Extinguishing the Gas Light’s last flame

This story was by far my favorite one to write. What started as a simple story about the closing of a dive bar turned into an in-depth look at the racial tensions, drug trafficking and violence of Lawrence in the 1960’s. I encourage anyone looking through my stories to actually take the time to read this one, and visit the Kansan Web site (the link is featured at the bottom) to check out the photos featured in the newspaper when the story was published.

The owners of The Gaslight Tavern announced last week that it would shut down within the next two months, punctuating the last remnant of the 1960s Hippie Haven.

Melanie Coen, the tavern’s manager, said the owner had been working another job and felt it was the right time to close the bar.

“It was never meant to be a place of great profit,” Coen said. “The Gaslight for him was more a labor of love.”

Jeff Fortier, the bar’s owner, now works on a regional and national scale as a music promoter, and “his plate is full with that,” Coen said. Fortier was unavailable for an interview.

The Gaslight Tavern, at its current location at 317 N. 2nd Street, opened in 2001. Coen said the owners named it after the original Gaslight Tavern that existed where the Kansas Union parking garage is today.

The original Gaslight Tavern — along with the Rock Chalk Café, which later became the Crossing — was the cornerstone of student counterculture in the ’60s and ’70s. According to a University Daily Kansan article from July 21, 1970, the area was “popularly known as Hippie Haven.”

The Gaslight Tavern was at the epicenter of one of the most chaotic racial disputes in the history of Lawrence in 1970. The state of Kansas tried to close it down for alleged drug trafficking in 1971. It was burned to the ground in an unexplained fire in 1974.

The owners, Coen said, opened the new tavern as a testament to the original Gaslight Tavern.

“It was a very important time in history when college students were very active politically,” Coen said.

The Gaslight’s roots

The original Gaslight Tavern was owned by John and Sarah Fowler. Reginald Scarbrough, a KU student from Topeka, bought the tavern in October 1969. He managed the bar while taking six credit hours at the University, according to a University Daily Kansan article from Oct. 8, 1969.

“We are planning to employ girls this year, and we are going to give away more free beer,” Scarbrough said in a 1969 interview with the Kansan.

Wayne Sailor, a KU professor who attended the University in the late ’60s, ran an underground newspaper called “The Reconstruction Press.” He said the Gaslight Tavern and the Rock Chalk Café were the hangout spots for hippies and radicals. The hippies, he said, “smoked dope, grew long hair and wore flip-flop sandals.” The radicals, he said, organized demonstrations that protested racial discrimination and the Vietnam War. Sailor said he considered himself a radical.

Lawrence state of emergency

Racial hostility in Lawrence reached a boiling point that pushed the city to the brink of civil war in the summer of 1970.

According to a Kansan article from July 21, 1970, a Lawrence police officer shot and killed Rick Dowdell, a black former KU freshman, as he fled down an alley on June 16, 1970. William Garrett, the patrolman who shot Dowdell, said in the article that Dowdell pulled a gun and fired at police but many students at the time, including Sailor, thought the police shooting was a racist hate crime.

“When Dowdell was shot, it really sparked an outrage,” Sailor said. “It turned peaceful demonstrations into violent demonstrations.”

Sailor said the shooting occurred at a time when racial tensions ran deep in Lawrence. The Black Power movement and the Black Panther party, Sailor said, were extremely prevalent in the Kansas City area and Lawrence at that time. “This was a time when African Americans were furious with the government,” he said.

Lawrence erupted into a guerilla war zone for days as sniper attacks on police cars and random fire bombings became a common occurrence. The night after the incident, police officers responded to a shooting at 10th and Pennsylvania streets where they found themselves in a heated gun battle against 45 armed African Americans, according to This Week in KU History. Unknown militants firebombed several buildings, including District Court Judge Frank Gray’s house.

Back in the Hippie Haven, Student protesters and police officers clashed on July 21, five days after the Dowdell shooting. According to This Week in KU History, violence erupted as student protesters burned trash in the streets and firebombed a building known as “The White House” at 1225 Oread Ave. They also started several other fires, opened a fire hydrant and flipped over a red Volkswagen on Oread Avenue.

Police attempted to quell the mayhem by shooting tear gas into the crowd. Protesters pelted police and firemen with rocks, bricks and tomatoes. A gunfight broke out as people fled south toward the Gaslight Tavern. A stray bullet hit and killed 18-year-old Nick Rice, a Leawood freshman who, according to a 1970 Kansas Alumni article, wasn’t involved in the demonstration and was on a date at the time. He was carried inside the Gaslight Tavern where he died before an ambulance could arrive.

