Runnels County jailer had colorful history

Staff Writer
Runnels County Register
L-R: Mattie Wilke (mother), Julia Wilke (child), Walter Wilke (standy by desk), Adolph Wilke, L.A. Wilke (seated) and twins Olga and Alma Wilke.

Adolph Wilke was a man of many faces, from being the Runnels County Jailer to courthouse custodian, ice wagon owner and landscaper. He is one of the most colorful characters in the history of Runnels County. Wilke was a man of determination and resolve, who undertook any venture with equal zeal.

In the early 1900s, one of his ventures was as an ice wagon owner. When ice shipments arrived in 40 lbs blocks, he would cut them into smaller portions, usually 12.5 or 25-pound blocks, and sell them for a nickel or dime, depending on size. On one stifling hot west Texas summer afternoon, Wilke was due to receive a shipment of ice via the local railroad. As the story goes, another man, who also owned an ice wagon, took the delivery of ice that was meant for Wilke. This, as you can imagine, upset Wilke, somewhat. According to his great-grandson, Mike Cox, who spoke with newspaper, "Papa put on his gun and was going to go to town." Fortunately, for the ice hijacker who Wilke was going after, Wilke's wife, Mattie, stepped in and put an end to the "ice war."

Joyce Daffern, a granddaughter of Adolph, gave an interview, along with Cox, at the Runnels County Courthouse. Daffern's link to the old Runnels County Jail is in her DNA, "My mother, Julia Wilke was born in the old jail."

Wilke's many endeavors included selling lemonade and hamburgers at the old Confederate Reunion in Ballinger. The last known date of the former reunion being held in Ballinger was August 12, 1904.

In addition to being the jailer, Wilke was also the janitor for the Runnels County Courthouse. One morning Wilke entered the courthouse to work and found a county clerk dead from an apparent suicide. A partially empty bottle of strychnine was found next to her. It's said that the partially empty bottle of poison is securely locked in a safe in the courthouse.

Cox relates the story of a man who often found himself inebriated and in the jail under the care of Wilke. The man would eventually sober up the next day and do trustee work until he had served his time. One day the man wanted to go hunting with his grandfather but didn't have a shotgun. Cox says that Wilke loaned the man his shotgun so that he could go hunting. After the man returned from hunting he checked into the jail and gave the shotgun back to Wilke. Adding to the Wilke lore is the zoo that he started on the grounds of the Runnels County Courthouse. Cox said that many people would come to the zoo to see the grand attraction, "Adolph Wilke and his Four-Legged Chicken."

Like many families who settled the area, Wilke was a first-generation German immigrant. His family had settled in the Fredericksburg area and later moved out to Runnels County. Cox says that Wilke and his brothers bought 200 acres of land to farm on in 1886. A prolonged drought ended any hope of successfully farming the land so they moved on, returning to the area in the early 1900s.

Wilke's son, L.A. Wilke, was also an entreprenuer who formed a company in Ballinger after World War II. The company purchased land in Ballinger to put a subdivision on. He believed that the boom to the region during the war, mainly the establishment of Bruce Field, would lend itself to a population boom. The boom never happened and the subdivision was never built. L.A. was a determined man who became a widely respected outdoors writer and who worked as a reporter and editor of the old Ballinger Ledger for over 2 decades. L.A. passed away on December 11, 1984.

The Wilke family history, just as with most of Runnels County history, is steeped in legend and lore, surrounding the colorful characters who settled this land. Some have descendants still tending to the acreage that have been in the family for 6 generations or more.

Runnels County officials in the early 1900s. Adolph Wilke is the tall man standing in the center, wearing the bow tie.