The Legend of a Tunnel

Hebrank House c. 1901

Hebrank House now Post Office Oak Museum. Picture taken after 1900.

Being the barber in town I hear a lot of stories from a lot of people. When I hear the same story from several people and the information is slightly different from person to person, I get curious to learn the facts.

One such story has always captured my attention, as I am sure it has for anyone familiar with it, is the local legend of a tunnel that leads from the 1864 Hebrank house, now the Post Office Oak Museum, to the Neosho river bank. At the request of friends, I will submit to you the information that I have gathered, in several installments. In this first, I would like to present to you the stories that I have heard from our locals.

Doris Chase related her story of the tunnel to me. She says that when she was in high school that her and her friends would walk down by the river after school. They would pass a big iron gate that they were told was the entrance to the tunnel that led to the Hebrank house. She described the gate as being similar in size to the flood gate on the west bank of the river near the Kaw Mission. Doris states that she had always been told that there was a tunnel there and that it was built for escape from Indians. She had never been in the tunnel herself and cannot recall any one who has been, as the gate was always shut.

Dan Young’s father, Willard Young, told him there was a tunnel, and Willard firmly believed it. Willard said the opening to the tunnel was located near the old bridge, which was north of our present bridge. He said the tunnel was blocked off to keep water out of the cave. Dan doesn’t believe that the tunnel was built for escape from Indians, but for some other purpose.

When Craig McNeal was a young boy, his family lived in the Hebrank house in the late 1940’s early 50’s. As he tells his story, he and a friend were convinced that there was a tunnel leading from the cave east of the house toward the river, and they actually tried to excavate it. But, as kids have limited tools, engineering, and muscle power, they were never able to make it through the thick walls of the cave.

Years ago, when I first opened my shop here, I had a customer come in and tell me his story of the tunnel. I do not remember who this man was, I don’t know if he may still be around, but I present his story as I recall it. He told me that his grandfather had been in a secret room that was south of the house, down in the basement. He saw old guns hanging up on the walls which gave him the impression that it was used as a hold-out or an armory against the Indians. This story especially caught my attention, because I had heard nothing of a “secret room” to the south before.

Blanche Osborne, great-granddaughter of F.X. Hebrank, wrote a family history that was printed in the Council Grove Republican. The article, dated March 27, 1978, reads “A tunnel was excavated from the cave to the brewery under the house. Later it was sealed off but the indenture can still be seen. There is also another indenture to the west which might cause one to believe there may have been another tunnel that led toward the river.” She also states a couple of the common ideas that were going around about the tunnel. It was used as a “station on the John Brown underground railway” or as a “fort to protect white settlers.” It is also stated that “None of the Hebrank descendants can verify these tales.”

I’m sure there are many more readers who have similar stories and like memories of the long running legend of the tunnel. Unfortunately, I cannot interview everyone. I have included what I think enough stories to establish our main idea. A long running legend of a tunnel running from the cave east of the Hebrank house, to the Neosho river; a tunnel leading from the basement of the house to the cave; and a possible secret room south of the basement.

If anyone would like to make there contributions to this collection, please write or email the C G Rep, or the Morris County Historical Society at 303 W Main St. Council Grove.

Early Kansas Brewery

By Derrick Doty

Last week we read the local stories concerning the old Post Office Oak Museum. Built in 1864, the building housed the Hebrank family, and a brewery was in operation in the basement. Some have thought it to be a stop on the underground railroad, or perhaps a fort to protect white settlers. Since I have related the current local story telling, I will now lay before you the historical references and the discoveries I have made, in an attempt to make history, legend, and physical evidence agree with one another.

