-by Greg Hoots
The year was 1931. The Great Depression had changed the face of America. Hardworking folks who had never experienced unemployment, hunger, homelessness, and the inability to feed their families were now facing those grim realities. While some people sought public assistance to survive, others turned to a life of crime for the same reason. An unintended effect of the national prohibition on alcohol during the 1920s was the growth of organized crime, along with the glorification of criminals.
The Depression led to a new type of criminal, the modern highwayman. No armed robber gained more notoriety and fame than John Dillinger, who robbed 24 banks and four police stations between June of 1933 through July of 1934. Dillinger was portrayed in the press as a Robin Hood-like character, and his fame spread overnight.
There was another type of highwayman who gained much less fame but operated with impunity during the 1930s, the gas station holdup man. Numerous small-time criminals resorted to targeting gas stations which were sprinkled liberally across the highways of the nation. The stations were often remote, yet operated long hours. Their operators usually had cash on hand, and most of the stations were located conveniently for the robbers on major roads leading in and out of towns.
Bud Conley, Roosevelt Reynolds, and Earl Montgomery, all of Emporia, Kansas, were just such men, highwaymen who specialized in robbing gas stations. The three men were familiar with Eskridge, a little burg of 725 people with six gas stations, located just 35-miles north of Emporia. The plan was to rob them all, and if that didn’t work, they’d just rob as many as they could.
It was almost 7:30 pm on Tuesday evening, October 13, 1931 when the three highwaymen from Emporia approached Eskridge on the state road from the south. Mike Duff operated a Standard Oil station at “the corners,” the center of the original town of Eskridge. After the town moved about a mile to the west in 1880, “the corners” was on the southeast edge of Eskridge. The men pulled to the pumps at Duff’s station and asked for five gallons of gas. After Duff pumped the fuel into the Model A Ford sedan, the driver asked him to check the air in the tires. When Duff squatted on the ground to check the air pressure, one of the men stuck a pistol into the station attendant’s ribs, while the other two men entered the station to empty the cash box, taking less than five dollars. The robbers discovered another prize in Duff’s station, a .38 caliber Colt revolver with a six-inch barrel.
The robbers ordered Duff to remove his shoes, as they forced him into the right side of the rear seat of their car while Bud Conley sat beside the Eskridge station owner, holding him at gunpoint. The men drove straight north on Bronc Rider Road for a mile to its intersection with State Road 4. There, the men turned left and drove for a half mile, entering Eskridge from the north. The next station they planned to rob was Lonnie Peoples’ station located on the west side of Highway 4, about a half-mile north of the Eskridge depot. Peoples’ station was busy with several cars parked in the drive and four or five people milling about the driveway. The robbers preferred deserted stations with no customers, so as they drove slowly past People’s station, one of the men in the car was heard by Lonnie People’s to say, “there isn’t any hurry about it.” The robbers rolled south on Main Street, past Ray Schiesser Implement Company which operated a station located just a block north of the depot, as they entered the downtown district. By 7:30 pm, Schiesser’s business was closed for the day.
On the northeast corner of 2nd Avenue and Main Street, Cloice Meeker operated a Sinclair station, while on the southeast corner of the same intersection, the Haubold & Burnett garage owned a Standard Oil station. Again, the robbers eschewed the crowds downtown, so Rosy Reynolds turned the bandits’ car east on 2nd Avenue, which was the State road connecting Highways 4 and 11.
Meanwhile, Lonnie Peoples was certain that the three men who drove past his station were “casing” his business in preparation for a robbery. Peoples grabbed his 30-30 hunting rifle, and he and his brother, Bill, jumped into Peoples’ car and headed into the center of town, looking for the outlaws. By this time, the bandits had passed the Eskridge Grade School and Eskridge Rural High School, and as the road made a bend to the east, the robbers arrived at Van Newell’s station, the sixth station that the men had cased. The bandits pulled into Newell’s station, and the two men in the front seat exited the car with their guns drawn. Reynolds confronted Van Newell in the driveway, holding him at gunpoint while Montgomery entered the station, demanding cash from Mrs. Newell.
