Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Anthony Harden (August 2014)
“Honorable sir,” the energetic voice on voicemail had said, “this is Detective Forrest Jarrett. Retired. I would love to meet and talk with you. Meet me at Turkey Creek Grill in downtown Leicester at noon.”
Now the closest thing to a definable downtown in Leicester, North Carolina, is a stretch of Highway 63 a few miles west-northwest of Asheville where a scattering of stores, businesses, a community center, and a post office line the road before it climbs up and away towards Doggett Gap and the serious hills.
By that reckoning, the Turkey Creek Grill is in downtown Leicester. As you walk in, you face a plywood mural: the couple from Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” with, in the background, a barn on whose roof is the invitation, “Eat at Turkey Creek Grill.” It’s a light, unselfconsciously cheerful place, with today’s specials on a standing chalkboard and a farm-fresh young hostess in a Turkey Creek Grill t-shirt and cutoffs, who tells us, the Capital at Play delegation, that the gentleman we’re looking for is waiting for us in the far corner booth.
Forrest Jarrett is seated beneath a beautifully blocked Stetson of Ecuadorian straw the color of vanilla ice cream. The band is unusual. Most such hats have only a narrow ribbon for decoration. This hatband is of a pebbly, leatherish material, tan with a brown chevron pattern and gathered into a flat bow on one side like the ribbon of a fedora. From the bow protrudes a fingerlike extension made up of flattened, bonelike segments.
“Rattlesnake,” Jarrett says, obviously pleased that we’ve noticed. “Nine foot long, or near enough. Killed him at that Norfolk Southern 16,000-acre huntin’ preserve down at St. George [South Carolina]. This good ol’ boy, friend of mine, took part of the skin and made it into this hatband. I said, if I’m gonna have lunch with these magazine gentlemen, I should wear my best hat.”
Jarrett slides out of the booth, shakes hands, removes the Stetson and proffers it for inspection. He has a full head of silver-white hair and a florid, good-natured face that resembles the Western character actor Chill Wills. He squints a little, as though looking into bright sunlight. This, together with a constant three-quarter smile, gives him an expression of genial shrewdness.
Hatless, he seems to be a shade over six feet tall and a shade under 200 pounds, but he seems larger. His back is straight, and he has the warm, dry, just-firm-enough handshake of a man who has nothing to prove. He is dressed like a gentleman rancher come into town: spotless white western-style shirt, bolo tie set with a dark stone, western-cut whipcord trousers over mid-calf boots of plain, polished tan leather. Altogether he has the appearance and movements of a well-conditioned man of perhaps seventy.
He is eighty-six years old.
“Everything’s good here,” he says as our waitress, another pretty young blonde in Turkey Creek t-shirt and Daisy Dukes, approaches. “Come over here, Bonnie,” he beckons. “Come here, honey.”
“Hey, Mr. Jarrett,” she beams.
“Tell us what the special is, honey,” Jarrett beams back.
“Catfish sandwich with one side.”
There ensues an intense debate over what to have for lunch. Jarrett settles on a veggie plate. At Turkey Creek Grill a vegetable plate is not the same as one ordered in, say, Biltmore Village. It’s fried okra, fried squash, and fried green tomatoes. This formality having been dealt with, Miss Bonnie goes off to fetch sweet tea and Jarrett sits back expansively and asks, “Do y’all—does your circulation go into Madison County?” Assured that it does, he continues, “When I come out of service, my good kinfolks, Mr. Zeno Ponder, sent word to me by my first cousin, Marvin Ball, that he’d see me in hell before I’d get a job in Madison County. So I’d just like for this publication to go down there. He’s gone, but his folks are still there.”
For those too young or too recently arrived to have a point of reference, Zeno Ponder was for four decades the political kingpin of Madison County. The county was his fiefdom, and Ponder ran it on exactly the same business model as an eighteenth-century Scottish Highland clan, with himself as chief. His brother, the equally legendary E.Y. Ponder, was sheriff, and another Ponder brother was mayor of Marshall, the county seat. It’s still a place where auld acquaintance—and old affronts—are not forgot. Jarret’s interest in making sure a feature article about him in a magazine will attract the right people recalls Faulkner’s observation: “The past isn’t dead; it’s not even past.”
“Zeno’s father and my grandmother were born out on the farm where I live,” Jarrett explains, “But then our great-grandfather Ponder, who was also Zeno’s great-grandfather, he passed away at thirty-six. He went through the Civil War. He started with the South and went to the North—I’ll come back to that—and he died the year after the war was over. Our old homeplace joined the old Ponder homeplace over in Rector Corner.”
