Former Dickens County Sheriff Recalls How It Was In Old DaysFormer Dickens County Sheriff, Johnnie Koonsman, was born in Erath County. He lived in Hale County before moving to Dickens in 1912. "I remember when Dickens Hill was too narrow to allow wagons to pass; somebody would have to wait," he reminisced. He attended Croton and Dickens schools, but had to quit to help out on the farm.
Though it has been said that no one is born a cop , Johnnie Koonsman feels otherwise. It´s in the blood, alright, he said. His older brother, Martin, rode with the Texas Rangers resigning in 1920 because "Ma"Ferguson, then Governor, was turning ´em out faster than they (violators) were going in. The world has changed drastically since the thirties and forties. Officers in the past have been "true believers" and upholders of the status quo; believed in authority, right and wrong, law and order, and a black-and-white moral code. A lot of "old truths" have been discarded. Young law enforcement officers now bring with them their historical times, shaped in the revolutionary sixties, seventies, and even eighties.
By the time he becomes a law enforcement officer, an individual brings a minimum of 21 years of individual history, view-point, self-image, and philosophy; which includes exposure not only to family and friends but to the influences of his immediate and extended society.
In 1936 young Koonsman decided to try an old family tradition of law enforcement for himself. He informed his wife of his plan to run for sheriff. (Against her better judgment, of course. Why, he´d be away from home a lot and cause her to worry for his safety!)
The election wasn´t much of a contest with Koonsman´s votes outnumbering his opponents many times. It was required of the Sheriff to live close to his work; very close. He and his wife moved into the sheriff´s living quarters in the basement of the county jail where Mrs. Koonsman would cook and serve the prisoners´ meals three times a day.
Koonsman´s first day on the job made an impression on a few folks; one in particular. The wife of a convicted-armed robber had smuggled a 45-caliber Sunbuster in to her husband only weeks before Koonsman took office. They hid the weapon in a stovepipe.
"I had known for weeks that she´d smuggled that gun in and where it was hidden. He´d (the robber) planned his escape with a cellmate who was being held for murder.I got a warrant for her arrest and she spent several months in jail, pending a Grand Jury indictment." The woman received two years in prison for her efforts in aiding an escape.
In those days, information so readily available, could be followed up without delay. Since the officers kept a warrant "handy", it was only a matter of obtaining the County Attorney´s signature to take a known violator into custody.
The law---and its enforcement procedures--- have changed, been redefined, as have the police and sheriff departments. As has society.
Today law enforcement agencies across the country are equipped with high-tech instruments to aid them in all phases of criminology. Electronic equipment such as computers, teletype, poly-graph, special surveillance devices, radios, and "bugs" help officers identify criminals and their activity, alert the officer within minutes of a violator´s criminal history and what necessary precautions to take with particular offenders, especially known felons. His vehicle is equipped to keep him in constant contact with headquarters and other units in his area. An inner-city frequency puts him in touch with fellow officers outside his jurisdiction while in pursuit. Patrol cars are equipped with special ´police package´ engines to aid officers in high-speed chases.
Armed with a .45, (six-shooter) dressed in plain clothes, and a Model-A Ford as his cruiser, Koonsman and his deputy, Hub Swann, set out to enforce the law in Dickens County. He had a telephone but usually their plans to set-up on somebody was discussed in private. They had to work hand-in-glove because if something went down, there were no signals, no way to get back-up. They had to get in right the first time.
Most violations during Koonsman´s administration consisted of theft, DWI, bootlegging, and murder. Bootlegging topped the list. Koonsman exhausted all means to get his man.
"Once I disguised myself as my father, went to the flats and bought a half-pint of whiskey from a bootlegger. By the time he figured out it was me, it was too late!"
Dickens County jail has eight cells and a run-around for exercising. It also has a trap on the top floor originally designed for "hanging." Not attractively furnished as are jail cells today, there wasn´t much a prisoner could entertain himself with. So, much of the time was spent contemplating an escape. The trap served as an escape hatch on four separate occasions while Koonsman was in office. However, each time, their ´freedom´ was short lived.
Despite the fact that Koonsman was short on police technology, escapees were captured within a brief period and returned to stand trial. The sentence received, in addition to prior criminal charges, could net a prisoner 99-years to life in the pen.
Koonsman put an end to anyone ever escaping through the trap door again. Since it wasn´t likely a hanging would be taking place anytime in the near future, Koonsman welded the trap door closed. It remains so today.
Any law enforcement officer worth his salt is not familiar with the stereotyped 40-hour workweek. He´ll be the first to say he´s on call 24 hours a day, everyday. His eyes and ears are constant antennas preserving his oath, "To serve and to protect." Many times his family does not understand why he would rather be patrolling the streets than attending a social get-together.
Personal experiences of officers have not changed so much in areas. Disappointment in a foiled bust, the criminal who gets away, the thrill of a high speed chase, and the role he plays in bringing a criminal to justice are the same today as they were 50 years ago.