The first step to solving the mystery of the tunnel, is establish context by putting together what we know about the property. An article from the archives of the Morris County Historical Society has information that is critical for developing our theories. We know there was a brewery there, we do not know how it operated. This post 1985 article by an unknown author gives some description. It states the “walls of the basement were high enough that a team of horses and wagon could be driven in through the double doors on the south west corner of the building and out the north west side….This was the mode of bringing in the materials for the brewery.” This is the only reference I have found that states this. Ken McClintock does not believe this was possible, unless you were “driving a team of Shetland ponies”. Ken says even if you could get a wagon in the doors you couldn’t turn it and there was a well in the basement to navigate around. The article goes on to say “Corn was probably the base for the brew.” After research I believe this to be erroneous. A wonderful history of brewing in Kansas, provided by the Free State Brewery in Lawrence, clarifies our modus operandi of the brewing business. It relates how many Germans came to Kansas from the 1850’s through the 1880’s and opened breweries. It even mentions Frederick (Francis) Hebrank of Council Grove. Apparently, basement breweries and storage caverns were quite common in Kansas during the last half of the 19th century. I find that barley seemed to be the grain of choice amongst these German brewers. In the 1870’s Marion and other near counties are cited as the big barley producers. The only reference I have found for using corn is whiskey of course, and a South American beer called chicha, made from maize called jora.

The article goes on to state that “…the kegs were loaded on to the wagon and taken to the cave…” There has been much debate on how the kegs were moved to the cave. We do not know the size of the kegs.* Ken and I always assumed they were 50 gal. On second thought, if the beer was intended for the passing travelers on the Santa Fe Trail, then the kegs would be small. If we go by the trail guides that were published for the pioneers, I don’t suppose there would be much room to haul beer. A chart of provisions provided by Clackamas and Wasco counties in Oregon list 140-200 pounds of flour per person; 40-140 pounds bacon per person; 10 pounds salt, 20 pounds sugar, 20 pounds coffee etc. That doesn’t leave much room for large kegs of beer if beer was taken on the trail. It is possible that various sized kegs were used depending upon who the customer was.

Even though the above article contains accurate information about dimensions, family, and general history of the house, I believe the writer was making unfounded conjectures based on his or her limited knowledge of the property, and he or she certainly knew nothing of beer making.

Some have supposed the rumored tunnel was how the kegs were transported. Others have believed a wagon could actually be driven down into the cave. As has been stated, many believed there was a tunnel between the basement and cave. Ken and I do not think it possible. The cave does not lie under the basement, but north and east of it. The stone front porch was built in the mid 30’s, it is believed the addition to the back of the house and upstairs were added at this time. This back addition sits over part of the cave. Ken McClintock, after doing much research and measuring, developed a theory. His theory allows for an alternate entrance to the cave. Ken says there could have been an incline at the back of the house. Starting where the north west door would have been and going down into the cave. So that the wagon or the barrels could be rolled down with ease and safety.

West view of Hebrank house

West side of Hebrank house showing the doorway that has since been blocked up.

I’ve made a discovery that may answer our question. I have found a blocked up doorway in the east wall of the basement. It measures 56 inches wide and 65 inches tall. The basement floor is not as low now as then because it has since had cement poured in it. This door is too short now to walk through without stooping. It may have been tall enough 145 years ago. This doorway is located about 20 feet from the entrance to the cave. There’s now a window where the doorway was. On the west side of the house, I found the same thing, evidence of a doorway (now a window) leading out of the basement. I later found a photograph in the MCHS archives to confirm that there was a doorway on the west side. I think it safe to assume there was also a door on the east side. This means the house had one doorway on each wall leading out of the basement.** My theory is, once the barrels were filled in the basement, they were then rolled (or carried if small kegs) out the east door 20 feet to the entrance of the cave. This makes more sense than loading them on the wagon, driving them around the house to the cave, and then unloading them. The barrels were lowered by block and tackle into the cave. Rails, whether permanent or removable, were laid down the steps to the cave, and the barrels slid down them. This seems to me the most simple and least laborious way to move the kegs.

Next week we will continue our research with some more documentation, and I will share what I have learned in the old cave.

Sources: http://freestatebrewing.com/history, Morris County Historical Society, “Barlow Road” published in 1975 by Clackamas County Oregon Historical Society.

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On March 27, 1978, the Council Grove Republican printed a family history by Blanche Osborne. In this article she says “a tunnel was excavated from the cave to the brewery under the house. Later it was sealed off but the indenture can still be seen. There is also another indenture to the west which might cause one to believe there may have been another tunnel that led toward the river.” She said some believed the house a “station on the John Brown underground railway” or a “fort to protect white settlers” which, is also found word for word in a paper from 1960. Blanche also stated that “None of the Hebrank descendants can verify these tales.”