Now, technically Rector Corner is in northernmost Buncombe County, above Leicester but shy of the Madison County line. But in those days a neighborhood was exactly that, a locality where families who knew each other, for good or ill, had lived cheek by jowl since time out of mind. Physical features—hillsides, streams, trails, rocks, old trees—formed its boundaries by consensus and often did not conform precisely to lines on a map, or on a plat in a book at the courthouse.
“My grandmother ended up with her half of the farm,” Jarrett continues, “and then my grandfather traded a little piece of property and not much money for the other half of the property where I live, and the Ponders thought the Jarretts cheated them—I think maybe they did, a little bit. And ever after that, well—” he shrugs. “Course the politics was different then, too. So it ended up like the Hatfields and the McCoys.”
Not dead, not even past…
“But that aside,” Jarrett says, attacking his just-arrived veggie plate, “I’m just a poor old wore-out railroad pistol-toter, and I’m glad to be back in the mountains after thirty-seven years and two weeks on the railroad, twelve different moves and we’re just glad to be at home.”
Jarrett takes a bite of fried green tomato, glances around and lean inward across the table as though about to divulge a confidence. It’s an old and still effective storyteller’s trick.
“Name Jesse James Bailey mean anything to you?” he asks.
“A great deal,” comes the reply.
“He’s the man that hired me,” Jarrett almost whispers.
For those who don’t know the name—that would be most of the world outside Western North Carolina and also, as time passes, an increasing number of natives—Jesse James Bailey was one of the few honest-to-God legends in his own time. He is best known for having served as sheriff of both Madison and Buncombe Counties in the 1920s and ’30s, and for cleaning up Madison at the height of Prohibition, when there was a still in every thicket and guns guarding the stills. Elliot Ness could have learned a thing or two from Jesse James Bailey; his name is still spoken, among those who knew or knew of him, with something approaching awe.
“I’ve got his picture in the 175-year-old log cabin that you’ll see when we go out there. He and my father were good friends, and he found me a job with the Southern Railway. I didn’t know there was even such a thing as railroad police, but I ended up going to New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 16, 1953, as a relief watchman making three hundred and twenty-five dollars a month and tickled to death to get it. Little bit later I went over to Chalmette, where they fought the Battle of New Orleans and Southern had some big yards and got made full watchman. Then got promoted in August of 1955 to junior patrolman and sent to Birmingham, Alabama. January of ’57 I made senior patrolman, went to Knoxville, Tennessee. Then, to broaden my work experience, I got on the wrong side of the fence in the politics that were goin’ on in the railroad police department and got a lateral transfer to Sheffield, Alabama. That was okay. Lotta catfish over there, lots of good hunting.”
By the time Bonnie arrives with more sweet tea, Jarrett has arrived at the part of his narrative where he got his first big professional break.
“Mr. D. W. Brosnan was running the railroad out of Asheville,and he got mad at the division chief here in Asheville, so the division chief in Sheffield got laterally transferred up here. We had a good relationship and his cousin was head of the Southern Railway police department. They sent for me and I come up to Asheville in December of ’65.
“Mr. Brosnan had been so hard on labor that he was afraid the labor folks would kill him,” Jarrett remembers, “so from then until [Brosnan] retired in ’67, that [acting as Brosnan’s unofficial bodyguard] was about all I done—myself and Dick Perkins, who was chief up here, and Charlie Ray—wherever Mr. Brosnan went, we went. If he went to the Kentucky Derby, we went to the Kentucky Derby. If he went to the board meeting in New York, we went to New York. Wherever he went, some of us were always there.”
After Brosnan retired, Jarrett did a stint in Hickory before landing a promotion to lieutenant and a posting in Memphis. This, he says, was in the summer of 1968, not long after the King assassination. “I loved Memphis,” he says, “I stayed there till ’75. Had a wonderful time. My college roommate [he went to “A little school for poor boys like me, in Kentucky, called Berea”] was right over there in Lone Oak, Arkansas, and we got in with a bunch of duck hunters. Good huntin’ all over in there… quail…” He seems to see a covey rise from the other end of the restaurant, then jerks himself back to his primary subject when he is asked what was the most dangerous law enforcement situation he was ever in.
SIDE NOTE: In 1967, D. W. Brosnan was informed by Southern’s board of directors that he would have to step down as Chairman and CEO of the Southern Railway. He remained on the board of directors of the Southern until 1983. Brosnan died in 1985.
