30 Dec A TWISTED BEND IN THE RIVER: A Story of Murder in a Small Town Part 1
A TWISTED BEND IN THE RIVER:
A Story of Murder in a Small Town
There is a place in this world where the rivers run clear and cool, fed by natural springs. Where the air is sweet and clean. It has maintained its state as God intended, and the footprint of man has done little to mar what was created thousands of years before. There is no smog, or dirty rain, and in the winter Khione lays a blanket of pure white snow across the land here. Deep within the Ozarks in the south-central hills of Missouri lies Shannon County. And just a few miles down the Jacks Fork river away from where it gains life from the Current River, lies the town of Eminence, Missouri.
Eminence is a town that has not been touched by time. It has all the trappings of a small town, a local diner, gas station, courthouse, and funeral home all on Hwy 19 that transforms into Main Street. One singular artery that travels through the heart of what those that reside in this postal code call, “Town”. A solitary water tower sits on the hill that backdrops the main street and announces to the world that those passing through have just found Eminence.
Eminence is actually nestled between protected lands. The Ozark National Scenic Riverways was created by an Act of Congress on August 24, 1964. The purpose of the Act was to protect 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers. The steep sided hollows and bluffs that abut the river system is home to over 300 recorded caves and thousands of protected animal and plant species. The park is known for some of the best canoeing, johnboating, swimming, fishing, hiking, and birdwatching. The deep oakpine forests keep away the creep of city life and development.
I am a product of this place. I am a son of Shannon County. My maternal Grandparents, Eddmond “Dee” and Mable (she preferred to be called by her middle name Lorene) Warren, were born there. They survived absolute poverty and the great depression there. They loved and married one another there in 1939. My grandmother brought five children to term there, four survived, and the child that did not was buried at the Mt. Zion Cemetery in Winona. A headstone marks the place where her remains lie, near my Grandfather who passed 1986, and my Grandmother that was laid to rest there in 2017, shortly before she would have celebrated her 98th birthday.
My Grandfather was a lumberman by trade. He worked at the sawmill and in the summers would pack up his family and travel to the deep wood in Colorado for work. He lost some fingers and toes to his line of work. Most notably he had a stump on his right hand where his thumb once was before it became victim to a blade. He would tease us grandchildren this oddity. In my memories I can see his face light up with a bright smile at our inquisitiveness. He was a man of very few words, an excellent marksman, and although a slim man he exuded this deep sense of strength. He loved to sit on the porch, drink sun tea from a mason jar and listen to men talk. It was the cigarettes that he smoked, always tucked into the top pocket of his bib overalls that would bring his end. Cancer ravaged his body and reduced him a shadow of the strong quiet man that would “steal my nose” with his forefinger and stumped thumb.
My Grandmother was his constant companion since they were teenagers. She suffered the loss of her own mother at the age of nine and was expected to be the caretaker of her eight siblings, all of whom would precede her in death. She was saved from a life of poverty and tribulation to live a life of poverty and love and devotion with my Grandfather. For all the talking my Grandfather didn’t do, My Grandmother made up for it in spades. She worked at a factory as a seamstress for pennies over long back breaking hours. She was a constant presence in the kitchen, as a mother she would provide meals for her children and cater to my Grandfather’s picky eating habits, and as a Grandmother she would create Sunday meals proudly for her ever expanding family. A trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s would usually call for a chicken or two to be quickly and expertly be-headed, plucked and fried in lard by my Grandma.
My Grandmother was wholly dependent on my Grandfather for most things, something that would become a burden to many when my Grandfather passed in 1986. She did not and never would learn to drive, and although she moved to the large city of Springfield, Shannon County never left her soul. Grandma was a good church goer, and nightly reader of her bible, she did love her “stories” (daytime soap operas). A love that was most likely influenced by her interest in gossip.
Her perchance for gossip and the special backdrop of Shannon County is what ultimately led me to want to write about this story. What occurred in Eminence in 1948 didn’t just shock the little town, but drew the interest of papers across the nation. I had to work pretty hard to be able to tell this story and had to do some digging for the sake of accuracy. You would think that if something happened in a little town like this that drew the eyes of the whole nation it would be remembered forever, and with the ease of an internet search, you could find out just about all you wanted to know. However, this is Shannon County, and this story, this memory, just seems to be forgotten. It was as if the murder of Fred and Minnie Kroeger became a memory that fell to the dark bottom of one of the deep cool springs that give life to the rivers that flow through the dense oakpine forests of Shannon County, and just became lost. I have my Grandmother and her newspaper clippings from 1948 to thank for the opportunity to chase down what is a fascinating and incredible story.
February 24, 1948
“Now, Burly that’s where I kept it. It was a .380 automatic, my son got it in Italy, brought it back from the war, and I was keepin’ it for him. You remember that pistol, Burly”
As a matter of fact, Eminence City Marshall B.B. (Burly) Shedd did remember the gun. Fred Kroeger had once approached Shedd in order to help secure some ammunition for it. He remembered how proud Fred was of the weapon and spoke of his son, Fred Jr.’s, thoughtfulness to bring such a fine piece of machinery home to share it with his father.
Fred Kroeger was an imposing man. He stood at over six feet tall with an expansive waistline. He had large hands and propensity to sweat. Despite the cold wind that was being carried into town by the Jacks Fork, Kroeger sported and splotchy red face, warm to the touch, and a ring of sweat appeared at the collar of his white cotton shirt.
“I figure that Baffin boy for it,” Kroeger hissed. “he’s been nosing around here, you know, about Betty Jane, he coulda found his way back here and took on off with it.”
