Pulaski County Missouri

jimmy bench sheriff

Pulaski County Courthouse 1903

Pulaski County History

As Route 66 tourists motor their way through Pulaski County, they are attracted to the beautiful Ozark Hills, rivers and streams that nestle this South-Central Missouri community. Tourism is big in Pulaski County, bringing visitors from all around the country and world. In this aspect, not much has changed since Pulaski County was founded in 1833 and named after Revolutionary War General Kazimierz Pulaski. Visitors now arrive in motor vehicles, yet two hundred years ago things were much different. Indians and traders first inhabited this area, coming by foot, horseback and stagecoach to take advantage of the rich resources that Pulaski County had (and still does) to offer.

In 1833, Waynesville was chartered as the County Seat and became a focal point of many cross-country adventurers that spanned the Mississippi River to brave the famous Trail of Tears and the Old Wire Road. The County Seat derived its name from Revolutionary War General Anthony “Mad Anthony” Wayne. Indians, Trappers, Settlers and Military men soon became very familiar with this strategically located county and migrated here to lay stake to their aspirations. One’s imagination can help visualize what most likely was some wild and lawless times in Pulaski County nearly two centuries ago. Therefore, it became time for Pulaski County to have its first “Keeper of the Peace,” so on March 4, 1833, James Campbell was sworn in as the first Pulaski County Sheriff.

Since 1940, Fort Leonard Wood has occupied a portion of Pulaski County and is a major economic resource, as well as a strategic Army Base. Having military in Pulaski County was nothing new due to Union soldiers building a fort in Waynesville, and engaging in battles with Confederate soldiers throughout the county. There have always been challenges for Sheriffs in Pulaski County; however, during the Civil War it appears the trials were elevated due to a new sheriff taking office each year. One sheriff actually abandoned his position to ride south with the Confederate States Army during the war.

Legendary and campfire stories still exist when recalling the youthful days of Pulaski County. What initially began as heroes to some transcended into trying times for lawmen when the misadventures of the James Brothers turned into a major endeavor for many Missouri Sheriffs, including Pulaski. During the Civil War, Jesse and Frank James acted as Confederate guerrillas but afterwards their killing and robbery sprees did not stop until Jesse was dead. During the outlaw James’ Gang era, folklore has it that Jesse and Frank utilized some of the many caves in Pulaski County to hide from the law and stash their stolen treasures. Some residents still visit local caves in hopes of finding buried treasures from Jesse James and other individuals who stashed gold and money in these caverns. Such stories are so prevalent that Author J.B. King, who also served two terms as the Pulaski County Sheriff, wrote about this topic in one of his books, The Tilley Treasure.

The Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office has always been located inside, or attached to, the County Courthouse on the Waynesville City Square. Civil War damage, along with a fire, destroyed the first two courthouses. The third was built in 1903 and still stands, now being used as the Pulaski County Museum. Remaining memorabilia in the old Pulaski County Collector’s office is a bullet hole resulting from an armed robbery.

While building the first three Pulaski County Courthouses, construction crews were ordered to leave several large oak trees on the grounds, which were to be used for the hanging of criminals. The last public hanging took place on the Courthouse square in 1905, when an individual from Dixon was hung for murdering another man. Sheriff Alexander Sutton was in office then, and he and Deputy Lee Baker (future Sheriff) escorted the condemned man to the gallows.

Patrolling the streets of the County Seat (Waynesville) was fairly simple for some of the earlier Pulaski County Sheriffs and City Marshals. The Pulaski County Square has always been a busy place, as one might expect of a frontier town consisting of trading posts, stores, hotels, a stage coach stop, the Courthouse and maybe even a saloon or two thrown in the mix. As a child, I was told stories dating back to the late 1930’s when Waynesville City Marshal John Harrison Hensley owned a house that sat between the City Square and the old hillside Fort. From this vantage point the County Sheriff and Marshal Hensley could control the rowdy men on the square by firing their guns into the air; therefore, disbursing the men without leaving the front porch. A “fisherman’s tale” or not, it made for a good story.

For approximately 150 years, Pulaski County has been the home to several military forts and today is proud to have the Fort Leonard Wood Army Base within our boundaries. Interstate-44 dissects the county, and is a major artery that makes access to Pulaski County an easy endeavor. Due to the above two reasons, Pulaski County has always been a challenge for the County Sheriff. To name a few, in the late 1960’s Pulaski County experienced an influx of individuals that were involved in the elicits of life, bringing Organized Crimes groups to this area. This resulted in turf-wars that turned into multiple gunfights, explosions and murders. One tragic event occurred in 1969, when a military service club manager, along with several of his young employees, were kidnapped from the club and driven to gravel road in Devil’s Elbow where they were executed.

Other notable events involving the past history of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department were the notorious manhunts for killers John Brown and Joe Johns, the shooting of Deputy Wayne Fritts in 1979, along with two deputies being taken hostage in 1968. In more recent times, two Pulaski County Deputies (Rex Larson and Don Hayden) were seriously injured after being shot while on duty; both Larson and Hayden survived and still work in the law enforcement field. Deputy Hayden was subsequently awarded the Missouri State Medal of Honor by the Governor, and Deputy Larson was a Purple Heart recipient.

The Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department is currently comprised of approximately 35 employees and 30 active Reserve deputies, who supply law enforcement services for a 550 square mile county. The Sheriff’s Office is located inside the Pulaski County Courthouse, along with the Detective Division. In a building attached to the Courthouse is the County Jail, along with Patrol Division offices. It is expected that during the 2014 calendar year approximately 14,000 calls-for-service will be received by the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department. Growth, demographics and technology has significantly changed this county over the past 181 years, but the pride and honor of each sheriff and deputy to serve Pulaski County remains as it was on March 4, 1833.