Veteran, wrestler, moonshiner, grocer, railroader, performer, Gus B. Ridge cast a wide shadow in his hometown

June 15, 2019

 

 

The buildings in this photo were located on the south side of Mark Twain Avenue, across from Ruffner Street, which goes north from Mark Twain Avenue between The Hair Co., beauty shop at 1000 Mark Twain Avenue, and Ayerco. It is unclear what the addresses of these three buildings were, but they are located in the general vicinity of what was once Gus and Katherine Ridge’s grocery store, which operated from about 1917 until the early 1950s. Gus Ridge was arrested in 1923 – during prohibition – for bootlegging whiskey in the family’s living quarters at 1009 Mark Twain Avenue. Photo from Steve Chou’s vast collection.

 

 

MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

 

“All Aboard,” a two-act musical comedy originally presented in New York City, was staged at the Orpheum theater in Hannibal, Mo., Jan. 18-19, 1923. The entertainment featured local actors, and was sponsored by the American Legion.

There were 150 performers associated with the local production, but two of the key actors were Marion County Sheriff Clarence Bender and Gus B. (August) Ridge, well known locally for his wrestling feats.

The country was still recovering from the aftermath of the 1st world war, and Prohibition laws were en effect nationally. The musical comedy would have provided a welcome and festive means of adult entertainment.

Sheriff Bender and Gus Ridge were both veterans of the war, and would have been considered friends – or at least friendly acquaintances.

It probably wasn’t much of a surprise then that Sheriff Bender came knocking at Ridge’s front door at 1009 Mark Twain Ave., just six days after the final curtain call.

But the sheriff wasn’t there to swap war stories or to enjoy camaraderie born of the theater production.

Instead, he was at the Ridge residence armed with a search warrant, along with his deputies, and S.D. Baker, a federal enforcement officer. Inside the house they found a still, a couple of barrels of mash and ten or twelve gallons of whisky.

Ridge came home shortly after the sheriff’s arrival, and turned himself in.

He was released for the night on bond, and showed up for his court hearing at the Hannibal Courthouse on Friday morning. Without an attorney at his side, he entered a guilty plea, issuing a statement that he hoped would garner leniency from Judge C.T. Hays.

The Marion County Herald printed his statement in its Jan. 31, 1923 edition:

“Your honor, this is the first time I have ever been on this side of the court (meaning that during the war while an officer in the army sat with other officers as a judge in a number of court martial trials). I will appreciate any leniency the court may see fit to grant me.

“Three years ago, I came back from France wounded and gassed and physically unable to follow my occupation as a locomotive engineer. During the war my wife started a small grocery store on Mark Twain Avenue and at first got along fine but during 1920 when the slump came we went in debt. It was a case of me losing the business and property or else finding some way of raising some means to meet the indebtedness. I have a wife and three children. The money that I made was used solely for the paying of my debts. This is the first time that I have ever deliberately broken the law and I ask the court to grant me such leniency that he may see fit.”

 

Sentencing

Roy Hamlin – who would in later years serve in the Missouri state legislature and rise to the position of speaker of the house – was the prosecuting attorney. While sympathetic to Gus Ridge, he and the judge felt their hands were tied. A guilty plea garnered the minimum sentence allowable: Ninety days in the county jail.

The sentencing brought another statement from Gus Ridge, printed in the Marion County Herald:

“Ridge, in discussing his case after his sentence, declared that he felt no ill feeling against anyone, adding, ‘Sheriff Bender did his duty in arresting me.’ He also stated that he made a good, clean grade of whiskey and sold it only to those who could afford to purchase it. He declared that he should not be accused of selling whiskey to a youth or anyone who did not drink before prohibition went into effect.’”

The federal enforcement agent, S.D. Baker, concurred that Gus Ridge was operating a quality facility, according to a Palmyra newspaper.

“Mr. Baker, according to the Courier-Post, after looking at the room and utensils used in the manufacture of liquor declared that it was one of the neatest and cleanest places he had ever seen and a test of the liquor showed that Ridge was making good liquor.”

 

 

Railroading family

August B. (Gus) Ridge came from a railroading family. His father, James C. Ridge (1863-1930) was a fireman and later an engineer for the CB&Q (steam) Railroad. At the age of 14, Gus went to work as a cigar stripper for a shop in Hannibal. (A cigar stripper cut the center vein from the tobacco leaf.)

