An antique fan collector is making these Kansas City artifacts cool again
In the days before air conditioning, electric fans were how Midwesterners beat the heat. One local collector is restoring a rare set of antique fans that once cooled travelers in Kansas City’s Union Station.
Brett Vaughan couldn’t believe his luck last year when he heard about the impending sale of two antique fans that used to cool visitors at Kansas City's Union Station.
Vaughan is a member of the American Fan Collectors Association, and for weeks before the fans became available, collectors were lighting up online discussion boards with talk and photos of the rare machines.
“It's a once in a lifetime find,” he said.
Vaughan acknowledged a friend of his was first on the scene, but after the friend's wife vetoed the purchase, Vaughan swooped in and bought the two Jandus gyro fans at an estate sale in Overland Park.
“We jumped out of bed, went to the bank and ran down to the estate sale,” Vaughan remembered with a smile.
Back in their day, the fans were the height of cooling technology. Now, though, thanks to the ubiquity of air conditioning, they are incredibly rare.
And while many old electric fans were melted down during scrap metal drives in the 1940s, Vaughan wants to bring these back from the brink.
So, a few weeks after purchasing them, he climbed a ladder to reattach the fans' brass blades and test them out.
The fans, made in 1907 by the Jandus Electric Company in Cleveland, Ohio, are mounted on an 8-foot pole — tall enough that the blades almost brush the dining room ceiling of Vaughan's Excelsior Springs home.
“I'm going to test fire this now,” Vaughan said. “I have a good feeling that these shafts will turn, because they did on the workbench.”
As the two fans start up, they rotate around the top of the pole, pushing air into every corner of the room.
“They propel themselves round and round,” Vaughan said. “There’s no motor in the center, just red axle grease and ball bearings.”
Some members of the fan club restore these devices completely, and might add things like gold pinstripes and automotive-grade paint. Vaughan usually decides to forego such measures. He said he appreciates the history that comes with an old fan.
"It's only original once," Vaughan said. "I'm going to keep these original with a little bit of cleaning."
“I like the rust, I like the sweat on some of these old things. There's copper plate here, there's steel here, there's cast iron,” he continued.
During the week, Vaughan works for Ford at the Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo. In his free time, though, he’s a hardcore antique fan collector, and his basement workshop is full of them.
“The Christmas closet is full of fans (too),” Vaughan said. “The garden garage is full of fans and — well, you're talking to a fan of fans, so I bring these mechanical orphans home and we try to breathe life into them!”
At the estate sale, Vaughan was told the fans belonged to a maintenance man who worked at Union Station. If that's true, Vaughan said they represent an important piece of Kansas City history.
'A glimpse of stardom'
The fans' provenance appears legitimate. Historic photos of Union Station show the building was outfitted with them during the height of train travel through the region.
"These were mounted in the marble countertops at the Harvey House,” Vaughan said.
Fred Harvey's chain of restaurants for railway travelers started in Kansas in 1876. They were known for good food, excellent service and waitresses called "Harvey Girls."
Photographer Roy Inman remembers Fred Harvey’s as a swanky place to get a bite to eat.
He was just a boy in the 1940s, when Union Station served more than half a million travelers each year. Inman spent a couple years documenting the restoration of Union Station in the 1990s. He said, in its heyday, it was the best place in town to people-watch.
“People came to Fred Harvey's just for the experience," Inman said. "And also the possibility of seeing a star — as in Hollywood star.”
Just after World War II, cross-country trains like the Super Chief would often lay over in Kansas City. The passenger train was sometimes marketed as "The Train of the Stars" because of the celebrities it carried between Chicago and Los Angeles.
“You'd see Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, and Vivien Leigh,” Inman remembered with a laugh. “So people came to get a glimpse of stardom, celebrities. Of course, Harry Truman traveled by train from Washington, D.C., back here.”
Inman said fans would have been indispensable for Union Station travelers on the sweltering summer days locals are used to.
“I, of course, come from an era when there were very few air-conditioned homes. And on really, really hot days, my mom, dad and I would spend part of the day either in the movies or a Katz drugstore,” Inman said, to enjoy the cooled air that was available in select public places.
“So electric fans, I mean, that's how you survived,” he said.
Back in his Excelsior Springs workshop, Vaughan plans to continue to tinker with these hundred-year-old machines.
“Preservation is just appreciating something, and seeing the art in it — even though it may be mass-produced,” Vaughan said. “There is quality there, and it is worth keeping and preserving so future generations have an idea of the quality that we were pumping out at the beginning of the last century.”
Once he's finished restoring the Union Station fans, Vaughan said they’ll bring a cool breeze to Midwestern summers for many more years to come.