

Sneakin' around
The Mozark had morning movies. Some of us would sometimes skip school to see a movie. It opened at 10 o’clock. It got around that was getting to be a habit, so the school sent a truant officer, Otto Henderson. He came to the theatre to catch those playing hooky. He never caught me, but he caught a lot of them.

Other stores on the pie were Kresge’s, W.T. Grant’s, Blue Bonnet Beauty College, and Union National Bank. I worked at the bank for several years, first as a bookkeeper and then a teller, after attending Southwest Missouri State College for a year and a half.

Also on the square was the Landers Building, which housed McDaniel National Bank. It was owned by George McDaniel, brother of Horace “Bunch” McDaniel who owned Union National Bank. George was a big farmer way out on South Campbell. People said he’d loan money to anybody who had been out in the fields or stock yards. In the Great Depression, when banks were closing right and left, there was a run on his bank. People withdrew their money and took it across the street to Union National Bank, which was the strongest bank in Springfield.

Criminals helped me earn a new coat
During the Young Brothers massacre in 1932, I sold papers so fast I couldn’t keep up. The Young brothers, Paul, Harry, and Jennings, were small-time crooks who served prison terms for burglary and theft in southwest Missouri. The law didn’t consider them violent until 1929, when Harry and an accomplice murdered the city marshal of Republic, Missouri. The brothers moved to Texas and set up an auto-theft ring. 

The massacre occurred January second, when Harry and Jennings returned to the family farm near Brookline, a few miles east of Republic. Sheriff’s deputies went to the farm and ordered the brothers to come out of the house. When they refused, deputies fired tear gas into the house, and the brothers opened fire. Six officers were killed and the brothers escaped. A national manhunt followed, and the brothers were located three days later in a rented room in Houston, Texas. After a gun battle, lawmen found the brothers dead in an apparent suicide pact to avoid being captured.

The Springfield paper put out extra editions after the massacre, sometimes two or three times a day. I made enough money to buy a new winter coat.

Russell Keller retired in 1994 after twenty-seven years as Greene County Recorder of Deeds.

Photo: Russell Keller greets friends and visitors at a reception for him at Drury University. He received his MBA from there in 1967 when it was Drury College. He taught business classes at Drury for twenty years. Photo by Wayne Groner.

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