ByJack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian

The nation was ending its second year under the 18th Amendment (prohibition). From this intentionally moral legislation had come some of the shadiest people and practices in America’s history, said author Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The legislation had a built-in seven-year time span and would eventually be repealed, the only Constitutional Amendment to meet that fate.

It was December 16, 1921, and Folkston’s mayor and council were anxious to have its new Chief of Police, John H. Barnes, report to work. Mobster and illegal liquor traffic poured through the little city moving whiskey to the northern cities. The County Commission had put on a full-time motorcycle officer in an attempt to halt the liquor traffic passing through its borders.

Donald F. Pearce, the town’s mayor, met Barnes as he arrived in town that cold winter day. With Pearce was C.E. Stroup, the town’s clerk. The two were impressed with what they saw. A towering man with horn-rimmed glasses that looked as though he could handle any situation.

Barnes, 30 years old, was wearing a black suit and a wide-brimmed black felt hat. He was two weeks late reporting to this new job at Folkston from his previous job at Forsyth in Monroe County, but the mayor and council had approved of the delay.

It seems that one of Barnes’ enemies in Forsyth had heard of his resignation to take the Folkston job, and told Barnes that he had better leave Forsyth while he still was able. Barnes worked there an additional two weeks to show the critic he would not be run out of town.

Mayor Pearce gathered the town’s Board of Aldermen, J.W. Rodgers, B.G. McDonald, W.B. Smith, W.R. Wainwright and William Mizell, Jr. He introduced the new Chief of Police to them all. They were all just as impressed as Pearce and Stroup had been earlier. Barnes looked like he could have single-handedly kept order in Dodge City during its wild days.

Barnes, strolling around the little town on his first day, noticed change taking place. Concrete sidewalks were being poured on each side of Main Street, replacing the wooden walkway which had been there. A new water tank was going up on the city’s lot downtown. The ugly tank in the middle of Main Street was being finally town down. He liked what he saw in his new home town.

Right away the people of Folkston knew that Chief Barnes was in charge and afraid of no one. In his first week, the town bully was standing near Jack Davis’s store on Main Street. Barnes was in the drug store across the street talking with Mayor Pearce.

“It might be just as well if we just left that man alone” someone told Barnes, pointing to the bully. The police chief went directly across to the bully, and stuck out his big right hand, “I’m Chief Barnes” he smiled, “and I’m glad to meet you.” The bully, taken aback by the unusual approach, shook Barnes’ hand and never gave the police chief a minute’s trouble.

The people of Folkston warmed to Barnes and his family quickly. Few people ever knew his first name, he was Chief Barnes, or Mr. Barns, to almost everyone. His wife, Inez, and daughters, Beryl, Doris and Betty and a son, John M., gave him total support as he worked at his dangerous job. The family became active members of the Baptist Church.

From that cold December 16th of 1921, Chief Barnes and his family became fixtures in the community. In the intervening years, working as the town’s one-man police force, Barnes built a reputation as a fearless, yet kind, policeman. The town’s troublemakers went out of their way to walk on the opposite side of the street as Barnes patrolled the town on foot.

Folkston, under Barnes’ leadership, soon earned a reputation as a “law abiding” town. The liquor runners drove around the town when possible. Tales of Barnes fearlessness are legend. In addition to his city duties, he was made a county deputy sheriff and worked closely with other law enforcement officials.

In late November of 1937 Barnes and his family at home were making their Christmas plans. The police chief had to leave the planning to other family members and go to work at his police job. He had complained of chest pains that evening, but attributed it to indigestion.

At five o’clock the following morning Barnes returned home after working all night. In bed only a few minutes, family members heard him groan. They called in neighbors who in turn sought medical help. It was too late. When medical help arrived, John H. Barnes was dead of a massive heart attack. It was November 30, 1937. He was only 46 years old.

The town was saddened by news of his death. Left behind were his widow, Inez, his three daughters, Beryl, Doris and Betty and his son, John M. He is buried in the Folkston cemetery.

He had been Folkston’s Police Chief for sixteen years. He and his family had grown up in the little town that had become their home in 1921. During those years Chief Barnes claimed a place in the heart and minds of his friends and neighbors as his work became legendary.

The Police Chief with the wide-brimmed black hat had become a colorful part of Folkston’s early history. He is still missed by those who knew and loved him.

Charlton  County Archives