Kenton during the “Little Chicago” Days

Kenton is a safe place to live. In 2016, Kenton’s violent crime rate was lower than the national average by 41.46%. We feel safe in this town and overall it is a great place to live. This has not always been the case however. Kenton once had a reputation in the 1920’s and 1930’s due to the type of people who were coming to the town. During this period, Kenton was known as “Little Chicago”. Prohibition was the law of the land in those days and this helped to create an underworld in Kenton that would lead to some shady activity in town, including gambling, drinking, and prostitution. Trains made it easy for shady characters to come to town from the major cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York City.

Certain areas of town were known for their gambling halls and houses of ill repute. Women of Kenton who wished to maintain their decent reputations would not walk on the south side of courthouse, what is Franklin Street today, because there were houses of ill repute on that street. In the late 1920’s the police department did their best to insure that things did not get out of hand. During the week, officers would walk the streets, checking on businesses and making sure things were secure. On Saturdays, officers wanting to earn a little extra money would take wheelbarrows down the back alleys and collect all the drunks they found. They would then take them to jail where they were left to sleep it off. Officers were paid $1 (about $15 in today’s money) for each drunk they brought to the jail. The purpose being to protect not only the drunks from being robbed but also to protect the city.

In 1934, John Dillinger would escape from a jail in Lima. Stories from that period state that he came through Kenton. In 1997, John Jester shared a story of Dillinger stopping at his family’s home to ask for directions to Marion. He wanted to travel there by backroads since he had just broken out of the Lima jail. Jester also recalled that the Purple Gang, a crime organization out of Detroit run by members of the Bernstein family, were also know to hide out in Kenton. Gambling and drinking were the main activities of this time, occurring in the upper stories of many of the businesses downtown and in other parts of town including the Old Continental Restaurant. Other known gambling halls and houses of ill repute were the St. Nicholas Hotel, the Cellar, the Black Cat, and the Forester Inn. Jester also recalled working at the Smokehouse, a local business that was a private club and working at Martin’s Cafeteria, where a woman ran a house of ill repute in the back. The main gambler in town at the time was known as “Joe the Greek”.

While there are some who feel that the “Little Chicago” part of Kenton’s history should be left in the past, it is important to remember that not all aspects of history are good. We should not ignore those nasty bits; we should study them and learn from them in hopes that we do not repeat history. Kenton is a great place to live and raise a family. While we are currently struggling with a drug addiction problem in our county like so many other places in the country, we must work together to help those who need it and to rebuild Kenton’s reputation just as we have done in the past. With so many great things happening in Kenton the last few years, we should work together to continue the trend of growth.