Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 6, 2018
Big Apple seeds travel to the Little Apple and return
I’ve always been interested in “the rest of the story” - a phrase broadcaster Paul Harvey made famous. I am particularly drawn to
stories with a local connection to a bigger story. This week’s tale is one of these.
The starting point I’m choosing is 1855 and the settlement of Manhattan, Kansas - my home for the last 35 years-plus. That spring, William Renoyan came from New Jersey with his 6-year-old son Alfred Lee on the steamship Hartford. They were part of the Cincinnati and Kansas Land Company’s immigration party, financed by people in New York City. In return for the backing, the group had pledged to call their new town Manhattan.
The plan was to go farther upriver to what is now Junction City, but the ship ran aground near the location where members of the Boston Town Association had arrived about a month earlier. After some discussion, including the Boston group agreeing to call the new city Manhattan, the Hartford party set up their prefabricated buildings and platted town lots, thus forming the core of what is now downtown Manhattan.
William had a small farm and pursued his trade as a printer. He changed his surname to Runyan.
Alfred followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the Manhattan Independent newspaper and later the Manhattan Standard. In 1868, he volunteered for duty with the 19th Kansas Regiment in Gen. Philip Sheridan’s six-month campaign to suppress American Indians in western Kansas and Oklahoma. Alfred’s accounts of those experiences were published in the Standard.
After returning, Alfred worked as a journalist in Manhattan and Junction City. He met and married Elizabeth “Libbie” Damon of nearby Abilene, Kansas in March 1876. That same year, in partnership with Manhattan businessman C.M. Patee, he founded the Manhattan Enterprise newspaper.
Son Lee was the couple’s first child, born in June 1877. He died about a year later and is buried in Manhattan’s Sunset Cemetery. Daughter Mary followed in November 1878.
In the spring of 1880, the couple built a house at the corner of Fourth and Osage streets in time for the October birth of son Alfred Damon. Two more daughters followed.
An application was made in 2004 to place the home on the National Register of Historic Places. The narrative stated that while the newspaper was successful, the elder Alfred had a desire to become an important newspaperman. In that quest, he began moving the family, first to Kansas communities Clay Center, Eureka and finally Wellington. In 1891, A.L. moved the family to Pueblo, Colorado. But Libbie was ill with tuberculosis and so, returned with the couple’s daughters to her home in Abilene where she subsequently died. The girls stayed in Abilene with relatives.
A. L. and his son remained in Pueblo, living in boarding houses. Alfred Damon only occasionally attended school and began working for a local newspaper. He went by Damon and, while he was still a teenage reporter, a typist misspelled his surname as “Runyon.” Damon adopted it, saying he liked the way it looked in print.
At 14, Damon moved alone to Denver, working as a reporter. At 18, he joined the Colorado Volunteers to fight in the Spanish-American War. He falsely stated he was born in 1884 so he could claim to be the youngest enlisted man in the U.S. Army at 14 years old - a claim he maintained from that point on.
After the war, Runyon’s reporting on Denver sporting events caught the attention of newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst. He hired Damon as a reporter for the New York Sporting News, thus setting Runyon on his way to becoming the person his father Alfred had always wished to be.
In New York, Runyon was fascinated by the strange and secret turn-of-the-century underworld of sports and organized crime. He wrote columns and short stories centered on these connections, as well as stories about his and his father’s life in the West, including Manhattan.
He became a prominent journalist, sportswriter, novelist, playwright and screenwriter who was sometimes called the “Father of Broadway.” The musical “Guys and Dolls” is based on Runyon’s short stories, “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure.”
Runyon died of throat cancer in 1946, and in 1949, Paramount Pictures, for whom he wrote several screen plays, placed an engraved marble slab at his birth home in Manhattan, Kansas to commemorate his life. It, too, has his erroneous birth year.
In the late 1970s, then-Manhattan, Kansas Mayor Terry Glasscock and members of the local Chamber of Commerce personally presented then-New York Mayor Ed Koch with a picture of Damon Runyon’s birthplace. It was the beginning of our Manhattan becoming known as the “Little Apple.”
To celebrate the centennial of Damon Runyon’s birth, the New York Times published the story, “Runyon Legend Makes a ‘Guys and Dolls’ Tale.” One paragraph read:
Like many men who take the Big Apple by storm, Runyon was a small-town boy. He was born in the wrong Manhattan - the one in Kansas - grew up in Pueblo, Colo., worked on The Denver Post and did not reach the right Manhattan until 1910...
Just as time is causing Runyon’s fame to recede in the Big Apple, his family’s contributions are largely unknown today in the
Little Apple as well. But remnants remain. Over the years, the name of the Manhattan Enterprise changed and then it consolidated
with other newspapers to become the Manhattan Mercury, the city’s current-day newspaper. Paramount’s marker is still at Damon
Runyon’s birth home, just down Osage Street from the Mercury. Husband Art remembers watching “Damon Runyon Theater” on TV back in
the 1950s. Daughter Katie played Gen. Matilda Cartwright in her school’s production of “Guys and Dolls.” The school superintendent
said playing Big Jule in that play was one of the highlights of his time in education.
So there is the rest of the story, a story of how seeds from the Big Apple came to the Little Apple and then returned.
Left: Runyan home today; middle-top: Runyon; middle-bottom: Paramount Pictures memorial marker in lot of Runyan home in Manhattan, Kansas; right: school superintendent Starnes as "Guys and Dolls" character Big Jule. At his left is Katie. Since her main character Gen. Cartwright was not in this scene, she took on the role of a gambler. Runyon image from www.tvtropes.org.