While the Peoples brothers were searching the downtown area, they met Louie Tranter who joined the men in the hunt. Unable to find the highwaymen, Lonnie Peoples suggested that they drive to Van Newell’s station, and the men proceeded along the same path as the robbers had taken. When the men arrived at the station, the robbery was in progress. Rosy Reynolds was holding Van Newell at gunpoint in the driveway, and Earl Montgomery was in the station confronting Mrs. Newell and a customer, Eldon McKnight. Outside, Lonnie Peoples swung the barrel of his rifle through the car window, leveling it at Reynolds, ordering him to drop the pistol that he was pointing at Newell. According to Peoples, Reynolds, said, “You shoot me, and I’ll kill this guy,” pointing the revolver directly at Newell. Peoples held his fire, and seconds later Montgomery emerged from the station with the loot, amounting to fifteen dollars, and the two robbers jumped into their car, racing the engine as they left the driveway, still with Conley and Duff in the back seat.
There was a short stretch of county road which ran in front of Newell’s station, and as it had rained in the days just prior to the robbery, the road was a muddy mess. As the bandits’ car pulled onto the road, they became mired in the mud as their back tires spun wildly. Van Newell entered the station and retrieved a 22-caliber rifle that the robbers had not discovered, while Lonnie Peoples exited his car to get a clear shot at the robbers’ Ford. Peoples squeezed the trigger of his rifle, and the first shot entered the back of the vehicle, striking Bud Conley, killing him instantly. Conley slumped to his right on top of Mike Duff as Peoples fired a second round into the escaping vehicle. That round struck the driver, Rosy Reynolds in the back, and the bullet exited his chest and entered the metal dashboard. A third shot from Peoples’ rifle ripped through the robbers’ vehicle, and then, Newell joined the gunfight, firing a half-dozen shots with the 22-rifle, his bullets piercing the car’s windows and top.
Despite being badly wounded, Reynolds continued driving and managed to make it to the sand road where the getaway car gained traction and speed. Within a couple of miles, however, Reynolds became sick and was forced to stop the car, whereupon Earl Montgomery took the wheel, as the robbers continued their flight.
Lonnie and Bill Peoples, Louie Tranter, and Van Newell piled into Peoples’ car and chased the fleeing robbers’ vehicle which was headed for the Wabaunsee-Lyon county line. Within a couple of miles of leaving Eskridge, Peoples’ car ran out of gas, leaving the posse stranded. Gordon Willard, who lived near the Newell station, had witnessed the melee and got into his car, ready to join the chase, as another vehicle driven by Eskridge High School coach Carl Baker, containing passengers Alva Truman, Lyle White and Walter Turnbull, sped by at 70-miles-per-hour, also pursuing the robbers. Willard joined the chase behind Baker’s car, and he soon came upon Lonnie Peoples’ stranded vehicle. The four men in Peoples’ automobile got into Willard’s car, and the five men sped down the sand highway to the south. A third pursuit vehicle containing Delbert McMaster, Harry Mossman and Charlie Shaw joined in the chase behind Gordon Willard’s car.
About a mile north of Admire, the robbers’ car pulled to the side of the road on the shoulder. The first of the pursuing cars, driven by Coach Baker, came upon the bandits’ car, and since no one in his car was armed and two of his passengers were high school students, Baker decided to drive past the stopped Ford. The next car to arrive, driven by Gordon Willard, contained two armed men, Lonnie Peoples and Van Newell. They approached the car to find that Earl Montgomery, the driver, had escaped on foot. Inside the car, Rosy Reynolds lay bleeding from a chest wound in the front passenger seat, and Bud Conley lay dead in the back seat, next to a badly shaken but unhurt Mike Duff.