“December of 1977,” he responds immediately. “United Mine Workers [UMWs] was on strike and the railroad wasn’t unionized and was hauling coal. They was a roving band of UMWs—about three hundred men and women. They’d done been out about five days, drunk, mean… and they was comin’ for us.
“I had fifteen railroad police with me. We saw ‘em comin’. I picked up a radio and told the mine run, ‘y’all ease on out of here, we’ve got company.’ They blocked us [and the track]. I told my boys, ‘get on out, and when y’all hit the ground, rack ‘em back—you know there’s no other sound like a shotgun bein’ racked back—and they’ll know we’re ready.” Jarrett’s boys did as they were told; fifteen shotguns went chick-kachick. Then Jarrett alone stood up and spoke to the mob.
“I told ‘em our employees weren’t United Mine Workers, that we work for the railroad and were required by law to serve our customers. I said, ‘I know that y’all can kill us, but the first ten or fifteen of y’all make a move, we’re going to kill you first. So y’all decide who the first ten or fifteen are gonna be and just step on up here.’
“Right then, here came the Scott County sheriff and five loads of deputies. I felt like the cavalry had arrived.
SIDE NOTE: The UMW strike in 1977 (Bituminous Coal Strike of 1977–1978) was a 110-day national coal strike in the United States led by the United Mine Workers of America, AFL-CIO. It began December 6, 1977 and ended on March 19, 1978. It is generally considered a successful union strike, although the contract was not beneficial to union members.
“Anyway,” he says, resuming the chronology, “I made chief [of Southern Railway Police] in ’78 and went to Atlanta. Atlanta’s the heartbeat of the Norfolk Southern and always will be, but they were trying to run it from Roanoke. Now, trying to run a railroad out of Roanoke is like trying to have sex standing up in a hammock, but that’s what was happening, so I went to Roanoke.
SIDE NOTE: On October 14, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Staggers Rail Act, which enabled railroads to compete without government regulation. CSX Corp. was formed by a railroad merger in November. In response, the Southern Railway merged with Norfolk and Western Railway to form the Norfolk Southern Railway in 1982.
“Well,” he says, “the new vice president resented authority and he hated the police, he and I couldn’t just get on the same page, we weren’t even in the same book. So in 1990 I told my wife, ‘When we get our bonuses in March, we’re gone to North Carolina. They gave me three years on my retirement—made it an even forty—and six months’ salary, and I laughed all the way home to 15 Jarrett Farm Road—built a little retirement home—and never looked back. Y’all take one of these fried tomatoes.”
“There’ve been Jarretts in these parts pretty much forever, isn’t that right?” he is asked.
“The Jarretts come from the French-German border. They was a potato family. Mine came to Charlotte; they helped survey the city of Charlotte, and then my Jarretts come on to Asheville, and the racin’ Jarretts [Ned, Dale et seq.] dropped off in Catawba County [home to Hickory Motor Speedway]. When the city of Asheville was organized, there was a Jarrett on the first city council.
“Then my people went on to Madison County, to the Laurels. There’s a Jarrett Cove over in Big Laurel. Then in 1830 my Jarretts and the O’Dells come into Sandy Mush, and they settled on what’s our old home farm in Rector Corner. Built a little house that my great-grandmother, Polly O’Dell, was born in, in 1844. My great-grandfather Obadiah Jarrett married Polly, and they lived on Low Hole Road there in Rector Corner and, like I said, he fought for the South.”
More or less.
“His heart wasn’t in it,” Jarrett explains. “He had a big family and he’d desert every spring, come home and put in a crop. The third time he deserted, they come and got him. Now great-grandmother Polly, she would watch out while he was plowin’, and she’d act like she was knittin’ and wave a white cloth at him if they came around. But this one time they slipped up and caught him.
“Zebulon Vance was governor then, and there was a whole bunch of these ol’ boys they’d caught and locked up at the penitentiary in Raleigh,” awaiting execution, by firing squad, for desertion. “They’d set ‘em up on their coffins and shoot ‘em.”
But shrewdness has never run short in the Jarrett Family. Some of his neighbors, “Teagues and Ramsays, mostly,” who had developed the same system of French leave as Jarrett’s ancestor, were duly put to death. But Obadiah, who’d been keeping up with the news, asked for and obtained a ninety-day stay of execution from Vance. Well before the postponed execution date, the war had ended. Obadiah Jarrett just shook the dust of Raleigh Penitentiary off his soleless Confederate shoes and went on home to Rector Corner.
