Old Runnels County jail brings back memories

Staff Writer
Runnels County Register
Garrett "Mac" McWilliams tels of how the levers operated the jail cells. McWiliams lived in the jail for 6 years, from 1924-1930 while his father, Earl McWilliams, was Runnels County Sheriff.

Garrett “Mac” McWilliams is 95-years old and is a walking history book about the old Runnels County Jail. McWilliams’ father, Richmond E. “Earl” McWilliams, was sheriff in Runnels County from 1924 to 1930. The elder McWilliams’ didn’t quit his law enforcement career after he lost the 1930 election by 11 votes. Instead of leaving the law enforcement life, Earl joined the Texas Rangers. But it was Earl’s time as Runnels County Sheriff and Mac’s growing up at the jail that helped shape the life of his son.

In 1925, the first year he was in office, Earl single-handedly stopped a would-be lynch mob. A man, by the name of John Smith, shot a good friend of Earl’s, Sheriff Richard Pauley of Coleman. When mobs threatened to lynch Smith, Earl stepped in and stopped them when the mob, some wearing hoods, came to him and demanded that he turn Smith over to them. Earl held his shotgun as he confronted the mob, “I'm not turning my prisoner over to a mob. He will be tried by a jury. Justice will be served. Now I think it best for everyone to just go home."

"And if we don't?" one of the mob shouted. "What are you going to do about it?"

McWilliams calmly replied with, "Then I say you'll be the first to know."

Even though Earl as not yet a Ranger, he lived up to the Texas Ranger motto, “One riot, one Ranger.” It was a glimpse of things to come for the man who would later spend over 30 years with the Texas Rangers.

"Dad was a fighter," McWilliams said. "He was tough. As a deputy sheriff in Ozona, when Dad was in his 60s, he walked into a bar to make an arrest, and the men there tried to mob him. Dad pulled out his blackjack, and by the time he was through, four of them were on the floor and he was making his arrest.“

Earl died in 1966, after a valiant battle against cancer.

Mac came to visit the Runnels County Jail on August 22. He was accompanied by family and was greeted by the Runnels County Historical Commission and Runnels County chief deputy Tito Mata.

Mac relived memories of growing up in the jail, where is mother cooked for the prisoners his father tended to. Mac was one of 10 children, 5 brothers and 5 sisters. Of the children, 8 lived in the ground floor living quarters at the jail. Mac reminisced as he led the group of family and others through the jail. He pointed out where bedrooms had been, showers, where the food was prepared and even went up to the 2nd and 3rd floors to explain how the jail levers controlled certain cells.

Mac’s stories had everyone’s undivided attention as he told how his mother talked his father into releasing one prisoner for a few hours, “Mom asked the prisoner if he promised to come back after dinner and he said that he did. The prisoner came back as promised.”

The trip through the jail was a trip down memory lane for Mac. His memory still sharp as he was able to walk up and down 2 flights of tall, narrow stairs. The stories were also filled with humor, as Mac told about his father’s trips to the ’picture shows,’ “Dad wore his badge under the lapel of his jacket and he’d go into the picture shows and flash his badge to get in for free. One day at church they passed the collection plate and when it got to dad, he flashed his badge.” The story brings out rounds of laughter as it also brings out a glint in Mac’s eyes, those memories still fresh and the fondness for his parents just as apparent now as it must have been when he was a child growing up in the jail.

Mac spoke of legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer sponsoring Earl to become a Ranger. Hamer is the man who eventually tracked down Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer gave the young Mac an “honorary Texas Ranger,” badge. Mac said that Earl was unhappy when Hamer selected Ranger Maney Gault to go with him in the confrontation with Bonnie and Clyde on May 23, 1934.

The visit went about 2 hours, the entire time everyone was regaled with Mac’s stories. He was a living, walking, talking history of the Runnels County jail in the late 1920s. Mac even spoke of the Noyes statue that he and his siblings used to play around. The family is proud of its rich history, and deservedly so, much of that history centered around the Runnels County Jail.

The Runnels County Historical Commission recorded the visit on audio as well as in photos.

Richmond Earl McWilliams was elected Sheriff of Runnels County in 1924, 1926 and 1928. The family moved into the jail in 1925. Wife, Ella Mae Woods, cooked for the inmates. Both Richmond and Ella Mae are buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Ballinger.

Even at 95-years old, Garrett "Mac" McWilliams was able to navigate 2 flights of steep, narrow stairs as he took family and friends on a tour of the old Runnels County jail.