Another article from the C G Republican dated March 30, 1929 reads “Mayor Young has Plan for Historical Museum” It gives a little history of the house and that W. L. Young is going to buy it. It also states “The old building is rumored to have a secret tunnel running from its basement, but R.M. Armstrong, one of the pioneer residents, believes this to be a myth. I find it interesting, it doesn’t mention where the tunnel may “run” to.

The earliest mention of a tunnel I have found is in Mary Metzger’s funeral notice, which she did not write herself. She died February 12, 1925. It appears later writers received their information from this source, as most later sources follow this nearly word for word. “A tunnel was excuvated from the cellar of this stone house to an underground cave in the yard as a precautionary measure against Indian raids.”*** It is known that Metzger had an encounter with the Cheyenne, she was about 20 years old at the time.

Thanks to the late John Maloy, Council Grove’s first and most reliable historian, we have an account of the 1868 Cheyenne raid on the Kaw. Mr. Maloy’s daughter, Lalla Maloy Brigham, gives more detail in her “Story of Council Grove.” She is known to have errors in her work, but we must take her for what she’s worth. It is from Brigham’s history that we have the familiar account of Mrs. Mary Metzgar. “During the Cheyenne raid of 1868 all of the women and children on the east side of the river were barricaded in the brewery. When the Cheyennes surrounded the building, they asked for water and something to eat. Mrs. Metzger met the braves and for an hour drew water from the well in the basement to give to the Indians. During this time the other women were upstairs with the frightened children. No one was molested.” There is no mention of a tunnel in her or her father’s history.

The phrase “a tunnel was excavated” has repeatedly caught my attention. To get the proper meaning of “a tunnel was excavated” can be tricky. There are two ideas represented by the word excavated. The first and most prominent is, a tunnel already exists and someone has “uncovered” it. I don’t believe this the intention here. The second and more probable is, the tunnel was “dug out” as an afterthought. So I believe if a tunnel existed beneath this old house, it was added at a later time, perhaps after the 1868 scare.

Thus far we have traced the story of a tunnel back to the 1920’s. We have no evidence prior to 1925. The best reputed historians fail to mention it. The people, who would have known about it, do not seem to be the source of the story. In fact, it is clearly stated that the descendants could not verify if it were true. They left no written evidence (that we have found) to confirm one way or the other.

Watch for my final installment on this subject in next week’s paper. I will not say it is the conclusion to our mystery, for another may take it up after me. Perhaps someone else may find new evidence. A long lost diary entry, news paper clipping, or a letter from one of the Hebrank’s. Perhaps then we may have a satisfactory end of it.

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Early in the month of July, I took time to survey the Hebrank house very carefully. As I was making my rounds and discovering things, I also recalled the stories that I had been told of this house. Pieces of the puzzle started to fit together.

Let’s begin with the “secret room,” which I am sure I have found. The double doors, once the front entrance to the basement, are still there. For the first time, I opened the two doors and went in to see what I might find. An enclosed room with one small window for light. When I saw this room, my mind went back to a story a customer had told me. His grandfather had been in a secret room south of the basement; he saw old guns hanging on the walls. As I made my way through the cobwebs and spiders, I looked up and saw a cement slab above me. I was under the front porch of the house. I could see old truck springs and scrap metal in the cement for reinforcement. I thought to myself, “If I were a kid, I would think this was a secret room, and my imagination might lead me to believe the iron rods in the cement were old guns.” Maybe he did see guns hanging on a wall, maybe they were in the basement.

As to the cave, I’m perplexed. I had always accepted what I was told to be true. Even the articles from the descendants seemed to imply there was some form of tunnel connecting the cave to the house. The physical evidence that remains will not support these stories. But, I leave room for the possibility however slight it may be. To my observations, the west wall of the cave where the tunnel is said to be, is undisturbed from the floor to about five feet up. All these stones look original; there are no signs of anything being blocked up. However, about five feet from the floor in the center of the wall, is a space 24 inches by 36 inches that has been bricked up. For all practical purposes it looks like a chimney. A friend of mine that went down with me said the same. There is no reason to put a stove in a root cellar. The whole purpose is to keep things cool. My friend brought up an excellent idea which I had not thought of before. What if someone lived in here at one time? We have no source that mentions anyone living in the cave. I’m afraid it would be too damp for them anyway.

