Books don’t just happen. While growing up, I heard stories that triggered my imagination. Stories are seeds to an author. When planted and nourished, they can become a bountiful harvest. In my case, there are several reasons why I wanted to research and write about the sheriffs of Reno County, Kansas.
When I was growing up, I regularly watched weekly westerns on television. My favorites were The Lone Ranger, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Gunsmoke. The first show was about a Texas Ranger and his faithful companion, Tonto, who fought for truth and justice. Wyatt Earp was a gunslinging town marshal fighting for law and order in Ellsworth, and later, Wichita, Kansas. Gunsmoke focused on the fictional Marshal Matt Dillon keeping the peace in Dodge City.
On the home front, I had my father, Harold L. Potter, a World War II veteran, as a real-life example of someone risking his life to make the world a safer, saner place. Since Dad was born and raised in Kansas, he was another connection to my very limited understanding of “the Western frontier.”
Our summertime family visits to Kansas, especially South Hutchinson and Hutchinson, gave me an opportunity to experience a rural community and compare it to my life growing up in suburbia. I was a wannabee wild-west deputy sheriff with no cowboy skills. I was more likely to be riding a horse on a carousel or attending a rodeo as a tourist than learning good horsemanship. And my closest experience with a six-shooter was firing a .22 rifle at Boy Scout Camp. Clearly, I was no cowboy or marksman, no Wyatt Earp or Marshal Dillon.
However, a closer look at my ancestors gave me a historical connection to the law enforcement community. My great-grandfather, James C. Potter, had been a deputy sheriff in Oklahoma after participating in the Cherokee Land Strip Run in 1893, and later became a blacksmith, city marshal, and mayor in Nickerson, Kansas.
My “Uncle Fay,” born Fay Forrest Brown, is one of my favorite Reno County lawmen, though he responded to calls for service in a motor car, not on horseback. Cora May Phares Brown, Fay’s wife, served as the county jail’s matron, cook, and accompanied Fay on many prisoner trips from 1927-1931, the two terms he served as sheriff. The couple lived at the sheriff’s residence attached to the crumbling bastille that had a reputation as an easy escape.
Fifty years after Fay hung up his badge, I was hired by the Reno County Sheriff’s Office. I began as a deputy sheriff, enforcing the law while working patrol. Once I was a member of the boys in blue, a family of sorts, I became curious as to our family tree. I wanted to know, “Who were my gunslinging ancestors?”
It wasn’t an easy question to answer. I was hired by Sheriff Jim Fountain. He and other old-timers answered my questions about former Reno County sheriffs, including Charles Heidebrecht, Roy Sheppard, and his son, Calvin Sheppard, but that was it. The institutional memory was no greater than the personal memory of employees.
There was no wall of honor in the Law Enforcement Center with photos of former sheriffs or deputies killed in action. There wasn’t even a file folder, let alone a book on the history of the sheriff’s office.
To me, an amateur historian who earned a M.A. degree in the field, the omission was an injustice, a dereliction of duty, a felony crime.
Unfortunately, the public library and the county museum had no easy answers to my inquiries. They recommended I read historical newspapers on microfilm and examine old city directories.
Within a few years of being deputized, I was producing a departmental newsletter titled the Good News Blues. It included articles I wrote after interviewing current and retired employees. My favorite column in each edition was a brief article focusing on former sheriffs, beginning with Charles C. Collins who was elected in 1872.
Researching old-time sheriffs on microfilm at the library was fun back in the 1980s but extremely time consuming. Today I can search online from my home computer during a pandemic using a search engine that didn’t exist when I started this project.
Sheriffs of Reno County has been on my bucket list for 40 years. As with many personal goals, it’s been easy for me to get side-tracked. Instead of this book, I wrote two others because I couldn’t find them in the library. Cop in the Classroom: Lessons I’ve Learned, Tales I’ve Told (2007) is a police memoir; Taking Back the Bullet: Trajectories of Self-Discovery (2017) is a novel.
In conclusion, I wrote Sheriffs of Reno County because, as a child, I was enamored with the western lawmen genre of TV shows; because of a curiosity about my ancestors who wore the badge; and because I wanted to resurrect the names and lives of all Reno County sheriffs.
The older I get the more aware I become that I’m a story saver. Like a parent, I’m passing these stories on to future generations.
Someday, when a newly hired deputy wants to know the history or DNA of the Reno County Sheriff’s Office, this book will be a place to start.
Until next time, happy writing and reading.