Gus ultimately followed his father’s lead in railroading, and became an engineer. He worked at this occupation off and on for a number of years.

 

Military man

On March 5, 1947, the Palmyra Spectator offered a summary of Gus Ridge’s military service.

Ridge joined the old Missouri National Guard beginning in 1901, serving on the Mexican boarder when General Pershing led troops across the Mexican border in pursuit of Pancho Villa. During this service he rose in rank from private to second lieutenant.

“After this service, Ridge was sent to France ahead of his division at the outbreak of World War I. He participated in all the battles in which the 35th division took part and was wounded and gassed in the Argonne drive for which he is the holder of a Purple Heart.”

At the end of World War I, he was discharged with the rank of first lieutenant.

He held a reserve commission until 1937, when he resigned.

When the 35th division was recalled into service in December 1940, Sgt. Ridge enlisted at Hannibal.

He served throughout World War II, and was discharged on Nov. 14, 1945, after serving with the 9th SC at Fort Douglas, Utah, Military Police Corp.

In 1947, he was awarded the rank of major in the United States Army.

 

Sgt. James C. Ridge

Gus Ridge’s son, James, followed in his father’s military footsteps. Born in 1911 at Portland, Ore., James was a communications sergeant with the 90th division, and was the recipient of a Purple Heart for wounds received in France on June 14, 1944. He returned to combat the following December, and was killed in Belgium on Jan. 16, 1945. He left behind a wife and young daughter in Abilene, Texas.

At the time, his father was stationed in Missoula, Mont., with the military police.

 

Wrestler

Gus Ridge made a name for himself regionally on the wrestling mat.

On Tuesday night, Feb. 2, 1909, Harry Bothner of Iowa and Gus Ridge of Hannibal wrestled at the opera house in Perry, Mo. Ridge threw Bothner, according to the Quincy Daily Herald.

Three months later, on May 2, 1909, the Quincy Daily Whig described Ridge as “ambitious.”

“Fred Bartl, who has been challenged several times by Gus Ridge of Hannibal for a match in that city, will meet the Missouri welter-weight in the down river city Tuesday night. The challenge of Ridge was not considered seriously at first as he was supposed to be a lightweight and in a class with Frazier, who made such a poor showing here recently in a match with Goodwin. However, when Bartl refereed the Frazier-Ridge match in Hannibal some time ago he found that Ridge was practically as heavy as the local man himself and the result of the match showed that he was not in a class with Frazier, the latter being thrown twice in about 7 minutes by Ridge. Since then Ridge has been anxious to try out Bartl and a short conference yesterday settled the matter. … In the match Tuesday night at Hannibal Bartl will meet Ridge in a straight match, best two in three, catch-as-catch can style for a side bet of $25. The Hannibal man at least has $25 worth of confidence in himself.”

A decade later – after the end of World War I, Ridge was back in action, this time as a manager and promoter.

W.D. Flynn served as manager for DeMetral of Quincy, and Gus Ridge was manager for Owens.

On Jan. 12, 1921, the Quincy Daily Journal reported that, W.D. Flynn, DeMetral’s manager, would go to Hannibal for the purpose of seeing Gus Ridge, Owens’ manager, about a potential bout.

“Both grapplers are in condition and there should be little delay in setting the date.”

 

Outdoor match

The 135th Missouri Infantry planned an outdoor athletic match at Clemen’s Field on Oct. 15, 1925. Gus Ridge was manager and trainer for Lee Gartner of Hannibal, who had recently won first place in boxing in the military training camp at Des Moines, Iowa. Gartner was matched against Mike Sansone, 115 pounds.

Prior to the event, Gus Ridge announced that Gartner would be training at the Uneeda bath house at 214 S. Main street in the evenings, and fans were welcome to attend.

 

Second marriage

Sometime during the late 1930s, Gus and his wife, Katherine T. O’Connell Ridge were divorced. She maintained the grocery store at 1009 Mark Twain Avenue until the early 1950s, and she died on Aug. 20, 1958 at the age of 82. She is buried at Holy Family Cemetery.

Gus Ridge married Ada Williams Parker and at the time of his death in 1961, his occupation was that of a farmer. Gus and Ada are buried at Grand View Burial Park.

Gus B. Ridge was the step-father of Marion J. Parker, who retired in 1991 after working as an fireman/engineer for the CB&Q/Burlington Northern Railroad for nearly 50 years.

 

 

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com

 

 

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