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Knuckleheads, Frank Hicks' East Bottoms shrine to roots music, takes off

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When Electric Park moved to 47th Street and the Paseo in 1908, Frank and Minnie Hobien bought the Rochester building and turned it into a boardinghouse. The three east rooms of the house — now Knuckleheads' upper floor — were rented to a doctor.

"This lady named Marie Holien lived there, and the doctor [had] delivered her," Hicks says. "Marie and her mother lived there until her mother died, and Frank Hobien let Marie stay the rest of her life."

Hicks knows the story because he had moved his business into the building across from Holien's home. "This," Hicks gestures, indicating Knuckleheads' block-long sprawl, "was a bunch of old houses. They were really old and run-down and needed to be done something with, anyway. So I slowly bought the houses, one by one."

Hicks demolished the houses in favor of a parking lot. Eventually, he acquired the future heart of Knuckleheads — Holien's old railroad boardinghouse — from the bank, after Holien told him that she was moving, at age 71, into a nursing home.

"Nobody wanted it," he says. "I mean, it didn't look nothing like it does now. It wasn't in bad shape. It just wasn't great-looking. But who the hell's gonna buy it? Who the hell's gonna buy a house down here?"

Hicks, for one. After using the Holien house as storage, he turned it into a showroom in 1997 for his new venture: rehabilitating motorcycles. "I owned a body shop, so it was a no-brainer. I'd buy an old motorcycle and fix it up. One day, my wife opened the garage door, and there were six Harleys sitting there in the garage, and she's like, 'You need to do something. I can't get my car in.' Pretty soon, it had really become a business, and I didn't want it to be. I'm like, 'What the hell?' It just happened like that."

He called it F.O.G. Cycles. "You know what it stood for?" Hicks asks, smiling. He leans over the table conspiratorially and lowers his voice. "Fucking old guys." He laughs.

But Hicks had to confront an obvious question: how to lure people down to the East Bottoms. The answer came in the form of a flatbed trailer, some kegs and a couple of blues riffs. Hicks began to put together street parties on the stretch of road between F.O.G. Cycles and Mid-City Collision Repair. "The neighbors wasn't complaining because I was the neighbors," he says. "The first band I ever put out there called itself Fresh Brew. It's Danielle [Schnebelen] from Trampled Under Foot. She was 17 years old and played out there on the flatbed."

There were more than just bands. Hicks' parties were a mini Sturgis in KC, with bike contests, games and vendors. Most important, Hicks offered free beer.

It wasn't long before Hicks had ushered F.O.G. Cycles out of its East Bottoms obscurity and onto Kansas City's radar. "By that time, we were giving so much beer away that, hell, I had to be open six days a week to pay for the beer," Hicks says. "So we got a liquor license."

Hicks opened a tiny bar in 2001 and, in a nod to the Three Stooges, called it Knuckleheads. "We were only open on Saturdays, from noon to six," he says. "Well, six became seven, seven became eight, eight became nine, and so on. Knuckleheads kept growing, so we added tables and chairs and such, and the bike side kept getting smaller and smaller. We thought, What are we going to do with these bikes?"

The transition of the building's use augured another change. "The motorcycle business started becoming ... not real lucrative," Hicks says. He decided to close F.O.G. Cycles in 2004 after it lost money two years in a row. "I sold $80,000 worth of parts [in the shop] for $15,000, just because I was done," he says. But the F.O.G. street parties lived on through Knuckleheads: Laughter and local music echoed down Rochester almost every night.

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