Saturday afternoon in Holdenville, Oklahoma during the forties was a
crowded, exciting place. The sidewalks, literally, did not hold the
people. Some had to walk in the streets. As often as possible we spent the
afternoon at the Dixie theatre watching Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Sunset
Carson, Tex Ritter or other of our favorite Cowboys. But we did not always
have the dime needed for a ticket. On one such occasion, my
parents parked in front of the Hughes county court house. Cousin Weldon
Jackson and I were ordered to stay on that block only. We were not to
cross the street. That was not all bad. There was plenty to do.
We started by listening to the music. Two old men
played fiddles for the many who crowded around them. They were skinny
little men, wearing overalls and blue chambray shirts. They did not sit,
but rather squatted on their heals and played. I can still picture their
long, narrow beards, hanging almost to their waists.
When we tired of the music, we moved to the horse shoe
tournament. The lawn east of the court house was huge and easily
accommodated the horse shoe crowd. Once immensely popular, this event was
waning in popularity. It was Lee Gibson's fault. No one had ever beaten
him and fewer and fewer came to try. Once, money had freely changed hands
after each bout, but Lee put a stop to that. I watched him throw nine
ringers out of ten. He often did this. He was a good natured Indian boy
from down south of the Hickory Grove community. He was a likable young
man, but few wanted to play against him.
Next was the wreck. A thirty nine ford coupe sat on the
court house lawn, all bent and twisted. It had been in a horrible wreck
the night before. They said the driver was in the hospital and would be
going to jail shortly. Whisky still dripped from every seam in the old
car. The bootlegger had been to Missouri for a load of whiskey. Sheriff
Harve Ball had been waiting for him at the county line. In the ensuing
chase, the bootlegger had wrecked his car and now lay in the hospital.
Sheriff Ball was a legend in his own time. He served Hughes county
during the thirties and forties, serving until he was into his seventies.
He had other help, a lady to ran the office and a man ran errands, but
when a bootlegger was on the run, Sheriff Ball was the one in hot pursuit.
This aroused my curiosity. I wondered what the jail was like. It was
on the third floor of the courthouse and I had never seen it. I suggested
that as our next stop. Weldon, a well behaved boy, was reluctant, but I
suggested we could at least go into the courthouse and get a drink. The
courthouse was open on Saturdays for the convenience of people who needed
a drink or a restroom. He agreed to go that far.
After the drink, I suggested we go up the first flight of stairs and
see what we could see from there. Reluctantly, he followed. There was
little to see there but the County Superintendent's office. Besides, it
was closed. But the stairs up to the jail were a magnet to me. Weldon
thought we should go back outside but I persuaded him to go just halfway
up the stairs to the jail. From there, maybe we could see over the top
into the jail. We saw nothing. I argued to go higher; he said our parents
would not approve.
While we were arguing, a voice from the head of the stairs said, "Come
on up, Boys".
We stood, scared and ready to run when the man repeated his
invitation. "Come on. I'll show you around."
We did as we were told. He led us back to a cell area,
opened the door and went in. We followed. He went back out, locked the
door and left. It was dreadfully quiet there. There did not seem to be
another soul in the jail. We soon began to panic and tried forcing the
door open. Yelling did not help. Kicking the door did no better.
This went on for some time. We were not yet hysterical but there were
tears in our eyes when he reappeared. He opened the cell door, came
in and sat on the cot.
"I did this on purpose," he said. "I wanted you to know what it is
like to be in jail and helpless. You see, I am not an employee of the
jail. I'm a prisoner. I'm a trustee but I'm still a prisoner. I cook for
the sheriff and his prisoners. I can't get out until I pay some money I
owe, and I can't pay the money until I get out. I'll be here a long time.
If you are ever tempted to do something wrong, I want you to remember what
it feels like to be helpless and in jail. Now, let me show you the rest of
He took us out to the balcony. It was eight feet wide and covered the
entire front of the third story of the court house. The stone and concrete
wall around it was three feet high. He said there had only been two
prisoners escape from Sheriff Harve Ball, and that one of those escapes
happened here. The jail had no air conditioning, no fans and with the
asphalt roof, no insulation and the top floor, it grew unbearably hot in
the afternoons. Around sunset, the prisoners were allowed out onto the
balcony to cool off.
One day a particularly agitated prisoner ran the forty
foot length of the balcony, leaped as far out as he could and clung to
branches of a giant elm tree that grew nearby. He climbed down the elm and
ran off. He was only able to remain free until shortly afternoon of the
next day. Sheriff Ball was not a man to mess with. The prisoner was not
only back in jail, he had lost his balcony privileges. No one ever tired
I do not know who the trustee was. Weldon and I were only about eight
years old at that time. But for all of my life, I have remembered that
admonition. Today, I can still feel the panic of that door closing, the
lock clicking and the helplessness we felt. I do not know what crime the
trustee had committed, but I do know, there was also some good in that
man. I wish I could tell him thank you.
Clayton Adair, Class of 1954