Memories of Yankeetown: CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

A. Frank Knotts

When A. F. Knotts founded Yankeetown he seemed to try to think of everything: layout, utilities, boat moorings, trash collection, and various other civil necessities including, of course, law enforcement. Prior writers (Tom Knotts and Dix Stephens) have described and shown photographs of the cage on wheels which A. F. procured to serve as a jail. A. F. also appointed Ed Marko to serve as chief of police, paid or not I don't know. In any event Ed found himself with little to do it seems, and his lawman's star came to rest in my Dad's desk drawer along with two or three other stars, all engraved "Yankeetown Police." One was for the chief, whomever that may have been--A. F., I suspect. I first discovered these badges when Dad allowed me to explore his desk drawer, under supervision, and to ask questions. Also in there, I found a set of handcuffs and a braided leather, lead-filled sap. In another part of his office he kept a couple of big nightsticks. It appeared that Dad had become the de-facto police force of the city. Whenever trouble arose that people couldn't settle on their own, someone would come for Dad. This didn't happen very often since most of the time the community pretty much ran on its own without anyone worrying about matters of law and order. There just wasn't any stealing to speak of. We never had to lock the lodge except for those rare occasions in the summer when we all might leave for a movie or for a day in the city. When that happened we would lock the front door using the rather feeble night latch just to let any out-of-towners know that we werem't open for business. Locals knew that the back door was left open so that anyone with need could access the telephone since it was the only one in town. They could come in and use it and write down the time and leave some money.

I never heard of any house burglary whatsoever. Once in a while a drunk might need a place to "sleep it off" in the jail. Orlando Johnson needed that service more often than all others combined. Nothing too exciting about that as he practically turned himself in like Otis, the Mayberry drunk on the Andy Griffith show. Some of Yankeetown's minor crimes and misdemeanors, like Mayberry's, illustrate how a small community can take care of transgressions quite effectively without the hard hand of a formal justice system. One such example involved chicken thievery.

The Case of the Vanishing Chickens

When I was ten or eleven, my mother kind of snookered me into going into the chicken business. She sat me down one day and pointed out that she needed eggs and chickens to serve at the lodge, and that the ones she bought in Ocala weren't as fresh or nice as she liked, nor were they convenient to obtain. She said that she would grant me a start-up loan to buy some chickens if I would take charge of all the care of them. Then she would purchase all my products at the going retail rate. I had my doubts about getting into this unknown territory, but I couldn't say no to my mother. To my pleasant surprise it worked out well. I learned responsibility by handling a business while making my own spending money, and Mom got a kid to do quite a bit of work with no nagging whatsoever.

Every day at dusk the chickens would retreat to the roost and I would count them and close them in. Every morning I let them out. One morning I found the coop unlatched and the count came up two short. Two or three weeks later it came up three short. Dad didn't like that one bit. That afternoon he and I strung wires and connected up a buzzer in the house to a switch we fashioned on the henhouse door, a crude burglar alarm. Each night I carefully set the switch and we waited for our clever trap to spring. And we waited some more. To a kid it seemed we waited forever. I had decided that nothing would ever happen.

Then came the big day. Sunday evening just after dark, that buzzer went off. Bang! out the back door went Corky, the fearless twenty pound terrier. Dad followed with his big nickel-plated flashlight that I so admired. Then me. Then Mom, yelling, "Frank, slow down, don't get too close!" I slowed a little.

By the time I got to the chicken yard, Dad had a very tall young man, a foot taller than Dad, backed up against the chicken yard fence like he was wallpaper. Dad was shining that bright light up the poor guy's nostrils and giving him hell. The guy squinted and turned his head to the side, but Dad kept on talking. I caught only a few of the words, "What do you think your doing stealing a little kid's chickens?' Though I couldn't catch most of Dad's words, his intonation was ckear: That guy was getting chewed out but good.

After a while, Dad walked Tall Fellow over to the gate and told him to go home. Later Dad explained why the young man seemed confused: When he had heard all of us coming he panicked and ran full tilt away from us and smashed, full speed, up against the six foot fence and knocked himself a little silly.

No formal punishment ensued. It wasn't needed. Did I forget to tell you that several neighbors had noticed the commotion and come over to investigate. Within a couple of days everyone in the whole area knew all about it: Who, what, when where. Tall Fellow had to endure shame from half the population and ridicule, for getting caught, from the other half.

In time it came to light that Tall Fellow, then about eighteen or nineteen hung out regularly with a couple of cronies and they occasionally decided to have a woodsy. In those days, to have a woodsy you needed rice, chicken, a pot to cook it in and some white lightning to whet the appetite. The boys took turns procuring chickens, and Tall Fellow just drew the unlucky time.

All ended well. After he got his adolescence out of the way Tall Fellow went on to spend a long career in public service, in law enforcement. And I never lost another chicken.

Coveting

Warning: This story gets just a wee bit racy and should be read with an adult attitude. It concerns what would be considered a crime in many jurisdictions, but in Yankeetown it was treated as misbehavior. Or, we could call it a sin since it is one of the ten "Shalt Nots" delivered to Moses so long ago.

The sinner, "Bill," as I will call him, was one of the earliest settlers in Yankeetown. He had been a long-time hunting companion of A. F. Knotts when both enjoyed their sport along the Kankakee River in northeastern Illinois. By the early nineteen hundreds that part of the country had become a lot less wild, and both men were naturally attracted to the wildness of Florida with its wonderful hunting opportunities.

