Legendary Lawman?


Buck Garrett has received little recognition in the last two decades. It is surprising though, because his career as a peace officer--a long and fruitful one-- spanned several decades. He worked as a posseman early on, then as a deputy U.S. Marshal. Eventualy Garrett became one of the most colorfull, contraversial, and powerfull sheriffs Oklahoma has ever known.

Garrett was born on 24, May,1871 , in Teneese. From there he moved with his family to Paris, Texas, as a child. It was in Paris that Buck got his first taste of law-enforcement, when, at the age of 18, he became a posseman . And surprisingly enough, it was his affiliation with the U.S. Marshals that led to his being recruited to serve as a "hired gun" in the Johnson County War of Wyoming.

Garrett " joined Frank Wolcott's regulators, a group of more than fifty gunmen hired by the cattlemen to clean the settlers out in Johnson County. On April 9, 1892, Wolcott and Frank Canton led the army of gunmen toward Buffalo, where they heard that Nate Champion and a fellow gunman, Nick Ray, were holed up at the nearby K. C. ranch. Once at the ranch the Regulator's took a wagon and set it afire then sent it crashing into the log cabin in which the men were holed up in. As the building was burning, Champion dove out the front door, his clothes a smoking and his guns a blazing. However, fifty guns were zeroed in on him and he was cut down in a instance." After Wolcott and Canton's men were pinned down for several days on a neighboring ranch by local law-enforcement sympatheitc to the settlers cause, the Army was called in to put an end to the situation. Young Garrett, along with Frank Canton and the others, was arrested but never tried or convicted. Buck and the other minor players in this historical event boarded trains, left town quietly,and much to the satisfaction of public officials, simply disapeared.

After returning to Texas, Garrett continued his work for the U.S. Marshal's office. It was while serving as a deputy marshal Buck became engaged in the hunt for the last of the Dalton gang, Bill Dalton, who was found and killed near Ardmore I.T., in 1894. Some accounts of the incident even credit Garrett with leading the posse who tracked the infamous outlaw down. And at least one author, Sam Henderson, reports Garrett as being the man who shot and killed Dalton while he resisted arrest. The following year, in 1895, three court districts were established in the Indian Territory: Muskogee, McAlester, and Ardmore. Garrett was among some of the first U.S. Marshals to serve them, along with "HECK THOMAS, BOB HUTCHINS, BUD BALLEW, DUTCH SPENCER, JACK MARTIAN, and Col. J. H. MERSHON from Fort Smith."

Garrett and his wife, Ida Mae, lived in Ardmore. Each was remembered as having a "heart of gold." For example, during Thanksgiving and Chistmas, Buck would provide his prisoners at the Carter County jail with a holiday feast. Also, when he felt a suspect would not be provided proper legal counsel by a court appointed attorney, he would hire the defendant one of Ardmore's best to represent him. He paid for all this out of his own pocket. And as for "Ma", she would often take in folks that were down on their luck, and give them room and board untill they could get on their feet.

While Buck was "handsome and charismatic", Ida Mae was quit the opposite. He was well spoken, and always impeciably dressed. In addition to the silver star of a lawmwn, he wore large diamond rings and other jewelry. "Ma", on the other hand, dressed plainly and curse words were her favorite means of expression. While he fought the badmen, she owned and operated a rooming house. Ida Mae was totaly devoted to her beloved Buck, and remained so throughout his life. However, Buck was known to "keep company" with at least a few of the young ladies that lived in his wife's establishment.

Garrett may not have been a faithful husband, but he was a good lawman, and quit a politician, too. The latter two factors led to his being elected as Ardmore's Chief of Police, in 1905. It was a positon he would hold untill he resigned, in 1910, to run for Sheriff of Carter County. He won the election in a landslide. His career was off and running. In the end, Buck Garrett would be elected to the office five consecutive times!

He seldom, if ever, carried a gun from the time he became Police Chief, untill his ouster as sheriff, in 1922. He was fearless and the outlaw element knew it. He would subdue a suspect with his fist rather than by the use of a fire arm. Or, short of that, simply approach the law-breaker and tell him he was going to jail. Without a punch being thrown or a shot being fired, many an outlaw was taken into custody by Garrett. Amazing considering the type of folks that lived in Ardmore and the rest of Carter County in those days.

"Ardmore was a hang out of horse thieves, train robbers, and every type of character found on the frontier." It "wasn't very big, but it was the largest town that Indian Territory could boast of, and even then, nobody could boast very much."It's main artery was called Caddo Street, famous for its "establishments of entertainment and refreshment." The endless fist fights and shoot outs that took place in these "joints" "earned for these few blocks the sobriquet of 'Bloody Caddo'."

