THE END OF AN ERA
By ANDREW MCGINN firstname.lastname@example.org
According to the legend, Frank James and Cole Younger were drunker than snot one night in Angus, the Greene County boomtown that would eventually go spectacularly bust.
How the notorious outlaws came to sleep it off in an iron cell a few miles away in Rippey, the legend is short on details — but the old-timers vouched for it, says Jerry Kennedy, whose 90th birthday this past January has meant coming to terms with becoming an old-timer himself.
For decades, Kennedy single-handedly kept the story alive at his personal museum on Hager Street in Grand Junction, the old iron cell itself the centerpiece of a grand collection of antiques, oddities and just plain junk. (No offense, but life-sized cardboard cutouts of George W. Bush and Obama, and the “Laverne & Shirley” board game, just aren’t in the same league as horse-drawn sodbuster plows or Rippey’s circa-1850s town jail. At least not yet.)
But what took a lifetime to amass will now disappear from Grand Junction, and probably Greene County, by summer’s end.
Kennedy decided it was time at last to auction the contents of his museum, a decision spurred on by both an awareness of his own mortality and a dwindling lack of interest from the public.
“Nobody was ever coming to it,” Kennedy, 90, lamented recently. “Maybe it’s run its course.”
The contents are being sold in two online auctions: one that ends July 8 and another that will stretch into the first week of August.
The auction’s online format is itself a sign of the times but it virtually guarantees that items that have resided in Greene County for a century or more will be dispersed in all directions. Auctioneer Dale Higgins already has bidders as far away as Alaska.
“The history being lost in this county is unreal,” Higgins, 69, explained as he walked among Kennedy’s collected artifacts, each now tagged with a yellow sticky note bearing a number. “It’s one of the saddest sales I’ve done.”
A lifelong Grand Junction resident himself, Higgins has presided over his share of sad sales as an auctioneer in rural Iowa for nigh on 30 years. He has “sold out” enough farms and estates to see the hollowing out of small towns and the surrounding countryside in real time.
But being tasked with organizing Kennedy’s sale is personal.
On the block is a bobsled once owned by Higgins’ great-grandfather, Henry Kersey. There are also drill bits from the old Rippey coal mine Higgins had gifted through the years to Kennedy, in addition to a 1902 seed corn sorter from the local Turner Hybrid Seed Corn Co.
“Oh, hell, there’s my fan,” Higgins said, pausing for a moment. “I gave him that fan years ago.”
The fan was merely to help keep the air circulating in what’s essentially a big barn. Coupled with an overall lack of lighting, Kennedy’s Museum is far and away more “American Pickers” than “Night at the Museum.”
But what Kennedy had that Higgins, and so many others, did not was space — a place where those items you just couldn’t bear to throw away could go.
A handwritten tag on an old push mower, for example, indicates it belonged to Mary Carter.
“She was a little old lady in town,” Higgins said, stopping to reminisce about Mary’s baking.
As Kennedy told the Herald in 2014, “I’ll come up here sometimes and there’ll be something sitting in front of the door.”
He delighted in it all.
“This is my heaven,” he said in 2014.
And, sometimes, he ended up salvaging a true piece of local history in the process — like in the case of Rippey’s old jail, which he rescued from a junk pile for $200.
The jail could bring $10,000 or more in the auction, Higgins said, proof or not of whether two members of the James gang once spent the night inside.
It’s not, however, outside the realm of possibility given that Iowa was squarely in the gang’s turf. They were Missouri boys who had been Confederate guerillas during the Civil War, terrorizing towns and farms around them with Union sympathies; Frank and Cole riding with Quantrill’s Raiders. (It’s said that Cole once dropped a Union soldier with a pistol at 71 yards.)
Post-war, a life of crime made them world famous as they robbed banks and held up trains in Missouri and beyond. Things ended up going south in 1876 during the robbery of a bank in Minnesota. Cole and two of his brothers were caught and sentenced to prison. Cole wouldn’t be paroled until 1901, at which time he briefly operated a Wild West show with his old partner in crime, Frank James.
Now, whether they were visiting the wild mining town of Angus on the Greene-Boone county line as dreaded outlaws or legitimate businessmen, the legend doesn’t say — but with a half-mile-long strip of saloons known as Whiskey Row, they would have been drawn to Angus like hummingbirds to sugar water.
There are other items in the collection that Higgins has never before seen as an auctioneer.
One horse-drawn field cultivator has a big, steel wheel in the center under the seat. There’s also a rare, left-handed plow.
Aside from a layer of dust, both look as if they’re practically new.
“He put his whole life into this,” Higgins said of Kennedy’s ability to safeguard items that otherwise would be consumed by rust.
A highlight of the second auction, according to Higgins, could be two giant, porcelain signs from a local DX gas station.
Not every item in the collection pertains to Greene County — unless there’s a chapter in local history we don’t know about.
“These are camel saddles,” Higgins said.
Yes. Camel saddles. Plural.
There are also two suits of armor.
A massive safe came from a Menlo bank, and dates to 1867.
“And we have the combination for it,” Higgins said, pausing.
“I don’t know how we’re going to get it out of here,” he added.
Admittedly, Higgins has never before auctioned off a collection quite like Kennedy’s museum. The only one close to it, he said, was in the 1990s, when a Boone family had a similar building crammed full of stuff.
In that case, it took six years to auction off everything. Higgins worked for a whole year, in fact, before realizing there were four cars hidden in a corner.
While he’s sad to see Kennedy’s Museum go, he knew the time was coming. Kennedy, he said, had been mentioning a sale off and on for the past five years.
“I said, ‘Jerry, it’s too bad we can’t keep it in town. Don’t get in a hurry,’” Higgins said. “It’s come.”
For his part, Kennedy said the decision to sell wasn’t that hard.
“Not when you’re 90,” he said.
A 1948 graduate of Grand Junction High School, Kennedy went on to survive savage combat with the U.S. Marines in the frozen hellscape of Korea.
It was always after dark when the communist Chinese soldiers came charging at them. And there were always so many.
“Like ants,” Kennedy said in 2014.
Kennedy returned home with shrapnel lodged in his hand and nightmare visions in his mind.
Where electroshock therapy failed, Kennedy succeeded in finding refuge amid the thousands of items in his self-styled museum.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said.
But time is up.
Well, for the collection that is.
“Dad made it to 99,” Kennedy explained, “so maybe I’ve got hope.”
View the auction
See the items from Kennedy’s Museum up for sale at the following site: https://bit.ly/3cAHZVj