If this is the entrance to the tunnel, it would be a close fit to get through, and you would have a five foot drop to the floor once you got in the cave. To me it just doesn’t make sense. The other issue is, where and how did it enter into the basement of the house? The tunnel would have to curve to the south to enter the basement. Also, because the house has a walk-out basement, the tunnel entrance would be found in the dirt floor of the basement. Because of the cement floor and addition to the house in the 30s, we can expect no help. All evidence has been destroyed or covered up.

Concerning the supposed tunnel to the river, I believe this to be nothing more than a story. Although we cannot with certainty disprove its existence, neither can we prove it. There’s too much circumstantial evidence against the probability of a tunnel. First of all, it would be over one hundred yards long. Something that size could not be done quickly, or secretly. Second, geography is against it. The area where the Madonna of the Trail now stands was at one time a low wet area. Ken McClintock found a newspaper article from the 1870s where a discontented townsman voiced his complaint. In effect he said that something must be done with that “frog pond” on the east end of town. In fact, I found a wonderful picture from the Morris County Historical Society archives showing approximately 200 of our townsfolk gathered to begin work on the Madonna of the Trail monument. Farmers have their horses and wagons to haul in dirt and build up the mound. The community band is there dressed in white with hats and sashes on.

The biggest problem with having a tunnel leading to the river is… the river. The Neosho is a shallow river, when its not flooded. That’s why the wagons crossed here; they could easily descend the river bank and cross the trickling stream. But, as we all know, prior to the reservoir being built this town experienced a lot of high water. So on one hand the tunnel could not be used because of high water, and on the other hand in low water where are you going to go once you reach the river? Are you going to carry your canoe downstream while escaping the “bloody Cheyenne”? Let’s say the water was just right. Are you going to go down river to get away from Indians? You’ll end up at the Kaw reservation! Although the whites didn’t have too many problems with the Kaw, I still don’t think they would trust them enough to run to them for safety. According to Maloy’s history, the whites threatened to exterminate all the Kaw after the 1859 disturbance with Seth Hays. Fortunately, everyone cooled down and things resumed a quiet normalcy.

Then there’s the argument about the entrance to the tunnel down in the river bank that many claimed to have seen. According to Ken McClintock, in 1929-30 the river was redirected. The dikes on each side of our present Neosho River were built. The flood gates that we see at the Kaw Mission and at the foot bridge on the River Walk have been there since that time.

I have seen a picture looking to the north east of the old bridge. The picture was taken after one of the early 1900 floods. I’ll admit the picture is not the best quality, but there does not appear to be a tunnel entrance where several people have thought that it was. If there was any evidence of a tunnel on the bank, any reliable witnesses would have to be at least 90 years old to have seen the river bank before it was all changed. Even then, we would have the information from a six year old child’s point of view. I believe what people saw as the tunnel entrance to the cave, was simply the flood gate by the foot bridge.

The local accounts provide us with evidence of a tradition of “tunnel” story telling. This subject is not exclusive to Council Grove. I have recently been informed of other communities with legends of a tunnel. These stories have continued in the community for a significant span of time. It is natural that the stories would be associated with landmarks visible at the time of telling. The landmarks change and pass away, but we try to connect the stories we have received with the landmarks we now see.

We’ve had an exciting look at some of Council Grove’s rich history. We have come to understand a little more and we have learned something new. More important than the “Post Office Oak Museum” we have one of Kansas’ early German immigrant breweries. I do not know if any others exist yet, but I think we better look into it. What if we have the only one left? Well now, that’s more interesting than a highly suspicious tale of a Post Office Oak Tree. Oh, but that’s another story……

Addendum: January 2011

* John Maloy states a barrel containing 44 gallons. A keg would be smaller, but the capacity is not known.

** After further research, the Hebrank house appears to be built after the same style of the Steinway home in Seesen Germany. A design that was used in the first half of the 19th century. Also, according to the Free State Brewery, basement breweries were quite common, and this walk out basement style, with doors facing each direction, would afford excellent ventilation, and accessibility.

*** It is not for certain, but it is possible that Lalla Brigham wrote this obituary.

Addenda 1-3-2012:  George Hebrank wrote a short history of F.X. and the family for the paper in 1954.  He does not mention a tunnel or the Post Oak.

