By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily Record
We have many interesting stories in our archives, including memoirs and historical documents. Some are just too good, even too relevant, not to share. Following is a memoir written by Inez Wilcox about her husband George Wilcox, who was elected Chaves County Sheriff starting Jan. 1, 1947, and who served a four-year term of office. It has a bit of an Andy Griffith of Mayberry feel to it, but it also has a surprise or two, and a good perspective.
“Four Years in the County Jail Was an Unforgettable Experience
“My husband George Wilcox was elected Sheriff of Chaves County and took office January 1, 1947. He served two years and was re-elected without opposition for two more years. We moved from our home in Dexter to the sheriff’s quarters located in the south section of the county jail. The sheriff’s office was just across the hall from the living room of the home quarters. The county jail was built in 1900 and was almost obsolete. Everything about the jail in the home quarters was run down. Buckets were placed under the kitchen sink because it leaked. The former sheriff’s wife admonished me to empty tin cans for other leaks. Inside of the sheriff’s office it looked as though it had never seen paint. A desk and a domino table was the only furniture. Everything about the entire building was worn out.
“The jail where the prisoners were housed was upstairs. This area was also in sad need of change. In the past, a few juveniles and women were housed in the jail, so the juvenile and woman’s cells were in the same area, where they could talk across, and even reach across. The bunks were almost on top of each other, no chairs, so if you sat on the edge of your bunk your head bumped the upper bunk. The commode and lavatory were against the bunks. When meals were served in the cells the prisoner sat on the edge of his bunk, with his knees practically on the commode. All these adverse conditions were most disturbing.
“A New Jail A Must
“Mr. Wilcox set about at once to secure a new jail building. I went up and down main street telling the businessman of the conditions. I invited the county commissioners to look things over. The District Judge and all others who would use their influence were alerted to the great need for a new jail building. This was the first consideration after moving to the jail.
“The second handicap was a lack of money. Mr. Wilcox immediately met with the budget commission and set up increases in appropriations, not only for one year, but for years to come, for services to be rendered for the sheriffs office.
“At first there was only two deputies and a jailer, and one State Patrolman. Their salaries were meager. With the first increase in the budget Mr. Wilcox asked the two deputies if they would prefer an increase in salary or that he should hire another deputy. They quickly asked for an increase in salary even though they would be required to work longer hours.
“It took four years before the new jail and sheriff’s quarters became a reality, and his term of office was then over. He did not have the satisfaction of officiating in the new quarters. However many improvements were started during his four years of office.
“Community Interest Stimulated
“The Sheriffs Posse’s for men and women was organized. All members of the posse were made Honorary Deputy Sheriffs and were given appropriate badges. They were fine examples of men and women who held up the laws. In any emergency such as fire, flood, or tragedy, they would answer the call for help. When the state convention of law-enforcement officers was held in Roswell, they were of the greatest assistance. In all, they were a fine informed group of citizens of the county, always ready to cooperate with the law-enforcement officers.
“Nice uniforms were created for both the men and women of the two posses and when they rode the beautiful horses in the Eastern New Mexico State Fair Parade and the Sun Carnival in El Paso they created a stir of appreciation by all.
“Junior Sheriffs Group
“A Junior Sheriffs for boys was organized. They met each Saturday in the Courtroom of the Courthouse. One of the deputies was the instructor and gave instruction on law observance and teaching them responsibility as good citizens.
“One of the local ministers, Dr. Thompson, became the counselor for the juvenile delinquent program. Mr. Wilcox had a natural flair for his job and it was not unusual for the parents of the youth to tell him, ‘if it were not for the stigma of having my son in jail, I would say that I am grateful for him being under your guidance.’
“One very spoiled young man who found himself in jail, read nothing but funny books, he complained to his doting parents that he was starved and never had much to eat. His father was invited to view the trays of food that went up from the kitchen, and was completely convinced that his son had plenty of plain food to eat. He wanted to supply him with cake, pie, and ice cream. Mr. Wilcox said ‘fine, but you must also bring enough for everyone in the jail.’ He appealed to his church and put up such a beautiful plea that for a while the members brought in cakes and cookies and pies, but when they also saw the loaded trays of food, this soon stopped.
“Breakfast generally consisted of coffee, oatmeal, milk, hot biscuits, butter, and a large sweet rolls. The noon meal consisted of a meat, vegetables, either hot bread or two slices of bread, and dessert, mostly canned fruit. Supper was beans, with onions and salt pork, bread, fruit, and coffee. On Sundays chicken or turkey was served.
“This particular young man learned a great deal from his stay in the jail, and turned out to be a responsible citizen.
“Many drunks found themselves for an overnight stay in the jail. When they came down the next morning sober some arrogantly stated in a loud voice, ‘Where is the bar?’ We knew they could not be helped, however, if one came down with a shamed face look, saying, ‘I never dreamed I would find myself in the county jail,’ Mr. Wilcox would call a member of the Alcoholics Anonymous and someone always responded by coming over immediately to council the person. There was a close cooperation between the sheriff’s office and the Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Mr. Wilcox also promoted a close and cooperative feeling between the City Police and the Sheriff’s Deputies. The two services worked together quite harmoniously all four years of his term.
“With the increase in budget Mr. Wilcox was able to include many fine services that could be given through the county sheriff’s department. He felt that the greatest need was for prevention and rehabilitation, prevention especially for first offenders who were in the majority very young. They varied programs for helping those who found themselves in trouble, to help themselves when released. Some who were brought in were cured at just the thought of going to jail and would for ever after, stay out of trouble. One night in jail cured many.
