Thursday, November 17, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XCII): An interview with Arkansas's oldest sheriff/farmer

I spent last week-end in Newton County, Arkansas, where I grew up. Part of the time there I was conducting oral history interviews for the Pryor Center for Arkansas's Oral and Visual History. One of the interviews was with Arkansas's oldest living sheriff, Guy Bennett, who was sheriff of Newton County from 1960 to 1966. Though Bennett was recognized as the state's oldest living sheriff in 2008 (read more here), he repeatedly referred to himself in our interview as the "oldest living farmer/sheriff." At top is a photo of Bennett during his tenure as Newton County Sheriff. Below is a photo I took of Bennett after our interview; he is 91 years old.

Bennett told me stories of his childhood, family, and migration to Newton County from Amarillo, Texas, where he was born. His father had bought some land near Cowell, in the southern part of the county, in anticipation of retirement. Guy moved to the area to begin farming that land at the age of 18, a high school graduate who couldn't get work elsewhere during the Great Depression. Bennett married a local woman, Delora "Tom" Copeland, and they had one daughter, Carolyn, born in 1942.

Long before Bennett became sheriff, he had a fascinating encounter with the law--or more precisely, with two who flouted it. Two men who had escaped the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, kidnapped Bennett from his home. They tied him up with his own shirt, stuffing some of it into his mouth, and bound his feet with wire. The fugitives left Bennett beneath a mountain overhang and made off with his car. Bennett told of how he managed to extricate himself from the wire so that he could climb up to Highway 7 and get assistance from a nearby resident, arriving at the home of a local mail carrier with his hands tied and mouth still gagged. Authorities later captured the escapees in neighboring Pope County, where they had wrecked and abandoned Bennett's stolen car before making off with another.

Bennett told of how the Democratic Party machine in Newton County recruited him to run for sheriff. He listed perhaps a dozen men who called him into a meeting in the Gould Building in Jasper one day to propose the idea. To hear Bennett tell it, he acquiesced, though he said he never really understood why they had tapped him to be their candidate. (I suspect it had something to do with his physical size--as the photos attest). Bennett was elected to the post in November 1959. When I asked him about the issues he dealt with during his six years in office, he mentioned "wildcat stills," the introduction of marijuana into the county by "hippies," and the three murders that occurred during his tenure. As for the stills, he confirmed that he did shut them down--unpopular as it was among some of his constituents. He told me he also acted against the cultivators and purveyors of marijuana.

Bennett recalled the three murders in detail. In one instance, a landowner near Erbie had shot a deer hunter who was trespassing on his land. Bennett said the death was ruled self-defense. In another incident, a man near Compton shot and killed his wife, then 8 months pregnant. Bennett explained that the man was never charged--that his attorney "got him off" because the man was a veteran. Bennett seemed to think this was the wrong outcome, explaining that he "just arrested them," that he didn't make decisions about charging. I wonder if what Bennett was referring to was an early case of relying on something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder to influence an outcome in a criminal case.

When I asked about Bennett's salary as sheriff, he told me he didn't draw one. Instead, he was paid $.10 for each arrest he made and $.01 for each mile driven. For the latter, however, he had to supply his own car. Bennett reported that the Ford Galaxy he bought when he was elected sheriff was the first new car he had ever owned. He told how he took it down to the state penitentiary to get it duly equipped, a journey he said he made with my grandfather, Dennis Pruitt, then the county treasurer. In addition to these fee-based payments, Bennett said he was also paid a small percent of the county's revenue from property taxes, a sum that never exceeded $4,000/year. At that time, the office of county sheriff was merged with that of county collector, so this scheme made a bit more sense. The two offices have since been separated, and county sheriffs in Arkansas now earn a salary.

Growing up, I had known Bennett as the tall, broad-shouldered man at the Revenue Office (equivalent to the California DMV). Turns out, that was only one of the many jobs he held in his life. I began the interview by focusing on his time as sheriff, but he later revealed the litany of jobs he had held in his adult life. Among them were timber woods and stave mill worker, and bus driver for Deer school. As for his time in the Revenue Office, he seemed to enjoy telling me how two different Republican governors (Winthrop Rockefeller and Frank White) had, upon their election, fired him--or attempted to do so--as consequences of patronage politics run amok. Of course, this also suggests that his involvement with the local Democratic Party had something to do with his getting the post in the first place.

Interesting to me was how Bennett ran together in our interview all of these jobs he had held ... almost as if being the county sheriff were really no different to being a school bus driver. They were all just how he earned a living, supported his family. That struck me as a rural perspective--very egalitarian, very matter of fact, very down to earth. Bennett also told me about that which, apparently, made him what he characterized as a "farmer/sheriff"--and not only a sheriff. Bennett was a goat farmer for many years, and he told me how Carnation came to his farm every day to collect the milk, for a time transporting it only as far as Jasper (7 miles) where a factory (apparently sited where City Hall now stands) made cheese from it. He also told me how selling off the more scenic parts of his farm (a place known as Asia Point) for homesites--many of them for newcomers to the county--had permitted him to be comfortable in his retirement and old age.

I'll save the rest of Bennett's story for a later post.

1 comment:

Azar said...

This was a really refreshing and nice story to read. Mr. Bennett seems like a very proud, yet humble man who was able to accomplish a lot of things in life while residing in a small town.

It's not often that you meet people who have been involved in so many jobs that require high dedication levels and different skill sets. His adaptability and down to earth approach certainly seem like they have been keys in his success.