By DALE CASTLE
March 19, 2014
KANSAS CITY, Missouri – Two blocks north of Independence and Ewing Avenues sits the main gate to the defunct Armco Steel.
I grew up just three blocks from the entrance in the 1950’s and 1960’s and recently took a drive to the area known as Sheffield to see what it looks like today. Sadly, it looks more like a ghost town than the robust, vibrant community I remember. All that stirred were a couple of wind blown tumbleweeds that startled a small group of pigeons searching for grain along the railroad tracks just inside the gate.
Winner Road ends its journey through Historic Northeast at these gates.
The many businesses that once lined this wide road and her side streets are now gone. In their place are empty buildings and vacant lots like the one just outside the gate on the south side of the road. I can remember a café, a clothing store, a barber shop and store called Clarence’s Place on that block when I was a kid.
Clarence’s Place wasn’t your typical mom and pop grocery store, but more of a prelude to the modern convenience stores. They didn’t sell meat, eggs and canned goods but instead concentrated on the everyday items steel workers would need.
Alfred Bouse, whose customers and friends always called him Jay, bought the business from his father Clarence in 1956.
“Every shift change at the steel plant brought hundreds of men past our little store which was great for business,” remembers Jay’s widow, Audrey. “We were married in 1961 and I started helping Jay shortly afterwards.”
Audrey had an eight hour-a-day office job not far from the store. After work, she rushed home to cook supper for her children and made a plate for her husband which she took to the store at 6 p.m.. Jay, who had been working since he opened at 5:30 a.m. ate and went to the back room to sleep. Audrey ran the store until midnight at which time she woke Jay and they went home, ending a long day.
The thirty by thirty square foot store sold chips, soda pop, candy, work gloves, cigarettes and cigars, among other items. Steel workers dropped of their dirty work clothes and Jay sent them out to be cleaned, which saved many wives’ washing machines and helped the bachelors who didn’t know how to clean clothes.
Employees of Armco were allowed to purchase items on credit and borrow cash to help them get through the week. They came in on payday and paid their tabs. Tragedy struck the store on a Saturday afternoon in 1978 when a man who was a former Armco employee entered the store and pulled out a .25 caliber pistol.
“This is a holdup,” Clarence Clemmons yelled. “Give me all the money in the register.”
Jay was sitting on one of the benches along the wall. Audrey was at the register behind the counter and started screaming at the top of her lungs. While the man was facing her, Jay got up and headed towards the front counter but stopped behind the laundry counter. A candy rack stood between him and the man. Audrey tried to the knock the gun out of his hand, but to no avail. He was too strong for such a small woman. The robber saw that Jay had moved and shot through the candy fatally striking Jay in the heart. Clemmons didn’t get any money and fled the store but was eventually caught and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Audrey never went back to the store after that and sold it to her daughter Theresa Hieronymus who graduated from Northeast high school in 1974. She wasn’t much more than a kid when she took over but she was certainly no stranger to Clarence’s Place.
“I grew up in that store and got to know so many wonderful, hard working men.” said Theresa. “The smell of cigar, cigarette and chewing tobacco consumed the air. Although everyone smoked back then, the store never smelled like smoke. Just the warm, pleasant smell of all the different tobaccos.”
Business continued to slow down as Armco laid off men. It finally got so bad that Teresa closed the store for good after two years and with its closing went yet another small mom and pop business that were once plentiful in Historic Northeast.