An editorial in the Clayton Tribune once declared, “Robberies, fights, shootings, knifings, street scuffles. They are all part of the contemporary history of Rabun County and Clayton.” It sounded like this was a pretty rough and lawless place. While some serious crimes were committed, there is a lighter side to some of the criminal activity back in the day as well as the laws enacted to make Clayton a safe town.
“Woman Batters Husband With Stick Of Wood,” was the headline of a January 1927 Clayton Tribune article. “The reports are that Allen Goss…had gone to the home of his wife apparently to effect a reconciliation and not meeting with a reception that pleased him, proceeded to shoot-up the house…Mrs. Goss placed a chair for his convenience, and when he was not suspecting, she secured a stick of wood and struck him with it inflicting a wound from which he is not expected to recover.” There is no account of what eventually happened to either Mr. Goss or his enraged wife.
“A.C. Floyd…reports that a large number of his young White Leghorn Pullets have been stolen,” according to an August 1930 Tribune story. “He points out that anyone who raises White Leghorns might sell young roosters, but would keep the pullets for laying. If you know of anyone who has suddenly acquired a large number of White Leghorn pullets, this information might help to locate the thief.” It is not known if Mr. Floyd ever recovered his chickens.
The Case of the Stolen Roasting Ears
On September 9, 1931, the Clayton Tribune reported, “Last Thursday night…two men and a woman from South Carolina were discovered in the act of appropriating roasting ears (corn) from the field of Mr. Bent Cannon and loading the back seat of their car…The matter was reported to Chief Hollifield, who summoned aid and followed them down the Chechero Road (Highway 76 East). They were brought back to town and tried the next morning. All three of them got a year of free entertainment for the roasting ears.”
Sheriffs were not the only town officials hard at work. Clayton’s city officials also were conscientious, enacting a myriad of ordinances to make the town safe and livable. They took a strict, no-nonsense approach to the law. Scofflaws faced chain gangs, roadwork and stiff fines.
As a farming community, Clayton had a problem with livestock running loose through the streets. Think stampedes down Main Street. To address this issue, an ordinance was enacted prohibiting horses, mules, sheep, goats, hogs or other farm animals from “running at large” through the town.
If animals were seen running loose, the marshal had the authority to impound them until the owner was found. The owner was fined 50 cents in addition to being liable for the cost of keeping the animals until they were claimed. If unclaimed within five days, the animals would be sold at a public auction.
Dumping of Chicken Coops Prohibited
Sanitation and cleanliness were paramount concerns of city government. An ordinance made it illegal to “place, throw or empty” hogsheads (barrels or vats), chicken coops, waste, rubbish, dead carcasses, or “any sort of filth” on sidewalks and streets. Hitching horses or other animals to trees, fences and lampposts was also prohibited, presumably to control the problem of “road apples” on streets and sidewalks. And in the interest of public health, an ordinance provided for the establishment of a “pest house” to quarantine people infected with small pox or other infectious disease.
Moonshining was Rabun County’s largest business in the 1930s, but Clayton left no doubt about where it stood on the issue of alcohol. Bringing any type of “spirituous malt, intoxicating liquor or wine” into town was strictly prohibited. Clayton was dry, at least in public.
Noise was another concern. It was illegal to make any noise at night that would “disturb public peace or the rest and quiet of the city.” And a list of Enumerated Nuisances included all unnecessary noises from locomotive, gasoline or steam engines; from saw and grist mills; and from whistles and bells. Clayton was not only dry, it was quiet.
Firing pistols, rifles and shotguns within city limits “at indiscriminate hours and places” was prohibited with the exception of using a firearm in self-defense or for protecting one’s property. More specifically, discharging a firearm was prohibited within 300 yards of Main Street and within 100 yards of any other street, alley or building. There would be no shootouts in Clayton.
Summoning Citizens to Quell Riots
Clayton officials felt the need to address the issue of riots, although the reason for this concern is not recorded. In the event of a riot, all male residents, aged 16 to 50, could be summoned by town authorities to “suppress such unrest.” A verbal call to duty was sufficient for the summons. Of course, this ordinance presumes that the men called to duty were not responsible for the riot.
The same male residents also were required to help maintain Clayton’s streets. This work was not to exceed 15 days per resident in one year. In addition, anyone convicted of violating a city ordinance could be put to work maintaining the roads or paying a fine of 75 cents a day.
Although vehicular traffic was a non-issue for a rural village in the 1930s, Clayton nonetheless had a street-crossing ordinance on the books. It was illegal to stop a vehicle or horse at a crossing to chat with a friend, since doing so might impede the flow of traffic. No traffic jams here. The same ordinance also made it illegal to drive or ride an animal on city sidewalks. The town’s speed limit was set at 15 miles per hour. Clayton meant business when it came to speeders. Violators were subject to fines of no more than $100 (a huge sum in a poor, Depression-era town), imprisonment or labor on a chain gang for 30 days.
In a nod to efficient town governance, the mayor had the authority to preserve order at council meetings. Toward this end, the mayor was empowered to suspend “irrelevant” city council debate and “command silence” at his discretion. Mayors and city council attendees might welcome this rule today. In addition, council members were fined $1.00 for missing a regular meeting after being notified. Clayton’s marshal was empowered to collect these fines from truant council members.
No doubt about it. Clayton was a law and order town. Officials dealt with everything from chicken coops and errant cattle to rioters, noise and pest houses. And you thought we have to deal with some thorny issues today.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in January 2022.