The Buncombe County sheriffs in my lifetime have truly been an eclectic bunch.
The most powerful officials in the county, they were responsible for keeping law and order — and (along with the clergy, of course) for protecting us from our sinful ways.
Most of our sheriffs were very personable guys, but some suffered from addiction to the same sins they were supposed to be keeping under control. We had some very professional lawmen, but we also had alcoholics, gamblers, womanizers and one most unfortunate sheriff who made such bad decisions that he paid a tragic personal price. In the latter case, the county is still suffering a serious financial setback due to having to make amends to falsely accused persons who spent many years in prison.
From the time I was born, in 1930, until I was 30 years old, I thought “Sheriff Brown” was one word, since I didn’t know any other sheriff. Lawrence Brown was generally a pretty good sheriff, and with Asheville and Buncombe County under the control of a powerful Democratic political machine, he ruled with an iron hand.
Once, as a young teenager, I was out driving with my daddy — I believe it was in Swannanoa — and we passed a pasture where scores of beautiful Black Angus cattle were grazing. I was so impressed that I asked my daddy who the farm belonged to. Sheriff Brown, he said. I mused awhile and then asked my daddy how much money did we pay the sheriff. He said $8,000 a year. I then asked him how he could own such a big farm with so many fine cattle on such a low salary, and my daddy said, “He just manages his money well, son.”
A strange series of events brought about Sheriff Brown’s downfall.
When World War II and, later, Korean War veterans started coming back home, they formed a local chapter of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. We were starting new lives, new jobs and new businesses and were very concerned about the politics and general well-being of both Asheville and Buncombe County — particularly the good ol’ boy, “business as usual” political system that had been in place for years.
There were some very bright and dedicated young men in the group, which produced many of Asheville’s leaders for the next 50 years. They worked hard to improve the community. Like most of those who came out of the military, however, we were not choirboys: We were concerned about the rampant racketeering, much of it owned and sponsored by local gambling kingpin Vaughn Cannon, that was expanding unchecked and giving the community a bad name. Cannon had grown so powerful that he’d started his own newspaper, which had riled up the editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times. The C-T was also bringing pressure to shut down Cannon’s empire, which operated gambling machines in little juke joints and beer halls around the city and county, and the implication was that the sheriff wasn’t doing enough in this effort.
The incident that was the catalyst for change took place somewhere around 1960 in a little beer joint on Riverside Drive owned by an infamous local personality named Birdeye Plemmons. In the back of the joint were a number of illegal slot machines. Some drunk who’d arrived there by cab apparently won a jackpot on one of the machines, and it didn’t pay off. He got into an argument with Birdeye, who wouldn’t pay him, and the guy just picked up the machine and threatened to walk out the door. Even though the guy had no way to transport such a heavy machine, Birdeye, in his infinite wisdom, pulled out a gun and shot him.
Ladies and gentlemen, that was the shot was heard over the entirety of Buncombe County. The local chapter of the Junior Chamber of Commerce was outraged by this incident and heaped criticism on the sheriff, saying this is what happens when illegal activity is allowed to proliferate.
The sheriff thought he could show these young whippersnappers that they couldn’t mess with Lawrence Brown. A few weeks later, the Junior C of C hosted the state association’s annual meeting here in Asheville. It was considered a very prestigious affair and a great honor for the city.
The final event was a Saturday night dinner dance held in the basement of the Civic Center for a couple hundred delegates and their wives. Around 10:30, some 10 or 12 sheriff’s deputies showed up and started arresting out-of-town guests for illegal possession of alcohol in the Civic Center, while refusing to arrest the local JCC members. We knew all these guys: We’d grown up and gone to school with them, and several of us demanded that we be arrested along with the other guests. One of the deputies told me, “Oh, Jerry, just shut up and go have a drink.” The whole purpose was not to enforce the law but to discredit our organization statewide.
All of us locals marched down to the jail and raised hell till the lawyers in our group got all our guests out of jail around 2 a.m. As you can imagine, this humiliation totally galvanized the Junior C of C against Sheriff Brown, and the battle was on.
Next time, the rest of the story.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. His new book, The Gospel According to Jerry, 85th Birthday Edition, is available at the Grovewood Gallery, Gallery of the Mountains at the Grove Park Inn, the Estes-Winn Antique Car Museum and the Battery Park Book Exchange. The price is $25 per copy, and all proceeds will be donated to Helpmate. The book can also be ordered directly from Helpmate, either online (email firstname.lastname@example.org) or by mail (P.O. Box 2263, Asheville, NC 28802).