The Oddest Block In Cincinnati Disappeared A Century Ago

Do you remember Cincinnati in 1988? Do you remember the Bicentennial celebrations that year? Tall Stacks? Do you remember Swallen’s, McAlpin’s, Frank’s Nursery, Steinberg’s, Thriftway? The Maisonette? Is there any place in Cincinnati today that preserves the soul and flavor of Cincinnati in 1988?

It is amazing, is it not? Just 30 years have passed and yet almost nothing remains of those Cincinnati establishments in 1988. Wouldn’t it be fun to find some out-of-the-way corner of Cincinnati where you could relive those days? That is how a Cincinnati Post reporter must have felt in 1921 when he stumbled onto a block of old-fashioned businesses along Vine Street, just south of the Canal.

Central Parkway was still years in the future. The Roaring Twenties were just revving up. Yet here in the 1000 block of Vine Street, in 1921, was a living time capsule, a neighborhood locked in a time warp, as if it was still 1890. Today, this block is dominated by the Kroger building on the east side and a Skyline Chili Parlor on the west but, in 1921, it must have been magical. According to the Cincinnati Post [25 April 1921]:

“Did it ever strike you that there is more of the flavor of the Cincinnati 25 or 30 years ago about Vine-st. between Court and Canal streets than about almost any other block in town? Next time you are up there, stop and take a look around.”

Kentucky Frank, pictured in the inset, presided for years over an eclectic Cincinnati block where you could by monkeys, dime novels, a tattoo and maybe some hooch long after Vine Street’s glory days had faded.

From Cincinnati Post 25 April 1921 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Presiding over this old-time avenue was the genial and voluble Kentucky Frank, who managed an antique shooting gallery with his wife, Little Fawn. Veterans of the Dime Museum and Wild West show circuit, Frank and Little Fawn supplemented their shooting range income with sales of elaborate leatherwork and Western artifacts that might have been authentic. Frank’s shooting gallery got loads of business during the First World War. He told the Post [20 April 1917]:

“‘Men stop daily on their way to work for practice,’ he says. ‘Machinists make about the best shots at the start, because they know the mechanism of guns. When I tell a machinist to line up the sight he knows what I mean and does it.”

Frank told everybody he enlisted during the Civil War as a drummer boy and spent 20 years on the western plains fighting Indians and hunting buffalo. Despite two decades of advertisements to the contrary, records suggest that Frank got no closer to a Native American than his co-stars in the Wild West shows of the era. But he spun a good yarn. He apparently bamboozled a Salt Lake City Herald reporter [27 May 1893]:

“Kentucky Frank is not only a wonderful shot, but an interesting conversationalist, and he and his companions are giving a unique and interesting portrayal of the life of our western cowboy.”

To anyone who asked, Frank whispered conspiratorially that his real name was Kennedy Young Frank, the initials “K.Y.” matching the abbreviation of Kentucky. In reality, his name was George Franklin Russell, he was born in Kentucky, and who knew how much of his story was true?

“His place is full of curiosities, curious old weapons and such. He even has one of the old peep boxes where you put a coin in the slot and see all kinds of things.”

Along this anachronistic block, a 1921 visitor could find Charlie Losacker’s Rod & Reel Café and Nick Baisio’s Standard Recreation Hall (named for the risqué Standard Theater that once occupied the block). Per the Cincinnati Post [25 April 1921]:

“Nick’s place is a survival of the period, which a good many men now prominent in Cincinnati public life remember, when you could get anything at the Standard from unlimited booze to a quarrel with the house bouncer. And a quarrel with the bouncer generally got you a free ride in ‘the wagon’ or an inglorious resting place on the sidewalk outside the theater.”

Also packed into this short block were the Boulevard Pet Shop, offering monkeys and parrots in addition to dogs, cats and fish, and the only tattoo parlor in Cincinnati, managed by the affable Jack Temke.

It was Sara Bicknell’s cigar store that roused nostalgia among a certain class of Queen City gentlemen, for she continued to stock, decades after their heyday, the dime novels and detective serials they devoured as little boys:

“No, they haven’t gone out of print, as we had thought. She gets the weekly issues the same as ever of ‘Secret Service,’ ‘Boys of ’76,’ ‘Pluck and Luck,’ ‘Work and Win,’ ‘Wild West,’ ‘Fame and Fortune’ and others, not forgetting the Police Gazette.”

Competing with Kentucky Frank, across the street, was Gus Lohmayer’s 30-year-old shooting gallery. Gus was a sergeant during the Spanish-American War and was the past commander of the Spanish War veterans association.

Within a year or two, the bubble burst and all of these revered establishments were gone. Jack Temke moved his tattoo parlor to the West End. The Standard became the Boulevard, showing first-run silent movies. The cafés and saloons faded with Prohibition. Frank moved back home to Kentucky, Little Fawn died, and Frank followed her a few years later.

Even the memories have faded.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.

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