Law enforcement in Xenia back near the turn of the century was a compact operation when all the patrolling was done on foot. Policemen were dressed in the old style uniforms with London Bobby helmets and had a close relation to the city residents.
This was an impression of one qualified to speak on such things. He is Elwood Smith, 81, of 279 North King Street. His father, Edward "Skip" Smith was Chief of Police in Xenia from 1898 to 1913. As a small boy, Elwood saw to it that city prisoners were fed. "In 1910," he recalled,"there were 5 men on the police force including the chief. Also, the entire rolling stock consisted of a horse-drawn paddy wagon garaged in a barn at the corner of Detroit and Church Streets." But Xenia was a small town then. Smith’s mother would cook for the city prisoners in her home kitchen on W. Market Street, all three meals, and Elwood would carry the meals in bread cans and wrapped with newspaper to the jail, which was located where the present jail sits.
Smith was a pupil at McKinley Elementary School at the time and would run the meals before school opened, at lunch break, and at supper. "Usually, there would be only two to three prisoners on weekdays but on the weekends, with all the drunks and shoplifters, it would rise to 25. Smith recalled a women’s cell at the jail usually housing drunken females. "They kept all the tin cups in a rack and I would fill them with coffee and served it and the meals through the bars." "For all this mom was paid 15 cents a day. There were a lot of eggs and soup prepared in our kitchen."
In the early days of this century, Xenia police, like those in other cities, were uniformed in the Keystone Cops style, complete with brass buttons, Smith remembers. Policemen had to buy their own uniforms, a problem on a monthly salary of $60. Chief Smith was paid $80 for his services. "There was no civil service in those days, no retirement, social security or hospitalization. You got your salary from the city and that was it. City population was 5,000-6,000." "The patrolman walked his beat. Cars were not in style then. A policeman was picked on the basis of good character and strong physically. Not all of them were big but there were none of the ’dumb cop’ officers. They had to be able to hold their own against drunks and in settling family problems, and they usually did," Smith chuckled.
Each patrolman went on his beat with a pair of handcuffs, his billy club in hand, and a regulation revolver. "When we needed help, he rapped that nightstick on the pavement. You could here it all over downtown and brought other officers in a hurry." When headquarters wanted to summon its on-duty officers from their beats, a red light was flashed from overhead wires at Main and Detroit Streets. The officer would then call in or get to headquarters on the double.
Smith is still proud of his father’s service. "His department, like others, earned and kept the public’s respect. Dad did a lot of personal counseling of troubled kids and domestic problems and he kept his mouth shut. There was more than one marriage he saved."
Smith added that his father’s performance came to the attention of the world-famed Pinkerton Detective Agency who asked him to join them.
Chief Smith, his son relates, would sometimes arise at 3 a.m. and go out and check to see if his officers were on the beat. "Police in those days were on a 10- to 12-hour shift. Extra men were hired for the Greene County Fair and circus duty. Since there was no vehicular traffic, there were no traffic lights and no such regulations to enforce. Most of their arrests centered around drunk and disorderly behavior and robberies. There were murders and the electric chair was used for local killers.
"Back then, the town’s leading citizens would gather at the police station, like Jobie’s today. It was the barber shop-blacksmith of Xenia - a real social center," Smith said. In spite of the hardships of such a job, Smith recalls there was little turnover. Police wanted to be policemen.
The sole Xenia Officer killed in the line of duty was a black officer named Sims, shot to death.
Elwood served on the city commission from 1935 to 1951 and for 53 years operated Smith’s bakery on W. Main Street.
There was a reputed lynching on the Court House square, Smith remembers, "but that could have been a legend. I don’t know."
Xenia followed a national trend and added cruisers to the department in the 1920s. By 1935, there was a Willys Knight cruiser, a motorcycle for the traffic cop, two shotguns for riot suppression and the first radios were installed around 1937. The 20s saw its share of bootleggers, regarded here by much of the public, which patronized them, as providing a needed service. There were stills all over town.
"Another thing I remember is coming to work at the bakery at 1 a.m. and seeing rats as big as cats running across the street. But improved garbage collection put a stop to that."