Distinctive Duty

The Vermont Highway Patrol was Vermont’s earliest form of statewide law enforcement.

Courtesy of Vermont Magazine, www.vermontmagazine.com Jan./Feb. 2014 issue.

Story and photos by Phil Jordan

Today’s antique auto enthusiast might well wax nostalgic about the late 1920s and early1930s, when the great automobile marques such as Hupmobile, Pierce-Arrow and Marmon had not yet disappeared from the market in the depths of the Great Depression.

Prohibition was still the law of the land, and bootleggers refuted it. Bonnie and Clyde pioneered the concept of interstate crime–long before there was an Interstate System. Speed and power still sold cars, and improved highways literally paved the way for more Americans to travel on four wheels (whether in the course of legal pursuits or those that were illegal) rather than by horse and buggy, train or trolley.

For the self-indulgent motorist of that day, enjoying the open road at full throttle and the rush of power from a straight-eight engine, there was perhaps no image that elicited more dread than that of a motorcycle speed cop, seen in the rear-view mirror. That icon of unhappy motoring for the law-breaker in southwestern Vermont in those years was usually Officer Jesse Watson of the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles Highway Patrol; the imposing visage of Jesse, his 6’ 1” frame purposefully hunched over the handlebars of a massive Harley-Davidson pursuit bike, could probably have turned the resolve of even a hardened rum-runner to mush.

Vermont had no state police force and would not until 1947; the long arm of the law still belonged to local sheriffs, who wielded considerable power, and municipal police departments. State-wide patrol of the highways first began in 1925 when the legislature passed an act approving and funding the patrol, an enforcement branch of the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. With prior experience as a motorcycle officer for the Bennington Police Department in consideration, Jesse Watson was among 15 applicants who were initially selected for positions as roving motor vehicle inspectors by Vermont Secretary of State Aaron Grout on April 29, 1925.

These inspectors patrolled highways to enforce the motor vehicle laws and investigate accidents, using their own motorcycles, between the months of May and December, when snow, poor road conditions and the lack of winter driving amenities as we know them today curtailed most vehicular travel (and any speeding). Jesse, a Bennington resident, reportedly found work in the off season as a part-time police officer and otherwise as a taxi driver. There was no radio communication; calls were made by telephone and when an officer was on patrol, he needed to be on the lookout for more than traffic; if he needed to be reached, calls were placed to various businesses along the immediate way. Small signs would be placed in windows facing the highway, signals indicating that the officer needed to stop and telephone headquarters for instructions.

By the dawn of 1930, Vermont could boast of some 15,000 miles of highways (most of which were dirt or gravel, tagged as ‘unimproved’). There were 75,609 motor vehicle registrations that year in Vermont, and newspapers of the day declared the census had determined the state’s population to be 354,885. But Vermont was fast being discovered as vacation country; tourist camps and resorts had reported more than 100,000 guest registrations the previous year. It was estimated some 1,000,000 out-of-staters visited Vermont in 1929, and that roughly 40% of the autos on the roads were operated by vacationers. The roads were becoming crowded.

State funding for patrol work, however, was cut back due to budget constraints; the 1930 Highway Patrol force numbered only 11 motorcycle officers until May 1, when Motor Vehicle Department Commissioner Charles T. Pierce hired officers Ken Parlow (assigned to Newport) and Willis Edwards (assigned to Windsor). But, according to newspaper clippings in Jesse’s scrapbook, speeding, drunken driving and other motor vehicle offenses were on the increase. In 1929 alone, 1,905 such cases were prosecuted, a 38% jump from the year before; perusal of the clippings yields information that upon conviction of DWI, a common sentence was three years’ license suspension and a fine of $50.00, a hefty consideration in a day when most hourly wages fell far short of half a dollar; DWI fines for the year amounted to $28,850.

But the clippings show more than statistics; they show how dangerous the life of a patrol officer was. On one occasion, Jesse’s motorcycle was struck by lightning while he was on patrol in Shaftsbury. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the rubber raincoat and gloves he was wearing due to the stormy weather insulated him from harm. The force of the lightning bolt (the newspaper article, not attributed to which newspaper, says) threw Watson onto an embankment by the side of the road, and he was unconscious for about an hour. When he recovered consciousness, he found it was about three o’clock, and that the motor of his machine was still running. The fenders and light [of the motorcyle] were ruined, and the steering apparatus was in bad shape. Nonetheless, he managed to operate the machine, and rode it back to Bennington…Mr. Watson, outside of being stunned for so long a time, was not injured by his accident.

Another, more serious incident occurred on Route 7’s Ormsby Hill when a Connecticut motorist’s Buick roadster, which may have gone out of control, rammed Jesse’s machine. Although Jesse threw himself from the motorcycle before impact, he wound up underneath the car; Jesse, hospitalized, reportedly spent six months recuperating from a broken back. One different incident preserved in a clipping qualifies as slightly humorous: Jesse hailed a Bennington man into court following a 4:30 p.m. traffic stop. The driver had had three passengers (plus himself) shoehorned into the front seat of an Essex coupe. The driver claimed two of the passengers had been in the car’s rumble seat, but he couldn’t bear to let them sit out in the rain. “That was a good one, but not good enough” Jesse was quoted as countering this claim, since the rain had started in the morning, and the driver obviously had had plenty of time to get his passengers home before 4:30. A $10 fine was imposed, the cost for what the court reporter termed “a little act of kindness.”

As the 1930s wore on, Jesse may have tired of the routine that some old-time law enforcement officers refer to as ‘chasing taillights’. In an interview many years ago, Millie Watson, Jesse’s wife, related to me that patrol officers were on call even after the duty hours of a six day work week: “If you got a call at one or two o’clock in the morning, you had to go” she said. Even without the spectre of rum-runners to contend with after the repeal of Prohibition, the stress of 60-70 hour work weeks no doubt contributed to Jesse’s decision to make a career change in 1935, when he became a state game warden; he was succeeded on the Highway Patrol by Officer Frank Morgan.

Jesse passed away in 1983. In an interview, Millie recalled how Jesse (when the two were courting in 1927) would attach a sidecar to his machine for Millie’s comfort, and then take her along for a ride after his work was done. On their way to Troy, New York, Millie related, Jesse would sometimes speed up before crossing the two wooden bridges that once stood over the Tomhannock Reservoir…the rise of the bridges would pitch the machine up and jolt Millie suddenly, clear out of her seat, fearing that she might fall out…if not for the long arm of the law that belonged to Jesse, that tall officer with the mischievous grin on the motorcycle…the arm that reached out and pulled her ever so gently back to earth, the sidecar and the spinning wire wheels below that would take her safely home.

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