“He was the innocent victim of a stray bullet,” Sailor said. “It was never determined who shot him.”

City commissioners and Gov. Robert Docking declared a state of emergency. They called in 25 troopers from neighboring areas and enacted a curfew.

KU traffic and security officers manned roadblocks at campus entrances to ensure none of the Lawrence hostility spilled onto campus. After about two weeks, tensions subsided significantly, and the curfew was lifted.

It was never determined what actually happened the night Dowdell was killed. According to a Kansan article from July 24, 1970, “The question of what happened in Lawrence may never be answered to the satisfaction of everyone. But a more important question is the continuing one — ‘What is happening in Lawrence?’”

Kansas cracks down

The Gaslight Tavern found itself at the center of another controversy a year later when Kansas Attorney Gen. Vern Miller tried to shut it down for alleged drug trafficking.

Sailor said that marijuana was rampant in Lawrence during the ’60s and ’70s and that a syndicate known as the Kaw Valley Hemp Pickers grew most of the weed and sold it all over town.

“Things were much more liberal back then and much more relaxed,” Sailor said. “There was even a huge movement to legalize it at the time.”

Coen said marijuana was smoked openly at the original Gas Light. She said she heard stories from former Gas Light regulars about a community bag of weed tacked up near the entrance for smokers to borrow from. A sign near the bag instructed customers to keep it filled through weed donations. Coen said she was unsure whether those stories were true.

Miller tried to shut down the tavern for marijuana trafficking after he conducted a citywide drug raid in 1971. He filed charges a month later, asking the Douglas County District Court to declare the Gaslight a nuisance and shut it down.

According to an article written in the Kansan on Oct. 27, 1971, then-Lawrence Mayor J.R. Pulliam accused Miller of acting without the authority of city officials.

“As far as I have determined, there is no city ordinance that specifically cites the sale of drugs a reason to declare an establishment a public nuisance,” Pulliam said in the article. “The man is enforcing laws, but I do wish people would realize the difference between marijuana and heroin.”

Douglas County Court Judge Floyd Coffman eventually dismissed the charges after a hearing, saying the state’s evidence did not prove that the owners of the Gaslight knowingly participated in illegal activities at the tavern.

The burning

The University bought the lease to the tavern in 1974 with the intentions of tearing it down because University administrators saw it as a nuisance, Coen said. The tavern inexplicably burned down the day the University took it over on July 15, 1974. No one knows exactly how it happened but according to the legend, Coen said, students burned it down as a way of protesting the University’s takeover.

“I’m really not sure whether the legend is true or not, but it’s a cool way of remembering the Gaslight Tavern,” she said.

The Gas Light today

Coen said she would always remember the new Gas Light Tavern as a place where anyone could drink, listen to music and feel comfortable. The bar, she said, featured an atmosphere that fostered open-mindedness.

“The owner wanted to create a place where the spirit of the old Gaslight lived on,” Coen said, “I believe it has served its purpose.”

The present-day Gaslight Tavern has featured hundreds of bands in its six-year lifetime, including nationally recognized bands such as The Shins, Carlos D. and Bus Driver. It regularly featured such local bands as Deadman Flats, Truckstop Honeymoon and Murphy’s Law. Coen said the tavern served as a jumping point for local bands to start their careers.

Alex Law, guitarist and lead singer of Deadman Flats, said his band played its first show at the tavern and had since played shows all over Kansas. He said he periodically returned to play at the Gaslight Tavern, which he considered his favorite bar.

“The place is small so you could have only 20 or 30 people here, and it gets rowdier than larger venues,” Law said before performing at the tavern Monday, Sept. 22. “When this place closes, it will be like a huge chunk of Lawrence is gone.”

Before the bar shuts down, Coen said she’s encouraging bands that have historically played at the Gaslight Tavern to play in farewell shows that will feature in the months ahead. She said student bands that are interested in playing can contact her at the Gaslight Tavern’s Web site on MySpace.

— Edited by Lauren Keith

Published in the University Daily Kansan on September 29, 2008

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2 comments

  1. Mr. Greenhaw:
    Is it possible for you to communicate with me at the above e-mail address? I am trying to find some information from the time at which you wrote this article and you may be able to help. It’ s long shot, but I would appreciate hearing from you. Thank you.

  2. sorry if this is a duplicate…I don’t know if it went through.

    Could you possibly contact me at the above e-mail address? I am searching for some information from the time/place about which you wrote the 2008 Lawrence article, and though it is a long shot, I’m hoping you can help. Thanks.

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