Backroads

Fire totally consumed the Belton Flour Mill and Denby Gin in September 1911, totaling a $29,000 loss. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cities hired night watchmen to check for illegal activities, unlocked businesses, stray critters and fires. Temple businesses paid for the night watchman, who was supervised by the city. Fires were the biggest threats.

Each evening, when twilight settled like a velvet blanket over Temple, Hosea C. Rasbury packed his sidearm, saddled up his horse and wandered empty alleys looking for trouble.

His eyes adjusted to every lurking purple shadow as the sun sank deep into the prairie horizon. He was paid to watch.

Rasbury (1852–1926) was one of legions of men hired to keep watch over cities between sundown and sunrise. His was a lonely job fraught with loose dogs, rowdy adolescents, tumbling drunks and careless shop owners pestering the upstart railroad town dominated by bullets, bordellos and barrels of whiskey.

A former peace officer in Lampasas County before moving to Temple in the early 1900s, Rasbury was Temple’s night watchman who carried the weight of safety patrol.

Like so many other communities of its size, Temple’s and Belton’s police forces consisted of town marshals supplemented by one or two deputies who patrolled the city by day. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, small towns hired night watchmen who functioned separately from police. Night watchmen had the responsibility of law enforcement without the authority.

Additionally, city watchmen frequently worked at other careers in the day. John D. Hood (1870-1922) drove Belton’s horse-drawn fire trucks during daylight hours; then at sundown, he began his night rides.

While the marshal and deputies were paid from city coffers, the night watchman was appointed by the city commission, but paid by the downtown businesses who each contributed to a fund by subscription. If the shop owner paid the monthly “dues,” Rasbury was certain to check on the property. Otherwise, Rasbury ignored it. The same was true for Killeen and Bartlett that also employed night watchmen at various times.

Night watchmen were the unsung heroes of law enforcement. They received no benefits except their monthly stipend; they provided their own horse and gun. Their primary duties were keeping close eyes on downtown, especially fires, and corralling straying livestock.

Rasbury told the Temple Daily Telegram in 1914, “There is one store in this city that I have saved from burning up three times during the past 60 days.”

Temple’s watchmen double-checked each dues-paying business to make sure it was properly locked. When he found unlocked doors, he promptly notified each proprietor and sent a reminder to the Temple Daily Telegram for shop owners to lock up. One night he found a store door wide open and heard rustling in the back. He was surprised to find a large collie peacefully sleeping on flour sacks.

The watchman also broke up furtive alleyway dice games and lectured mischievous teens about curfews.

Apparently, the Temple night watchmen were paid well enough for several to apply each year. In 1912, Rasbury and James Luther Easley (1884-1943) both applied, and each had strong endorsements. Rasbury was hired, succeeding Daniel Albert McKay (1877-1940), who was hired as a full-time deputy.

The annual appointments brought intense discussion about whether Temple should have night watchmen at all. Alderman Tom Wright (1882-1951) argued that night watchmen should be members of the Temple police force and paid from the police fund.

“The merchants should not be required to hire an auxiliary service,” Wright said.

Although the mayor agreed, he admitted the city did not have the funds to cover a watchman’s salary.

Within six months on the job, business owners admitted to Rasbury that he was “the best night watchman that they have ever had.” This endorsement weighed heavily with city commissioners who reappointed him.

Two years into the job, merchants were delighted with his thoughtfulness and diligence.

“During his first year’s work, 149 doors were found open by the night watchman, but the past year there were only 110,” the Telegram reported in 1914. Open doors were invitations to pilferers, the paper continued. “The danger of robbery is fast decreasing.”

Night watchmen often found that their presence and a few choice words were enough to strike fear in a potential scofflaw. Ever wary, Rasbury late one night glimpsed shadowy figures dart behind buildings. He pulled his revolver and ordered the nocturnal strollers to come out. Seven young men in their 20s filed out. Rasbury assumed that they “had planned a little cubic poker” — his glib description of craps. Rasbury said he “gave them a little talk that ended with the admonition ‘next time, it’s the jailhouse for you.’”

Belton’s night watchman Daniel Rufus Utley (1868-1940) flushed out a back-alley dice game in 1925, which netted the city’s coffers $90 in fines.

Fire was the biggest threat. In 1922, the city of Belton instituted a punch clock system for its night watchman. Key stations were installed in eight strategic downtown locations. The night watchman carried a clock with him on his rounds and punched each station every hour.

The Belton Journal reported that the system saved the city about $3,000 annually on fire insurance rates.

The timed system helped circumvent disasters. In 1923, watchman Allen Kelso (1890-1943) spotted a burning coal pile that threatened to ignite an adjacent hardware store.

Belton’s night watchman discovered the Palace Theatre fully engulfed at 2:30 a.m. in August 1928. His actions kept the blaze from consuming the block.

The night watchman’s job could be dangerous. In 1913, Rasbury attempted to arrest a rowdy drunk fomenting a brouhaha at a seedy pool hall. The drunk swung a cue at Rasbury’s head, when the watchman shot him dead. Rasbury was indicted, but a judge later determined it was self-defense.

During one of his nightly rounds in 1913, Rasbury asked a passer-by to hold his horse while he investigated an open door. The passer-by stole Rasbury’s gun from his saddlebag.

Rasbury was philosophical. He told the Telegram he “considered himself lucky because I still have my horse and saddle.”

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