Paso's Old City Jail

Grandfather Morehouse's journey to Paso Robles was stalled by some Indians who fancied they needed his horses more than he did. Grandfather resented this. He no doubt cast about, looking for a policeman. You know there is never a cop around when you need one. Apparently Grandfather Morehouse resolved to raise his own police force, but it was not until Grandson Elmer came along that this goal was finally realized.

Elmer Morehouse was appointed temporary chief of police for Paso Robles on March 6, 1950, a position which became permanent a year later. When he became chief he naturally had added responsibilities as he was in charge of the entire police force. The officers were, in alphabetical order, Fred Fairbairn and John Rude.

Elmer seemed to have a knack for having bizarre things happen to him --- like getting drilled through his brand new police cap the first day of work wile shaking doors at the old skating rink on Eleventh Street. A burglar was inside and ventilated Elmer's cap as he rattled the door.

Another time he and the rest of the force pursued a stubborn suspect through alleys, streets and buildings of Paso Robles, including the old laundry and what is now an adjacent restaurant. All the while, the perpetrator was firing back a total of one hundred six shots at the brave policemen. The offender was eventually hit and died a slow, painful death. It turned out he was wanted for four murders in San Bernardino County.

When Elmer first went on the job in 1937, he drove a snappy Model A Ford touring car complete with patent leather top, side curtains, a six-volt spotlight and a hand-cranked siren. But no heater. Later a gasoline heater was installed which had two positions, on  and off. On was too hot and off was too cold. It was up to the driver to choose what he wanted to be.

Officers bought their own uniforms, firearms, ammunition, flashlight, batteries and billy club. Elmer also carried a Remington, model 870, 12-gauge shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot. He worked six days a wee, twelve hours a day --- but don't feel sorry for him because he was paid $125 a month. Who wouldn't snap up a job like that?

Early equipment which aided in law enforcement in Paso Robles was primitive in some cases and nonexistent in others. There were no radar-equipped, interceptor engine, stiff-suspension cars especially built for police pursuit as there are now. There were no radios until someone in Paso built one for the police. Then it was declared illegal because it had not been built by a licensed manufacturer, thus parts could not be ordered from a police catalog, listing model and serial number.

Before the radio came into being, there was a unique communication system devised hereabouts. A green light was installed on the top of the Taylor Hotel (on Spring Street and 13th Streets) and also one on top of the Canary Cottage at Spring and 11th Streets. If the telephone operator got a call for police assistance, she would turn on the green light switch and both lights would go on. Any patrol officer seeing that light, went to the nearest phone and called the operator to find out where the trouble was. The telephone operator was the police dispatcher. 

Primitive? It worked. The usual call was for drunk and disorderly, disturbing the peace. Even with the delay, the parties were most often still drunk when the officer got there.

When a speeder was stopped, a cop couldn't 'run the plates' as they do now. A normal response time was three to four days. However, auto theft was, and still is, grand larceny and the thief was usually caught.

When things got serious, a perpetrator would find himself in front of "Judge Roy B. Fanning, Law West of the Salinas." If it was a felony, the only way the district attorney found out about it was if the perp's plea was, "Not Guilty." At which point the D.A. would be called and one of the cops would take the perp in the family sedan to the county jail in San Luis Obispo. If the culprit was a woman, the wife of one of the cops would take the lady to the klink, again in the family sedan. Officer Joe went along if the lady perp was deemed to be dangerous.

Paso Robles did have a jail, though. It was a room, part of the police station, in the Taylor Hotel. This was after the old brick jail was abandoned. The room was about 10 x 15 feet; within that space was a cage of iron bars with a door and four bunks. The minimum sentence after being sent to that cell was 12 1/2 days and a $25 fine. The maximum length of sentence was 30 days.

Obviously, the cage was designed for four men. But during the Camp Roberts' years, sometimes it held as many as 12-15, at least for overnight. The room had a toilet; above the toilet was a faucet and that was it. The back door to the jail room was a heavy wooden door which opened out onto the alley. Behind the wooden door was a heavy steel-mesh door which was locked as well. Air conditioning was not even dreamed of in those days, so at times when the weather was hot (a rare occurrence in Paso Robles), the wooden door was opened and the air was, mercifully, allowed to flow through. Otherwise it got pretty rank.

One fellow was tossed in so drunk, he could hardly stand. He found a spot next to the steel door and was supposed to "sleep it off." However, his 'friends' located him and rigged a funnel out of slick magazine pages and proceeded to funnel wine in to him whenever the poor fellow felt thirsty. Apparently he felt thirst quite often because he was dragged in front of Judge Fanning the next morning drunker than when he was tossed in. Needless to say, the good judge was harshly critical of this sort of behavior.

There was no segregation in the Paso jail, other than for the women. All prisoners were treated equally, no matter what. There was a man who worked at a well-known barber shop as a bootblack and took care of most of the racial problems which came up from time to time. The cops would catch someone, (a "man of color" as the saying went in those days), and take him to the bootblack, who would find out what the problem was and then get him a place to stay and a meal, a job or bus ticket out of town if the situation warranted it. If there was ever a citizen-of-the-year for Paso Robles, this man, surely, would have been a champ.

For the meals, the prisoners of the jail were marched out the back door and down the alley to the Hi Hat Cafe where Marion Henry held forth as chef extraordinaire. Later, the Blue Moon Cafe was used for that purpose as well.

For posterity's information, the Blue Moon was where the Santa Lucia Bank parking lot is now, and the Hi Hat site is now part of the Boot Barn.

What was amazing was that there were no aid programs, no shelters, no counseling nor rehabilitation programs. The cops were enforcers, confessors, ministers and nurses and they did a heck of a job. The judges did the same. Due process might become abused, but justice was done anyway.
A Shandon judge was known to hold court wherever he was. No matter! A bench, the street, a park or a kitchen. His remark was, "What do I need a courtroom for? I'm the same man here as I am in there!"

Good attitude! Same for the cops! God bless 'em all!

Eldon Root