Rough and uneducated, Bill nevertheless was a master painter who had learned his trade working at the sleeping car works in Pullman Illinois. Bill could paint as well as the best if he liked you and he could do poorly if you pissed him off, as when my Grandmother McGrath supervised him too closely. Bill lived to hunt working only when he chose to. He lived frugally in a one-room structure behind the lumber yard, he parted with little money. That "house" of his had few windows, no screens, no amenities. For many years he declined electrical service since that cost a minimum of two dollars per month. He lived there with "Stella," his wife who was about seventy while Bill was forty-five. She was nice, kinda shy, but she had pretty much lost her bloom.

He dressed in the most rudimentary way, usually splattered painter's white bibs or grimy tin cloth hunting pants about two sizes too large, requiring suspenders He did not bathe often nor did his clothes get washed. Typically he had at least a quarter inch of beard which bore perpetual stains of tobacco juice at the corners of his mouth. One day he explained to me that the whiskers "cameraflagged" (camouflaged) his face from the ducks which he so loved to hunt.

When he made a few dollars painting or as a hunting guide, he saved it! Under the mattress or buried in the garden, I suspect. In the middle of the depression when few folks had a dime, Bill decided that he would buy a new car and he stuffed the necessary amount (about $700) into his overalls and got a ride to the Ford dealership in Dunnellon. Many hours later he returned in his new car, very angry. Apparently he had stood around the Ford place, in his grungy clothes, all day and no one even approached or spoke to him. I suppose they took him for a bum and decided to ignore him until he went away. Bums abounded in those days and many of them looked neater than Bill. At closing time, someone did finally approach to ask him to leave at which point Bill blurted out that he wanted to buy a car. That got their attention. Why Bill was still willing to do business I don't know, but he paid cash for a brand new Ford two-door sedan.

Careful as he was with his money, he could be quite giving of himself. For example, he spent a lot of time and effort to try to introduce me to the love of his life, duck hunting. When I was ten, Dad graduated me from the four-ten single shot squirrel gun to the twenty gauge pump action. Bill had seen me do a pretty good job breaking clay pigeons and I guess he really wanted to help me get my first duck. Somehow he got my mother's approval (Dad was no problem) to take me up the coast to the marshes at the mouth of the Wacassassa River, a half-day voyage at the time.

We left Yankeetown around noon and put-putted up to Bill's houseboat. He fed me supper before we slept and then a very early breakfast. To Bill's delight we awoke to a chilly misty morning, "good weather for ducks." After breakfast he sat me in the bottom of his little ten-foot duck boat, covered me with a blanket, probably a promise to my mother was involved here, and handed me the twenty gauge shotgun. Then he diligently and quietly paddled that little boat around the marsh. For hours he paddled. No ducks.

Meanwhile the ten-year-old became warm and bored, even drowsy. When suddenly a duck, the only duck in the world that day, flushed right in front of us, the kid's eyes were open. He saw the duck but he moved not a muscle until that little pintail was half-way to Bronson.

Bill took me straight back to the houseboat and we headed home. He spoke not a word to me for the rest of that day. I couldn't find a way to tell him that I was sorry to disappoint him or to thank him for his effort. I hope hat Dad did.

The community accepted Bill, warts and all, just as it did many other local characters. I hung around the Yankeetown Garage quite a bit to get some mentoring from Cecil Woodburn who taught me some auto mechanics, welding, and how to run a lathe. Equally attractive to a lad was the opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversations of the good old boys who also hung out there. Bill, who lived only fifty yards away, made this his main place for socializing.

One day, out of the blue, Bill remarked to the assemblage, "That Ethel Wells sure is a fine-looking woman." A couple of guys nodded in agreement and the conversation went on to other things. A few days later, guileless Bill repeated the remark, a fact so generally accepted that it did not seem significant until a couple of weeks later. He simply spoke the truth. Not only did Ethel have natural good looks, she also had an open, warm personality, a ready wit, and a very pleasant manner. It did not occur to this twelve-year-old boy that Bill may have developed a fixation on Ethel for that boy had not yet experienced the profound effects which testosterone can have on the male brain.

Meanwhile, C. I., Ethel's husband, had begun to smell a rat. Perhaps Bill visited the store too often or hung around too long or something like that. That part is speculation, but this part is not. One hot summer afternoon C. I. noticed Bill lurking around the store and then C. I. saw him duck into the city waterworks pump house right across the street. That little house had only one door but it had three windows, two of which offered a good view of the store with its big plate glass front window. In a flash C. I. crossed the street, darted in that one door and caught Bill red-handed in the process of coveting. We can only guess what C. I. said to Bill. No cops came, but of course everyone for miles around knew the whole story within twenty-four hours.

Bill went into seclusion, overcome with shame and embarrassment. For at least three weeks nobody saw him. Then one day he slunk hesitantly in the door of the garage, a sad and pained look on his face and a wariness in his glance. I stood there wondering what would happen and then Cecil said, "Hi Bill, how are you?" None of the other guys let on that anything unusual may have happened in Bill's life, and bit by bit Bill resumed his role in the community.

In reflection I sometimes wonder: What if Bill had done his coveting in another community or in another time. Things probably would have become a lot more complicated.

Mr. Knotts may be contacted at knotts@yankeetown.com

November 2010

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