Besides individual troublemakers like "Woblin Willie", there were also the family gangs who operated within Garrett's jurisdiction. The Keys, The Fords, and Tom Ford's brothers inlaw, the Loves. They were a headache to the Garrett administration, because of thier involment in small time bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, countless fist and knife fights, and murder. The folks in Carter County held Buck Garrett in high reguard for his efforts in keeping things in check.

As if the long time residents of Carter County wasn't enough for Garrett, an oilboom took place while he was in office and brought with it more trouble. The central point for all the activity was Wirt, also known as "Ragtown". The population of the surrounding oilfield went from zero to 20,000 almost instantly, and Wirt was over run by lawless roughnecks. Consequently, in the true tradition of the old Wild West, Ragtown "had a 'man for breakfast' most every mourning."

Ragtown roughnecks, lacking the structure of a more stable comunity, drank, gambled, fought, robbed, hornswagled, and whored like there was no tomorrow. On his first raid into the area "Buck Garrett rounded up 140 gallons of whiskey, ten bootleggers, and a tentful of gambling paraphenalia." Ragtown's lawlessness escalated to a point where the sheriff's forces were called out to stop a riot about evey three or four days. At that point, Garrett appointed Bud Ballew as his "special oilfield deputy."

One deputy, 20,000 citizens. Ballew rose to the challenge, and became "one of the most legendary of the oilfield lawmen." He killed at least 8 men in the course of his duties. His rough methods became controversial, however. And folks began to wonder "which side of the law Garrett and Ballew were really on."

Garett and his deputys were removed from office, in January of 1922. "Gossip charged them with complicity in the oilfield underworld." After all, Garrett and Ballew were both well off compared to many others. This was more likely a result of their oilwell speculation and cattle ranching than any illegal doings. The charges were never proved. Still others say that Buck Garrett's oppositon to the K.K.K. was the cause of his ouster. None the less, he was out. Afterwards, Garrett used his conections with the Governer to get Ballew and himself appointed to a task force investigating a ring of car thieves:It gave he and Ballew the ability to carry firearms legally. That was the undoing of Ballew in some respects. Because, in May of that same year, he was shot dead by police officers in Wichita Falls, Texas. They claimed he reached for his gun while resisting arrest on charges of public intoxication. No other single event solidified the fact that Garrett's reign was over more than the death of Bud Ballew.

Life moved on for Buck Garrett. He kept offices in Ardmore where he continued speculation in oilwells, and minded other matters. After his removal from office, and until his death, Garrett was a candidate in every election thereafter. He proved to be a "formidable factor", but was never again successful, however. He and "Ma" split up. The lawman moved to Oklahoma City when he was called upon, in 1923, by the ousted governor J. C. Walton to be one the "rough and ready" men he "chose to surround him in the hectic days of martial law" that followed.

Buck Garrett "drew notoriety" for his participation in that affair, as well as some of his other adventures. At least on a local level. However, the Clara Smith(Hamon) case, in 1921, brought him recognition on a much larger scale. She was accused of murdering Jake Hamon, an oil tycoon and politician who was slated for a seat on president Hardings' cabinet. Smith was married to one of Hamon's cousins, and she and Jake Hamon were a having a "scandalous affair". It was belived that Hamon tried to end the affair and Clara shot him. He died several days later. Smith left town quickly and charges were brought against her for his murder. It was rumored that sheriff Garrett knew her whereabouts, and that she was hiding in Mexico. Once a noted newspaper man from Chicago found she truly was hiding in Mexico and was attempting to contact her there, Garrett left town and brought Smith back to stand trial. Smith was aquitted in the end, after a week long sensational trial, however. Because of the physical abuse she had suffered at the hand of Jake Hamon. For that week, though, writters for every major newspaper in the country was in Ardmore to report on the case. And once there, they became enamored with Garrett and his number one deputy, Bud Ballew. Thus the two lawmen became known "from Peking, China to London, England as the two remaing specimens of the wild west sheriffs of the movie reels and yellow backed novels."

Sadly, the days following his death were the last times Buck Garrett's name was to grace the newspapers on a national, if not worldwide scale. Garrett sufferd a stroke while living in Oklahoma City, and Ida Mae brought her man back to Ardmore to nurse him until his death--"a result of paralysis"--on May the 6th, 1929.

He was remembered then as a" Famed Man-Hunter of (the) Southwest." Hopefully, western historians and writers in the near future will rediscover Buck Garrett and shed more light on his life and career. Perhaps he may even reach the status of "legend", because he was made of the "right stuff." The stuff legends are made of.

(C) 1999 Stephen W. Riner

You can reach me by e-mail at: Steve Riner