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story.lead_photo.caption William G. “Big Bill” Hutton, at right in a photo from 1915 and at left a photo from 1920. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

In the second half of the 20th century, space travel and stardom joined rail splitting, birth in a cabin, command of armies, debate/lawyering and business success as approved preparations for politics.

As part of a particular type of story, such details help the masses of voters — who never, ever meet most of the people they vote for — decide if they like the idea of them.

A hundred years ago in Arkansas, voters could and did meet their politicians — which is something to consider as we revisit a headline that appeared on the front of the Arkansas Gazette on New Year's Day 1919:

Pulaski County Loses

Most Picturesque Official

William George "Big Bill" Hutton was retiring as Pulaski County sheriff and, the Gazette reported, "it is doubtful if Pulaski county ever has had a more popular official."

This is shown by the fact that he is the only sheriff ever to be nominated for a third term without opposition. He retires with the prestige of having never known defeat.

What made him popular? So many things.

He had served under County Judge C.C. Kavanaugh. And Hutton won a reputation for fearlessness and efficiency. His first elective office was county treasurer in 1908 and again in 1910.

In 1912 he was nominated for sheriff by an overwhelming majority and renominated without opposition in 1914 and 1916.

As sheriff, Big Bill "caused many surprises."

He had been known as a "good fellow" and some members of the lawless element had supposed that he would wink at their violations of the laws. They encountered the surprise of their lives.

Among his first efforts as sheriff was a "spectacular" raid that ended open gambling in North Little Rock. Early one Saturday night, three cars were seen idling outside the county courthouse. Suddenly the sheriff and deputies dashed from the building, jumped into the cars and sped north across the bridge.

Every gambling house was raided simultaneously and the result was the biggest haul of gambling paraphernalia ever made in the history of the county.

He also closed North Little Rock's red light district, the Gazette said. The sheriff also faithfully handled millions in fees and taxes.

One midnight, Hutton learned that a crowd was gathering in a city park to lynch a black man accused of an offense against a white girl.

"Big Bill" jumped into his auto, went alone to the park and found about 40 men there. He ordered them to disperse and mentioned a few things that he might do if they didn't. There was no lynching.

He had single-handedly dispersed an unruly crowd during a telephone strike; and he had pushed for passage of a measure to place county officials on salaries even though it meant he would earn less.

I found a report from 1916 in which he and his deputy J.J. Hawkins traveled to Montana, where they tracked and finally arrested a notorious swindler who had been on the lam since 1912. They caught him in a hospital where he was laid up with appendicitis, but still. That guy had hoodwinked Little Rock residents. But also during that trip west, Hutton plunged into the Cut Back River in Glacier National Park to save a 14-year-old Indian boy who fell off a bridge. The water was 13 feet deep.

No one attempted to rescue him, so Sheriff Hutton quickly slipped off his overcoat and coat, dove in and rescued the lad.

He played a little football, but what really made his reputation was baseball.

BASEBALL HERO

After Hutton retired, Gazette sporting editor Heinie Loesch wrote in his Jan. 15 column Inside Stuff that the Memphis Commercial Appeal was trying to claim the sheriff as a native son. "Scrappy Bill," the Appeal said, "used to play the outfield and wallop opposing pitchers with astounding viciousness" when he was an original member of a storied amateur team, the Chickasaws.

From the late 1890s through 1902 the Chicks were such fun to watch that interest in baseball revived in the South, leading to the creation of the Southern Association.

Scrappy Bill turned pro as an original member of the Little Rock Travelers, the Appeal said.

He left the team in a huff one day in Memphis when the Little Rock manager refused to advance him some money. One of Bill's friends had bet his all on Little Rock winning the game that day and Bill wanted to give him enough to get home.

Not only was Hutton remembered in 1919 as a great baseball player. He is remembered today with a page in the online Arkansas Baseball Encyclopedia.

It reports that he was in fact born in Tennessee. But the encyclopedia dates his pro career from 1897, when he played in Fort Smith and Hot Springs with the Arkansas State League. In 1901, he joined the first Little Rock Travelers club. His batting average that year was .303. (That is good.)

He played and managed other teams, too, but came back to Little Rock, where he did in fact quit in disgust when the manager refused to help his incautious fan get home.

Bernie Babcock's 1917 Yesterday and Today in Arkansas: A Folio of Rare and Interesting Pictures likens "Billy" Hutton to the evangelist Billy Sunday, apparently a complement. Calling him a "baseball artist," Babcock writes that "although he has held no evangelistic services since leaving the diamond, as a prominent official he has openly declared his position on such moral questions as directly concern good government. As a businessman he has come into prominence by the transformation he has made in 'Beautiful Belmont,' the new hotel at Camp Pike."

Cary Bradburn's history of North Little Rock, On the Opposite Shore, says Hotel Belmont occupied a grand three story structure that the U.S. Army leased from the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock. Designed by Charles L. Thompson and built for $150,000, it had been an orphanage for 66 children when it opened in 1910.

photo
The grand building that houses St. Joseph Center of Arkansas in North Little Rock was an orphanage during much of the 20th century, but from 1917 to 1921 it was the Hotel Belmont, serving Camp Pike’s Army officers and their families. (Democrat-Gazette file photo)

As a hotel, it served officers and their families at Camp Pike from 1917 to 1921. After the war, it went back to being an orphanage — St. Joseph's Home.

Although the Gazette said he was leaving public life in 1919, he ran unsuccessfully for county judge the next year, and then he became secretary of the Democratic state committee.

During his three terms as sheriff, he enforced anti-liquor laws, arresting violators and destroying vast amounts of alcohol. And yet, when he ran for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1932, he ran as a "wet" — yes, he alone among seven would-be nominees wanted to repeal Prohibition.

He placed sixth among those seven hopefuls. All of them were defeated by Sen. Hattie Ophelia Wyatt Caraway — the first American woman elected to serve a full six-year term in the Senate.

His death notice in the July 25, 1955, Gazette mentions a wife and a sister. It says he returned to his native Memphis in 1920 with the Feed and Seed Loan Division of the U.S. Agriculture Department, but eventually came back to Little Rock. Later still he moved to Miami. And there he died.

But his body was returned to Little Rock, and he is buried at Oakland Fraternal Cemetery.

So Little Rock was the big guy's home plate. No wonder they liked him.

Email:

cstorey@arkansasonline.com

Style on 01/07/2019

CORRECTION: William George Hutton was a deputy under Pulaski County Sheriff C.C. Kavanaugh, brother of W.M. Kavanaugh, for whom Kavanaugh Boulevard and a ballfield were named. An earlier version of this column column referenced the wrong brother.

Print Headline: Popular 'Big Bill' a pistol

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