“About fourteen months after that, my grandfather, Zebulon B. Vance Jarrett, was born.” Jarrett winks.
This brings on talk of soldiers generally and from there it’s a short step to Jarrett’s own military career, how it ended, and how everything that came after was the karmic result of that ending.
He met and married his wife, Alene, who had been in training to be an army nurse. He got drafted and was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, home of the First Armored Division, where he began training on a tank crew.
“I was in a heavy tank outfit,” he remembers, “Now on a heavy tank you’ve got a loader, a gunner, and a tank commander, and they rotate. And the trigger for the 90mm gun is there on the floor. You’re supposed to count to three and then fire the round.
“Well, the loader was scared of that 90mm round—they weigh about eighty pounds—and he couldn’t close the breach tight, and I jumped down into the tank from outside just as that gunner kid hit the trigger.”
The recoiling gun caught Jarrett in the back and side. “I was busted up right bad,” he says. “Ruptured two disks; that’s why I walk like I’m crippled up now,” he says, referring to his slight limp.
The accident dashed Jarrett’s plan to return to Rector Corner with his wife and take up farming. “I grew up on an old one-mule farm,” he says. “I’d hoped to have me at least a two-mule farm. We had four farms up in here, and I was looking to do something with them.”
And so it came to pass that, deprived of his livelihood and looking for about any job he could find, Jarrett tweaked Jesse James Bailey’s streak of compassion and found himself hired as a night watchman for the railroad.
Which brings us full circle and to the end of lunch.
As we make our way out of Turkey Creek Grill, a lean, hatchet-faced elderly man in overalls and a worn engineer’s cap lays a hand on Jarrett’s arm. “Do you know me?” He asks with a craggy grin. “You remember who I am?”
Jarrett obviously does. “Look out here,” he grins back. Then leaning towards the man, he says in that confidential undertone, “You know they’re gonna let that road bid soon?”
“Yeah?” says the man.
“Oh yeah,” Jarrett replies. “So you stay outta trouble, hear?”
“I want to be just like you when I grow up,” the other man says. They both cackle. The man waves and departs.
“Eh law,” says Jarrett, still chuckling. “Y’all follow me on out to the house. I’m in that red pickup yonder.”
So we follow Forrest Jarrett’s sparkling, scarlet, extended cab pickup north by northwest and mostly uphill through some of the last and prettiest undeveloped land in Buncombe County: rolling pastureland, mostly, interrupted here and there by hedgerows, a barn or two, and a silo. A blacksnake scoots across a road too warm to be comfortable for it and disappears into shade on the other side. Midsummer lies over everything like mosquito netting.
The red truck makes a right where a regulation green sign announces “Jarrett Farm Road,” then slows, flashing its left blinker, and turns in at a capacious asphalt driveway. We follow.
Fifteen Jarrett Farm Road disabuses an observer of any preconceived idea of a quaintly weathered farmhouse with marigolds in window boxes. Jarrett’s “little retirement home” is a long, symmetrical, red brick dwelling that sits atop a slight rise, a good fifty yards from the road on an expanse of perfectly manicured lawn. We follow Jarrett around back to where he parks his truck in front of a three-bay garage entrance.
“When we built this place,” he says, alighting from the truck, “I was thinking about doing the whole thing with two stories and big ol’ white columns. But Alene said she wanted everything on one floor, and so that’s the way we made it. Come on in.”
The lady of the house herself is in the dining room, which we cross with Jarrett leading the way. She smiles, says hello, and goes back to what she was doing. “She’s used to interviewers,” Jarrett says.
We cross a hall, and Jarrett shows us into his study/den/man-cave. It is in fact a light, airy room on the front of the house with generous windows that look across the lawn and down to the road. There are a couple of deep chairs, a love seat, and lots of shelving crammed, as the walls themselves are decorated, with memorabilia. In less careful hands this would amount to clutter, but here everything is arranged as precisely and logically as in a museum; it’s Forrest Jarrett’s life on display.
[quote float=”right”]On another wall, the keys to at least two cities, plus three railroad-model wrist (not pocket) watches, hanging by their straps, just so.[/quote]Here are framed photographs with various railroad officials and politicos, framed letters, including a thank-you note on White House stationery from Bush the Elder. On another wall, a polished billy club with scarlet braided cord bears an inscribed brass plate—a token of esteem from the Mayor of St. Louis. On another wall, the keys to at least two cities, plus three railroad-model wrist (not pocket) watches, hanging by their straps, just so.