“One particular judge sentenced a robber to six months in the county jail. This, I considered cruel as no one should have to stay in that county jail for six months. I felt he should’ve been sent to the state pen where some form of exercise is allowed. The cells to the Chaves County Jail were so small with no windows, they were much like a cage for a wild animal. The small ‘Bull Pen’ of a runaround did have barred windows and large wire screens over them that a prisoner could peer out looking upon Fourth Street and the south Courthouse lawn. The jail is of course not a clubhouse with such appointments, but a grown man or woman who finds themselves in the county jail, will not always be cured of their faults by punishment. The past certainly has proven this as jails all over the country do not lack for inmates.
“On several occasions when Mr. Wilcox had to return a woman prisoner, I would accompany him. We would visit detention homes and county jails along our way to observe the methods used that pointed to rehabilitation of the inmates. We would also review any structural plans that would be advantageous in our plans for the new county jail. A number of suggestions were passed on to the architect for our jail, but few were carried out mostly because of lack of money.
“As the last four years of Mr. Wilcox’s term approached, a number filed to run for sheriff, as he could not succeed himself. Many of the reforms that had been planned for this office and a great many of the services desired had not been reached. The new jail had not been built though it was on its way, so I decided to run for sheriff, mostly to continue the programs Mr. Wilcox had initiated.
“This proved to be a disastrous defeat. The public image of a sheriff is mostly derived from the movies, a gun playing the prominent part. (Mr. Wilcox never wore a gun.) His deputies looked up to him for advice and he was firm with them, he would council with them in detail. Sometimes a gun gives unnatural power to a man, this Mr. Wilcox was careful to guard against. During the four years he was Sheriff no officer shot and killed anyone.
“Most of the inmates, while Mr. Wilcox was Sheriff, were not desperate men. Offenders seemed to run in cycles, one month that would be men who did not pay their alimony or forged checks. Some were just drunk and disorderly, there were a few who were robbers, and only a very few murderers. Each one was a challenge, how to deal justice to him and to the public. Once in jail, every precaution was taken for security. Only one jail break was attempted.
“One day in the early afternoon, while working in the kitchen I thought I heard a noise like someone sawing upstairs in the jail, which was directly over the kitchen. I went into the office and asked Mr. Wilcox and one of the deputies to come and listen. It was indeed a prisoner sawing away, someone had passed him a small saw. He was surprised in the act.
“About 25 prisoners was the average number kept in the jail and most of them were kept for short periods, 30 to 60 days. This was fortunate, as I mentioned the facilities at the jail were not adequate for long term imprisonment.
“On many cold nights we would receive a request for a bed in jail as some would have no warm place to sleep. Many requests were made to the sheriff’s office on which no action could lawfully be taken. Once a very red-faced young man rushed in saying ‘I came to talk business, I came home a while ago and found my wife all packed up and ready to leave me, and I want you to stop her.’
“Another time a woman came in saying her husband had her purse and it had some money in it, but he would not give it to her, would an officer come over and make him give her the purse? It was fairly common for either the husband or wife to come in and say their husband or wife was missing. After a search had been put out they would later be found just out on a party.
“There were some with mental conditions who would have to be housed for a short time in the jail until committed to the state hospital. One woman would not wear her clothes but would continually talk of her many dresses and pretend to be sewing. She would say when asked to put on a dress, ‘OK,’ and pretend to zip it up the side and put on her shoes and stockings. I am happy to say that she was cured at the hospital, her malady being caused from liquor.
“The youngest prisoner we had was a nine-year-old boy who was brought in, in the police wagon. The policeman ran in saying to everyone, ‘man your guns I am bringing in a bad hombre,’ then stepped out a little boy. He had been in much trouble often and had just stolen a purse having $25 in it. He was very bold and never would tell the juvenile judge what he did with the purse. His father happened to also be in jail, so the father was put in the juvenile section with his son. After successful negotiation, we were able to send the boy to Boy’s Ranch. “However, his mother kept writing him such sob letters about how she missed him and wanted him home until they sent him back. They moved out of the state.
“One day a rancher north of town brought in what he called a flying saucer. There had been many reports all over the United States by people who claimed that they had seen a flying saucer. The rumors were in many variations. (The saucer was from a different planet, and the people flying on it were looking us over. The Germans had invented this strange contraption. Other tales that one had landed and strange looking people walked from it that quickly departed on the sighting from any onlooker.) All the papers played the stories up and many people searched the skies at night to catch sight of one. Since no one had seen a flying saucer, Mr. Wilcox called headquarters at Roswell Army Air Field and reported the find. Before he hung up the telephone almost, a military officer walked in. He quickly loaded the object into a truck and that was the last anyone had of it.
“Simultaneously the telephone began to ring with long-distance calls from newspapers in New York, England, France, also from government and military officials. The calls kept up for 24 hours straight. They would speak to no one but the sheriff. However, the officer who had picked up the suspicious looking saucer, admonished Mr. Wilcox to tell as little as possible about it, and to refer all calls to the base. A secret well-kept, for to this day we never found out if this was really a flying saucer.
“Something must be wrong with our present system of correction. Our jails are full, our state pens are full, our mental institutions are full. The challenge is great for all types of correctional institutions! The home and family are the backbone of citizenship! This just might be the place to start to build a program of prevention. Many free services are offered to farmers and the general public on the care of crops and animals, etc., but nothing on the care of children and home and family life. Until a better program is found, this might be the answer. Parents generally desire to be good parents, but have a lack of knowledge. This field has been sadly neglected.
“There is no better time to start such a program than now. The jail has been proven a failure and is a last resort for correction of human errors.
“The sheriff is much more than a man carrying a gun!”
Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.