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· Sheriff Fay F. Brown’s Badge: Martin E. Jolliffe and Oil Hill·
It’s Wednesday, August 10, 1927. Reno County Sheriff’s Deputy Martin E. Jolliffe is returning to Hutchinson, Kansas, on the Hutchinson Southern Railway after picking up an alleged automobile thief in Ponca City, Oklahoma.
Reno County Deputy Martin E. Jolliffe, 64, and his prisoner, Ralph Fleeman, 26, were preparing to board the train at Ponca City, Oklahoma, when Jolliffe struck up a conversation with Tom Slick, a highly successful businessman.
Slick was a wealthy oilman but at the start of his career he had the nickname “Dry Hole Slick” when he was a wildcatter, sinking oil wells, or rather sinking oil wells that produced no oil. After 1912 and the discovery of an oil gusher near Cushing, Oklahoma, dry holes were a thing of his past. From then on, Slick consistently had success discovering prolific oilfields. No one called this millionaire, “Dry Hole Slick,” any longer. His new nickname was “The King of the Wildcatters.”
Jolliffe couldn’t believe his eyes. It had been six years since he had worked as superintendent of special service for the Empire Gas & Fuel Company. His responsibilities back then focused on policing and protecting the extensive holdings of “Empire Oil” in Kansas and Oklahoma.
“You and your friend are welcome to join us,” said Slick to Jolliffe, as passengers prepared to find their seats. Accompanying Slick was Bernice, his wife; their three children, ranging in age from six years to ten; the children’s nanny; and the family’s cook. Jolliffe was quick to accept Slick’s offer after he had explained that his traveling companion was not a friend, but a prisoner in his custody for stealing an automobile from Hutchinson.
“I didn’t steal the car; I borrowed it,” said Fleeman. “My grandmother’s upset with me, she lost her grandchildren when I was divorced.”
After the passengers were settled in and the departure bells sounded, the steam engine’s whistle warned a work crew of its approach. As the train picked up speed, Slick skipped any formalities or polite talk.
“Jolliffe,” said Slick, “tell me about how the discovery of oil changed El Dorado and what you know about the oil booming company town of Oil Hill.”
Jolliffe thought for a minute about where to begin. “In 1918, I never knew any town could be so busy all day and all night as El Dorado, Kansas, and money was thrown around like it would never dry up.
“Men were putting down test wells and holes as fast as it was possible to rush them through, no expense being spared for men, materials, or equipment.
“Thousands of men, hundreds of companies, and millions in money were all linked together in the search for the black gold, and the search for oil filled the towns with people, the countryside with oil rigs and pipelines, and the railroads with overflowing traffic.
“El Dorado rolled in wealth, and traffic was as dense as the loop district of Chicago, hundreds of men swarming the streets. It was the busiest town in Kansas. Business was good for everyone. Homes and businesses were being erected everywhere and lot sales were held every week. Nearly every home was a rooming house with three to five men sleeping in one room.
“Four miles northeast of El Dorado, on top of a long rolling mound, the town of Oil Hill was born, erected to house the workers of the Empire Gas & Fuel Company. It was a drop in a bucket, but fifty shotgun homes, all alike, were built and owned by Empire Oil. There were also tents, shacks, and stores. The oil town even had cement sidewalks.
“Big brick buildings were going up in every direction, and it was a common sight to see bricklayers and carpenters working at night by electric light and natural gas.
“Drillers got $6 to $10 a day, but room and board was very high, and meals and drinks cost double the normal price. Garage men were getting rich. The streets were lined with high-priced motor cars. Traffic never ceased, night or day. And thousands of horses and mules were used to haul the heavy equipment over the prairies, which meant blacksmith shops were always busy.
“There were school houses, but no churches. The oil field people didn’t know the difference between Sunday and Monday since oil needed to be taken care of seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day.
“Oil Hill was surrounded with eighty-foot tall derricks that in mass looked like a giant forest. With your experience, you can imagine the constant, hurried pace, and noise of the machines and the workers, but most people can’t. Everything was about speed and how fast things could be done. Time was money.”
“There were some rough men working the oil fields,” said Slick. “I’ll bet you and your deputies were plenty busy.”
“Like everyone else, the work was endless,” agreed Jolliffe. “All that money created criminal opportunities. I supervised twenty-seven men to aid in the cleanup work of getting rid of whiskey and the violent element of the fields. We were successful in our mission, especially arresting the anarchists. From the start, we had to battle the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World).”
“Yeah, they created a lot of unrest with our workers, calling for strikes,” said Slick.
“Once the U.S. joined the World War, we helped end the IWW’s strikes and rebellions,” said Jolliffe. “A number of those ‘I Won’t Work’ men got acquainted with some of the vilest county jails in the country before they were sent to federal prison under the Espionage Act.
Mrs. Slick had been silently watching the passing scenery when she interrupted Jolliffe. “Mr. Jolliffe,” she said calmly, “I believe your prisoner has escaped out the window.” Her comment caused everyone nearby to stop and turn to look at the prisoner’s empty seat. He had vanished.
Jolliffe jumped up and leaned his head out the opening. Sure enough, Fleeman was tumbling down the embankment.
The lawman hurried down the aisle towards the last car, shouting for the conductor to stop the train.
Deputy Jolliffe continued at a fast pace, apologizing to customers for the disruption as he rushed to the rear of the train, yelling, “Conductor! Stop the train! Escaped prisoner!”
Once Jolliffe got to the last car, he was able to spot Fleeman standing up, dusting himself off, and checking for injuries. Because the train had been going slowly, it had encouraged Fleeman to take the risk of breaking his neck, an arm, or leg. Jolliffe considered taking a shot at the escaped prisoner but realized the fleeing felon was out of range.
Once the train was stopped, Jolliffe stepped down to the ground, tightened his gun belt, and instructed the conductor to leave his traveling bag at Medford, the next depot. He also asked the train official to notify the local sheriff to come to his assistance. That done, Jolliffe started on the chase for the escapee.
For three miles he ran the man over fields and hills, never getting close enough for gun play. Fleeman was lost when the chase led over a large hill. Jolliffe rested to await the arrival of the Medford sheriff.
When Grant County Sheriff Frank Hamilton and his deputy arrived on the scene, the chase was resumed in the sheriff’s car. The officers searched the countryside, and with the help of an alert boy at a farmhouse, they soon caught up to a man walking down the road towards Ponca City.
The officers drew up beside the man before he recognized he was back in custody. Jolliffe aimed his gun at the surprised Fleeman, who did not resist.
By the time Jolliffe and his bound-in-shackles prisoner arrived in Wichita by train, even the captive was looking forward to the jail if it offered a meal and a bed. Unfortunately, Jolliffe and his prisoner were delayed again when the Arkansas Valley Interurban (A.V.I.) Railway to Hutchinson was delayed nearly an hour outside of Wichita when the car left the tracks.
Finally, at 8:20 p.m., twelve hours after departing Ponca City, Deputy Martin E. Jolliffe drove his prisoner from the railway station to the Reno County jail. Jailer Jess Blanpied welcomed the two as he inspected his newest jailbird.
Jolliffe, 64, and Blanpied, 65, had a history as long as the life of Moses. They were both early-day lawmen in Kansas. Jolliffe was Butler County’s sheriff from 1905 to 1909; Blanpied was the top lawman in Harvey County during the years 1908-1911.
Turning to Martin Jolliffe, Jailer Jess Blanpied said, “What took you so long, old-timer? We were expecting you before supper. Have you been loafing around or are you getting too old for this work?”
Until next time, happy writing and reading.