Duff told his rescuers that Montgomery was armed with Duff’s revolver, and that when the robber exited the car, he waved the gun in Duff’s face, saying, “You make a move and I’ll blow you to hell!” With that, Montgomery disappeared into the night on foot. In a few minutes, a Lyon County deputy from Admire arrived at the scene, and the deputy instructed the Eskridge posse to drive the bandits’ car to Eskridge where it was parked on Main Street in front of the Royal Café. Rosy Reynolds was taken to Dr. Frank Stewart’s office where Dr. Stewart and Dr. C. W. Walker performed emergency treatment on Reynolds for his wounds. Reynolds was described in the Eskridge newspaper as being a “tough cookie,” refusing to tell his name or Montgomery’s name under questioning in Eskridge before he was transferred to a Topeka hospital. Bud Conley’s body lay in the back seat of the bullet-ridden Model-A on Main Street for more than two hours, and it became an instant local oddity. The Eskridge Independent reported, “Practically the whole town of Eskridge was out to see the dead bandit and the wounded man on the operating table.”
While Reynolds was receiving treatment, an Eskridge farmer, Guy Johnston viewed the wounded man, identifying him as the person who robbed Newell’s station a month prior while Johnston was present. According to The Eskridge Independent, the robber, allegedly Reynolds, “fired shots in the ground at Johnston’s feet when he did not lift his hands quickly enough.”
After some time, Sheriff August Thowe arrived from Alma and ordered that Conley’s body be taken to Eskridge undertaker Eugene Martin’s mortuary located on Main Street almost directly across from the Royal Café where the robbers’ car was parked.
It was almost midnight when the dead and wounded were removed from the scene, and the Eskridge citizens began to disperse and return home for the night.
News of the robbery and its violent conclusion spread like wildfire. A newspaper story detailing the robbery and the shooting of the bandits was immediately published in a Topeka newspaper and was syndicated nationally by the Associated Press, appearing in thousands of papers across the nation.
Three days later on October 16th, Earl Montgomery was apprehended after he had stolen a car in Emporia and robbed Burt Wilson’s gas station. Two local men, Emmett Ingalls and Harry Gentner chased Montgomery from the scene of the robbery, overtaking the bandit’s car about three miles from town near the Cottonwood River, where the bandit fired a pistol repeatedly at the two men. The Emporia men went to a nearby farm house and called the authorities who arrived at the scene and took Montgomery into custody. Upon the arrival of the sheriff’s officers, Montgomery threw his pistol in the river, but he confessed that the gun had been Mike Duff’s pistol that had been taken in the Eskridge robbery three days earlier. Despite the search efforts of the Lyon County Sheriff and Duff, himself, the pistol was never recovered.
Earl Montgomery pleaded guilty in the Emporia station robbery and was sentenced to serve 10 to 21 years in the Kansas penitentiary in Lansing. Montgomery was never charged in the Eskridge robbery. After several weeks of hospitalization in Topeka, Roosevelt Reynolds recovered from the wounds sustained in the Eskridge holdup and appeared in Alma in Judge Carey Carroll’s court, facing charges of armed robbery in connection with the Eskridge robberies. Carroll sentenced Reynolds to ten years in prison on each count to be served consecutively, and the convicted highwayman was taken immediately from the courthouse in Alma to the Kansas Penitentiary in Lansing.
The incarceration of the two robbers in the penitentiary did not end the story of the great gas station holdup. On the one-year anniversary of the robbery and every year thereafter for years, a family member of Bud Conley sent Alden Laird (A. L.) “Bumps” Peoples, Lonnie Peoples’ younger brother, a letter telling the Peoples family what an injustice had occurred in the killing of Bud Conley during the holdup. The unsigned letters had an ominous tone, and A. L. Peoples’ wife, Ruth, was fearful for years of a reprisal from the Conley family. Finally, after decades, the letters stopped arriving, and much of the history of the bloody robbery faded into a dim memory.
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