Betty Jane Kroeger was a beautiful seventeen-year-old daughter of Fred and Minnie Kroeger. She too was in attendance for this meeting and was cowering in the corner of the room as her father and Shed stood looking over the empty contents of an empty counter drawer. Drawn by the loud conversation, a large black shadow began to descend upon the room. Soon the shadow lent way to the mountainous form of Minnie Kroeger. She stood in the opposite hallway that ran the length of the store leading out from the back office in which the other three were. Shedd noticed Mrs. Kroeger and tipped the brim of his hat with his right hand. She never acknowledged the lawman, but instead she kept her eyes fixated on her husband in a cold icy stare.
Shedd noticed that Betty Jane was suddenly watching her mother, and he could see her tighten with uneasiness. The town gossip was that Betty Jane’s parents, especially her mother violently discouraged all potential suitors for the hand of their fair skinned daughter. There was just something going on here and the whole thing gave the lawman a sense of foreboding.
Shedd turned his attention back to Fred, “Well Fred, I’ve knowed that Baffin boy his whole life, I just don’t see him for it.”
“Well I sure do, and I’ll give you the names of three pawn shops in St. Louis where that boy might have taken the pistol,” Kroeger snapped, banging the drawer shut. “You have them checked. In the meantime, I’m going to live right here in the store. I’ve got a steel couch and a gas range in the back room. If that fellow tries to get in here some night—”
“Daddy!” Betty Jane sharply interrupted. “That’s dangerous.”
Kroeger held a hand of silence toward his daughter, then took a pen and jotted down some names of pawn shops. He ripped the paper he had written on from a note book and handed it to Shedd. Shedd took the slip of paper, tipped his hat again to both of the ladies, turned and walked toward the front of the store. In addition to his duties as City Marshall, Shedd also carried mail between Eminence and the railroad at Winona. He got into his pickup truck headed to make his delivery.
As B.B. Shedd sped over the smooth ribbon of mountain highway he began to reflect on the odd circumstances of his morning run in with the Kroegers. The Kroegers, unlike Shedd and most of the other residents of Shannon County, were newcomers to the area. They had first moved there 1944 from East St. Louis and bought the W.J. Randolph farm on the upper Current. The family was known to have struggled there on the farm, and their big city ways had become a topic of some gossip and ridicule among local folk. About three months ago, the family rented the farm and bought the variety store in Eminence. They had taken up residence, renting a house from A.J. Hawkins, just a few hundred feet from the store.
The Kroegers were outsiders by every definition, but that wasn’t the only thing that didn’t add up this morning. For starters the accusation against Baffin just didn’t make any sense to Shedd. That boy just wasn’t the type for this kind of trouble. If Fred really figured the thief to return to the store, Baffin or anybody else, why would he suggest the gun to have likely been pawned? If he expected the weapon would be pawned, then why fear the burglary to the point of sleeping at the store? Why those three pawn shops out of all the pawn shops in St. Louis? And what of the cold stare Mrs. Kroeger gave her husband? Betty Jane’s reaction to her mother?
Something here didn’t add up. Shedd couldn’t put his finger on it, but he knew enough to know that there were some things here that he needed to know more about. Fortunately for him this was Eminence and the most common item of trade was gossip. He would make some discreet inquiries upon his return from Winona.
Who Are the Kroegers
It’s hard to imagine a time when information wasn’t just a Google search away, public records and thousands of other documents, social media profiles and everything about anything contained in a modern-day cell phone. This is 1948, and the telecommunication advancements of the day would have been restricted to a party line phone at best, and that wouldn’t even be available in most homes. No, here information traveled by being carried from one front porch to the next, to the beauty salon, to the diner and around again. It was these front porches, and public gathering places that Shedd began to make discreet inquiry into what might be known of these city folks, that had happened upon this sleepy hamlet nestled in the rolling southcentral Missouri hill land.
Shedd learned a lot in a short period of time. First, what about that strange stare from Mrs. Kroeger, and Fred’s decision to sleep at the store? “It’s trouble over another woman,“ one informant told him. “I ain’t knowing who she is. But I heard that Kroeger’s been playing Romeo at night ratherin’ keeping that store open, liken he s’posed to. Heard the wife got wise to ‘em. Them two been having some awful quarrelin’ down there at the house, could hear ‘em a block away. Sounded like one night she was makin’ some threats there at the store, though I can’t be sure of that. Ya ask me, I say he’s scared of that woman, probably done hid that pistol hisself.”
Shedd confirmed that the Kroegers had moved to the area three years before and tried their luck at farming. After two years they had taken Betty Jane out of school she had been attending in the city while staying with relatives, and moved her to the farm with them. “They bought the Randolph place, tried to make something of it, but bout buried themselves up there instead.” Another informant told Shedd. “They got a boy too. He got out the army, came here, turned round and re-enlisted. That daughter of theirs, they had her up on a tractor making her a hand, working her hard, spite her fragile appearance. Real beauty she is, but the Mrs. keeps her under thumb.”
It wasn’t just infidelity that seemed to be the only stressor for the Kroegers. Shedd learned that since the Christmas season, business had been slacking at the store. Despite the store being open long hours from early morning to nearly midnight, with Betty Jane tending to the soda fountain, the clientele was just not there. Further, after checking County records, Shedd learned that the business was heavily mortgaged.
Days continued to pass and Shedd continued to collect information and stew over the strange feeling that rolled around in his gut. At one point he looked into whether there was a way to check the amount of life insurance Kroeger may have carried on himself and his wife. The Marshall wasn’t sure what he was looking for, or exactly what his hunch really was, but he couldn’t shake that feeling. It was as if he were standing on his porch watching a tornado approaching, but powerless to do anything about it.
To Be Continued…