Addenda 2-9-2012:  I failed to take note of this before in research, but prior to Bill Young purchasing the Hebrank house there was a woman who owned it.  She went missing and that seems to be what led to the selling of the house.  Now wouldn’t it be interesting if she discovered the tunnel and fell into it and couldn’t get out and that’s why she was missing?

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Since the writing of the Post Office Oak Tunnel, more tunnel stories in other places have come to knowledge. A customer told me of a tunnel legend in Hanover Ks. where he grew up. The Pony Express depot in Hanover has had a long attached rumor of a tunnel leading from it. As a young boy, this man said he tried to find that tunnel. He and his friends were always looking for it. To this day he still doesn’t know if there ever was a tunnel or not.

Immediately after I had finished writing the articles for the paper, I was informed of another tunnel story on PBS. I did not get a chance to see it, but I was told that PBS had done a special on a Sunday afternoon. Included in this special was mention of a tunnel that led from the Post Office Oak Museum under the Neosho River to the Hays House. I was blown away! That was the most farfetched story about the Post Office Oak Tunnel I had ever heard. How would you go through bed rock in 1864 and manage to keep the water out of the tunnel?

Another familiar tunnel story in our area is related to the Spring Hill Ranch on what is now the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Chase County. It has been rumored that a tunnel exists between the stone barn and the house. Some say it is big enough for a man to ride through on horseback, some say it’s not quite that big, but all swear its true. I was told by a customer that a friend of his knows it to be a fact because he had seen it when he worked at the ranch. Well, once again this tunnel if it did exist would have to go through a hundred yards of rock. I have the witness of Sharon Haun, who is the curator at the Kaw Mission in Council Grove. She was involved in the restoration work at the old house on the Preserve in the mid 1990s. Because of all the stories and rumors of a tunnel, she and all the workmen involved intentionally and laboriously inspected every nook and cranny of the house. This renovation was down to the bare stone, there was nothing that could have been hidden. They found no evidence whatever of a passage having been blocked up. There is a tunnel however; (or more appropriately a passage) leading from the house to the spring house. This passage may be about twelve feet long and looks like a tunnel. I believe the same thing has happened here as at the Hebrank House. What some have seen they have mistaken for something else. If a child had walked through the passage to the spring house twenty years ago, not to mention if it were over fifty years, the passage would seem bigger, and he wouldn’t have a good sense of direction, so he would think it was a “secret tunnel” that led to the barn.

Now a tunnel story that is true, which I find the most shocking of all. A friend of mine can testify as well as several others in the family, that his uncle who lived in Kansas City had dug a tunnel from the house to the garage with the help of his brothers. No practical reason why, they just dug a tunnel. When you learn that this same man also buried an old junk car in the back yard instead of paying to have it hauled off, you may find it an easy matter for him to dig a tunnel.

While writing the stories on the Hebrank house, a man happened to be visiting Council Grove and showing some old friends around. Years ago he had lived in Council Grove. While in the Post Office Oak Museum, the tunnel was mentioned. This man claimed to have been through the tunnel. Deborah Crawford, who was working there that day and was involved in the research, tried to contact me so I could interview this man. Unfortunately, I was unavailable and the man was in a hurry and couldn’t take time to talk about it. He was given my name and number so he could contact me and tell me what he knew of the tunnel. I was very anxious to hear from him as this was the only possible lead I had to proving the tunnel existed. I have never heard from him, and find it likely he may have been telling hogwash. Considering there was no evidence of a tunnel in 1950 when Craig McNeal was trying to find it, and likely if it did exist it had been sealed up before the turn of the century since no one else claimed to have been through the tunnel. I suspect this unknown man realized his mistake and decided to remain anonymous.

It seems that tunnels and trap doors and secret passageways have always been of interest to persons of all ages, throughout centuries. There’s an air of mystery and romance about it. When I was a kid living on the farm, it was always my dream to dig a tunnel from our farmhouse to the barn. I never got any further than a hole big enough to hide in under a false floor in the barn. My best friend and I had decided to make an underground secret room. So we started to re-dig an old farm well out in the woods. We were hoping that if we didn’t dig too deep we wouldn’t reach water. We dug down eight feet and were ready to start digging out our underground room. Then a heavy rain came and inundated our hole. So, we gave up on that project and filled it back in.

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