Is there some truth to the cliche´ ´To catch a crook, think like one?´ No matter. Johnnie Koonsman always got his man and his method of investigation was as exceptional for the era as are techniques of today.
His investigation into a crime of passion in McAdoo sent a man to prison for murdering his wife. And, yes---he and Deputy Swann experienced the thrill of the chase. "Two bandits had stolen a car in Abilene. We got a call that they might be headed our way. Sure enough! Hub and I chased them clear to Paducah where they shot up my car. We were not injured and the bandits were caught the next day in Houston."
Pleading the ´fifth´ was unheard of in those days. Severity of the crime was determined and consideration of punishment was cut-and-dried. Drunks were jailed until sober; fined, then released. A theft violator was arraigned before the District Judge with the possibility of bonding out. Punishment for bootleggers and murders was usually an indefinite period, and sometimes life, in prison.
Once in awhile it´s necessary for a peace officer to use a little ´gentle persuasion´ when the violator resists arrest. During an investigation of domestic violence, Koonsman managed to handcuff the intoxicated man and turned his back only for a moment to gather more information. Enraged, the prisoner raised his arms in an attempt to strike Koonsman on his head with the handcuffs. Koonsman´s quick reaction left him with a slight injury to the knuckles of his right hand resulting in temporary paralysis; the only injury he sustained while in office. "I won´t say how I got him to come along without further incident," he grinned sheepishly.
After his retirement as Dickens County Sheriff, Koonsman said he missed being a lawman for some time. "Times are different now. More crime, more criminals. Due to population increase and poverty. Criminals today ´shoot first´; back then there wasn´t much trouble in getting the criminal off the street."
When asked what changes he would initiate if he were sheriff today, Koonsman said, "I would do my best under the circumstances. Law officers are handicapped, still, when it comes to organized crime. The officer´s job is better in some ways; for instance the pay and the agency benefits."
Koonsman´s administration lasted from 1936 to 1942. Fifty-three years of ideals can still be applied today though some procedures have changed. He can truly empathize with lawmen and encourages them to "keep going"--- "Treat everyone the same."
EDITOR´S NOTES: Johnnie Koonsman was born 22 September 1901 near Duffau and would have been 87 years old at the time of the newspaper interview. Both sets of his grandparents are buried at Duffau Cemetery. Jacob Koonsman (1835-1909) and Sophia Hyte Koonsman (1836-1920) were both natives of Pennsylvania and lived for several years in West Virginia before coming to Texas. Bluford Hollis (1846-1924) and Mary Etta Gillentine (1850-1936) were his maternal grandparents.
Johnnie Luster Koonsman married Jimmie Parthenia Beebe (1903-1979). He died 26 February 1993 and the couple is buried at Dickens Cemetery just east of the town of Dickens. His parents and many of his siblings are also buried at Dickens; many of his Koonsman cousins still live in and around Erath County nearly 100 years after his parents left the area for west Texas.
Funeral services for Mrs. Jimmie P. Koonsman, 76, were held Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Dickens Church of Christ, Bill McBride, Post, officiated.
Mrs. Koonsman died November 9 in the Crosbyton Hospital. She had been a resident of Dickens County for over 50 years, coming here from Littlefield. She was a member of the Dickens Church of Christ.
She is survived by her husband, Johnnie Koonsman, Dickens; a son, John L. Koonsman, Dallas; two brothers, Paul Beebe, Kermit and Royce Beebe, Taft, CA; two sisters, Mrs. Joe Stovall, Richland Hills; Mrs. Ida Rush, Okmulgee, OK; two grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Pallbearers included Harry Martin, Mansell Bragg, Pat Winkler, Virgil Hawley, Alvis Lee, and J.D. McCormick. Burial was in Dickens Cemetery.
©The Texas Spur, November, 1979
Services for Johnnie Luster Koonsman, 91, were held at 3 p.m. February 28, 1993 in the Dickens Church of Christ. Perry Mason, Lubbock minister, officiated.
Burial was in Dickens Cemetery with Campbell Funeral Home, Spur, in charge of arrangements.
Mr. Koonsman died about 10:30 p.m. February 26 in Heritage Village Nursing Home in Richardson. He was born in Erath County and had lived in Dickens most of his life. He married Jimmie Parthenia Beebe in Littlefield in May of 1926. She preceded him in death in 1979.
Koonsman served as Dickens County Sheriff from 1933 to 1940. He was a farmer and rancher and owner of Dickens Drug for many years. He was a member of the CapRock Peace Officer´s Assn. and the Church of Christ in Dickens.
Survivors include one son, John L. Koonsman, Dallas; a brother, Jim Koonsman, Afton; two grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Pallbearers included Wallace Conaway, Billy George Drennan, Harry Martin, Bill North, Kenneth Marts and Ken Beebe.
©The Texas Spur, February, 1993
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