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OPINION: Booze and One-Armed Bandits

June 2, 2021 at 11:30 a.m.

Folks say that McDonald County was a wild and woolly place back in 1939. The sparsely populated Southwest Missouri county was a place where all manners of sinful deeds were practiced. The sale, and often illegal sale, of liquor was common and gambling was, at least by many, nothing more than a harmless form of recreation. The law, yes there was a country version of the law but, well, there were different opinions about how those laws should be enforced; depending upon who was speaking.

It was the opinion of most that the sale of booze and the presence of slot machines were to be ignored by those charged with enforcing the laws of the county. After all, nobody was getting hurt. However, things were about to change. County Prosecuting Attorney W.G. Tracy decided he would enforce all the laws and directed Constable George Thatcher to crack down on those profiting from the one-armed bandits and the sale of liquor to folks coming from the dry states of Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Tracy had a couple of things stuck in his craw. Those annoying issues were the presence of slot machines and the illegal sales of liquor in McDonald County. Now Aubrey Johnson too had something caught in his craw. It was Tracy's persistent attempts to deny him the right to earn a decent living. After all, Johnson was operating a legal -- well, mostly legal -- business. It was that "mostly legal" area that Tracy seemed to find offensive. However, the two men did have one thing in common, a mutual dislike for one another.

Now I'm fixin' to tell you how this local and county issue, this difference of opinion between two men, came to the attention of then Missouri Governor, the honorable Lloyd C. Stark.

As is often the case with ongoing disputes, there came one defining moment, one night. I suppose, in this case, that moment that took the dispute to new heights took place in the backroom of a Noel business. It was there that Tracy and his cohorts seized eighty-two slot machines. The legality of the search and seizure was, as one might expect, immediately questioned. After all, those machines were not only expensive but represented untold potential earnings.

Tracy's next move was to strike at Aubrey Johnson's liquor sales. Claud Chancellor and Constable George Thatcher were sent to a building located just south of Noel. A liquor store and a tavern, both in the same building and both owned by Johnson, were located near the Arkansas state line just north of Sulphur Springs, Ark. It was widely known that the liquor store was often patronized by out-of-staters who bought the booze with the intent to resell it in their then dry states.

In those days, bars, taverns and liquor stores were required by law to cease the sale of intoxicating beverages at 1:30 a.m. Tracy would test compliance with the laws at both of Johnson's establishments. Now this, at least in the eyes of Johnson and his supporters, was where Tracy went too far.

The hour was 1:50 a.m. and Tracy's scheme was about to unfold. While Tracy waited in his car parked in a secluded part of the parking area, his cohorts, Thatcher and Chancellor, went to the front door of the liquor store but found it locked. Believing someone was still inside the store the two men walked around to the rear of the building and knocked on the door.

With little more than the passing of a few seconds, the door slowly opened and there stood Floyd Kelley. Kelley explained that the store was closed but Thatcher and Chancellor asked that they be allowed to purchase a fifth of their favorite whiskey. Kelley asked the two to wait a minute then returned with the bottle. The whiskey container was handed over as was the money.

However, that was just the first half of Tracy's plan. The two whiskey buyers handed the bottle of whiskey over to Tracy, then went to the tavern. The door was not locked so both sauntered in just as casual as you please. "A couple of bottles of unopened beer," Thatcher shouted out. "Coming right up," the lady standing behind the bar replied. Johnson's bartender, Phoebe Fine, placed the bottles on the bar. The men grabbed the bottles and walked out of the tavern. Once again, the incriminating evidence was handed over to Tracy.

Both Kelly and Mrs. Fine were arrested for their iniquitous acts. Kelley somehow escaped while being taken to the county jail located in Pineville. Mrs. Fine, on the other hand, went peacefully. She was, however, followed to the jail by her husband, Floyd.

Tracy and Mr. Fine had a less than cordial conversation in a courthouse room. Tracy told Fine that he would file a lesser charge against Floyd's wife if she would agree to enter a guilty plea. The offer was immediately and unequivocally rejected. "I say, by God, you know what you can do with your offer don't you?"

Retribution was swift. Floyd could not abide this mean-spirited act, this unconscionable insult, this unwarranted arrest of his wife, Phoebe. Something had to be done and any retribution had to be swift and meaningful.

Floyd was a large man and, with his wide-brimmed hat cocked slightly to one side, he had the look of a Chicago gangster. He was not someone to be trifled with. The following Monday, Floyd Fine, who in addition to being an employee of Aubrey Johnson just happened to be the Elk River Township Constable, filed a complaint charging Tracy with carrying a concealed weapon. Tracy was arrested at his Anderson home and then taken to Noel where he was brought before Noel Municipal Judge Luther Reagan. Tracy entered a "not guilty" plea and was released after posting a $300 bail bond.

The war between Johnson and Tracy then found a place in the courts. Tracy was accused of harassment and tampering with evidence. McDonald County Judge Emory Smith ordered an investigation into Tracy's actions and went so far as to ask Governor Stark to send an official Assistant Attorney General to the county to spearhead the investigation. Aubrey Johnson accused Tracy of "oppression in office."

Tracy followed with a public announcement stating that all of the accusations and charges leveled against him were initiated because he tried to clean up McDonald County, because he "put machines out of business after they had operated for some years unmolested."

The cases lingered in the courts for some time. I suppose one might say that each side won a little and each side lost a little while McDonald County's dirty laundry was aired. But when all was said and done, when the dust had settled, things in the county seemed to return to their old ways.

Tracy's reputation was somewhat tarnished, but he later was elected to the office of Circuit Court Judge. Tracy's presence in the courtroom continued and, in 1949, he was elected to the position of Probate Judge.

And as for Aubrey Johnson and his business ventures, well, he too continued to be successful. There are those who said that his business ventures were very, very profitable and Johnson became a millionaire. But then that's just what some said.

Whether it was a difference of opinion, a disagreement, or an outright feud, there was little doubt that McDonald County Prosecuting Attorney W.G. Tracy and local businessman Aubrey Johnson had an extreme dislike for one another. Maybe, and just maybe that was more of an issue than liquor and slot machines. After all these years, who can say?

Now wait just a gal-darned minute. I forgot to tell you what happened to Floyd and Phoebe Fine. Well, the couple, my grandparents and their sixteen-year-old son, Floyd Fine Jr., my father, moved to a small house just off Pineville's town square. You see, that's the house that the newly elected McDonald County Sheriff and his family lived in.

Now it's really "The End."

Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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