By itself between a pair of bookends is a paperbound booklet. “That’s the thing I’m proudest of,” Jarrett says. “Go ahead and take it on down.”
It’s a copy of the bill that established a federal railroad police commission. The bill, which had been stuck in the House of Representatives, literally for decades, created a uniform, cooperative law enforcement system among railroad police division heads, whose authority had previously ended at state lines. Jarrett, a networker if there ever was one, got the bill revived and—to the extent that anyone who isn’t an elected official can—shepherded it through House and Senate and signed into law in late 1990.
“Well, I say I’m proudest of that; I guess that’s public-wise,” Jarrett says. There’s some other things.
Serving as Georgia State Chairman for the 1987 law enforcement torch run for Special Olympics. Constructing a mammoth twenty-four-foot mobile cooker which he used in part to cater fundraisers for veterans. Creating a Norfolk Southern country and western band (“One ol’ boy, he was a good musician. I kinda rescued him; he was livin’ in a corn crib, drinkin’ Jack Daniels and singin’ hymns.”), spearheading, after he retired and came home, the rescue and remodeling of the old Marshall depot and turning it into a music venue. And so on.
“Come on out back,” Jarrett says, rising. “I want to show you something.
Recrossing the hall, we notice the door is flanked by two highly polished engine bells salvaged from coal-burning locomotives. One is emblazoned with an old Southern Railway logo. “I had ‘em put that logo on there,” Jarrett says. “No telling how much that thing would be worth. I’ve got fifteen dollars in it.”
Across the back driveway, nestled in the trees, is Obadiah Jarrett’s log cabin, moved painstakingly from its original site across the Madison County line. We step into cool dimness and back a century and a half in time. Polly O’Dell Jarrett’s spinning wheel dominates one corner. Generations-old farm implements decorate the walls. The ancestral bed with an ancient and lovingly cared for patchwork quilt dominates the alcove. The bed looks freshly made because it is: the 175-year-old cabin has been unobtrusively modernized into a cozy guest house. There are, in fact, more photographs on the walls, including one of a youngish E.Y. Ponder standing beside a demolished still. “There he is,” Jarrett says. “He used to tell people, ‘Call me anytime, day or night.’ Always said that.” (In fact, this becomes a catch phrase among us for the rest of the afternoon.) Talking about Ponder, the brother of his old nemesis Zeno, seems to cue Jarrett for something else.
“Let’s go down the hill,” he says.
We pile into his truck and take a spur of the driveway that leads off into woods. The blacktop ends but a gravel road continues, now into open field rolling down to a stream. “This is actually part of old Highway 20, the stage road over into Tennessee,” he says. The road is maybe seven feet wide. Easy to imagine a wagon or a Model T navigating it, but what if somebody was coming in the opposite direction?
At the foot of the hill we cross a wooden bridge onto a flat, broad field of freshly mowed grass. Off to one side there’s a graveled area where a black iron kettle is suspended from a tripod of railroad crossties. And something else: a fireplace made up of a ring of large flat-topped stones. Jarrett points to one with his boot. “Looka here,” he says.
Professionally chiseled into each stone is a quotation and the name of the person quoted. “I heard later the monument man [who did the inscriptions] said he hadn’t never wrote on no rocks where the man could talk back.” Jarrett says. The inscriptions are in-jokes and bywords of his friends and colleagues of nearly half a century: “Namby-Pamby.” “Love Everybody.” “I can’t believe I’ve lived this clean a life.” “Best I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen 1,000.”
“I should have put E.Y.’s on there: ‘Call me day or night,’” Jarrett says. Then he grows suddenly reflective. “You know, you look back and you think, ‘What if we’d worked together.’”
“I think it would have been less interesting,” a reporter says.
Nearby stands a new, well constructed and roomy looking outhouse, complete with its own…
“Front porch,” Jarrett grins. “The only outhouse in this county with its own front porch and rocking chair. We got to get it plumbed, though. Friend of Alene’s was over here last fall a-makin’ apple butter and she got stuck on the one-holer, and she said ‘There will be a functioning toilet in here before I come back.’ So we’re gonna fix it up before the fish fry.” (Jarrett throws a large-scale cookout every summer for friends, neighbors, and politicians who find it an important summer schmoozing venue.) “Y’all come on over,” he says. “Your governor will be here and your congressman will be here.”
We disembark back up at the house and the Earl of Leicester, feet planted on his ancestral land and master of all he surveys, waves goodbye.
“Call me anytime, day or night,” he says.