From a Diner in Coffeyville

by Mark Dvorak

The piped in music here at the diner in Coffeyville is too loud, and it's bad. It's hard to think straight with this music playing, with this painful plate of chicken-fried steak in front of me. I thought it might be a safe bet to order chicken-fried steak in this part of the country.

The streets running east and west in downtown Coffeyville, Kansas are numbered, and the streets running north and south are named after trees. And along them stand a sad collection of sagging buildings and empty storefronts. The Midland Theatre is gone. Dirty glass and boarded up windows are everywhere, save for the diner, the pawn shop, the pool hall, the antique store, and a handful of other hangers-on who haven't yet heard that it's time to quit in Coffeyville.

"It's a ghost town," said Mr. Jay D. Foster, Coffeyville born in nineteen twenty-seven, about his hometown. "Eleven thousand souls still call Coffeyville home," he added, "and we are forty churches strong, including the Black Baptists east of the tracks."

There are bunches of banks too, in Coffeyville, and a very long time ago a gang led by the Dalton boys tried to rob two of them on the very same day.

Over on Eighth Street is the Dalton Raid Museum. Back when business boomed and the Coffeyville coffers flowed with cash and the streets buzzed with action, them Dalton boys and their buddies one night grew frisky. They hatched a plan that involved robbing two banks simultaneously. Not only would they get the money, but perhaps they would also be remembered for something not even the James gang could pull off.

At some point, this idea apparently seemed like a good one, for the morning of October 5, 1892 found the Dalton gang riding into town dressed in disguises and hell-bent on stealing enough money to set themselves up for the rest of their lives. Boys, they sure did mess up your clothes.

Word on the street spread quickly that the Daltons were back in town and looking for trouble. By the time the alarm sounded, the good citizens of Coffeyville were already armed with rifles and shot guns supplied by the Isham Hardware on Union Street. They chased you boys back up the alley towards the place where your horses were tied, and in only a few minutes time, the whole thing was over.

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Four defenders lay dead with just a single shot in them apiece, including the city marshall. Two fell right away in front of the First National Bank, and two others a little after, down the alley right near the jail, where you boys made your last run for it; where you got yourselves riddled with Winchester rounds and buckshot.

And then they laid you boys out on the sidewalk like four first prizes, right in front of the Condon Bank for all of Coffeyville to see. You were being made an example of then, that's for sure, and you are being made an example of now. Likenesses of your lifeless bodies are painted on the sidewalk at the very spot, recalling a photograph on display at the museum, taken after the failed raid. Nobody messes with the Condon Bank.

The new Super Wal-Mart went up last year, just east of Coffeyville along the state route. It replaced the old Wal-Mart on the west end of town, and you can't get there from downtown by walking. And a parking spot close to the front door is very hard to find, that's for sure.

You can buy nearly anything you want at the new Super Wal-Mart. You can get brown pants and car parts and groceries and liquor and new school clothes for the kids. You can get your eyes checked and your hair cut. You can join the Army.

And now that the bones of downtown Coffeyville have been picked clean, I wonder about the buzzards who first smelled death and circled the sky over Coffeyville, Kansas. In came the chain restaurant boys, the chain motel boys, the chain auto parts boys, and the chain quick-mart boys. In came the Wal-Mart. They all applied for loans from the big money boys, and set up shop along the state route.

It's about the profit, just as it's always been, no matter who plans the holdup. And as I saw through the remainder of my chicken-fried steak, leather and sawdust and paste, I wonder about the towns where those vampires live, they who made the decisions to back the national chain businesses that bled downtown Coffeyville dry. I wonder where they buy their groceries and their hardware. I wonder where they get shoes for their kids. Do they get their hair cut in the same barber shop their fathers went to? Do they ask, "Say boy's, how's it goin' today?" when they walk in the door? In which diner do they order their eggs and coffee?

And I wonder what the citizens of Coffeyville thought they were defending the morning of the raid way back in 1892. Maybe the Daltons had tired of the work and worry. Maybe they were weary from being broke and hungry all the time. Perhaps the hangovers and loneliness became too much.

Maybe though, those boys saw something. And perhaps they saw it coming all along, even from way back then. And now, the downtown of Coffeyville, Kansas is just as dead as those Dalton boys are. And downtown Coffeyville will be less remembered. That's for sure.


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