210 years of Highland County sheriffs


Photo: Part of a uniform worn by Walter Reffitt, Highland County’s longest serving sheriff from 1957 to 1977, is pictured in the Highland House Museum along with his original commission. The items will be part of an exhibit open to the public at the museum from Sept. 26 through the end of October.

By Jeff Gilliland – [email protected]

Over the past 210 years, 48 men have been elected Highland County sheriff, according Katie Burwinkel, who has spent 10 months researching their history and collecting memorabilia for an exhibit that will open Sept. 26 at the Highland County Historical Society’s Highland House Museum in Hillsboro.

The museum is open regularly on Saturdays and Sundays from 1-4 p.m., but will be open for extended hours Monday, Sept. 28 through Friday, Oct. 2, from 5-8 p.m., so more people can view the exhibit.

Burwinkel has uncovered several interesting facts about local sheriffs during her research.

For instance, she said the county’s first jail was located near a hitching post at Barrere’s Tavern in New Market. Burwinkel said there was an old well there and when a prisoner needed to be incarcerated, a ladder was stuck down the well, the prisoner climbed down, the ladder was pulled up, then bars were placed over the top of the hole.

Burwinkel will share those stories during two presentations at the Highland House set for Wednesday, Sept. 30 and Tuesday, Oct. 20, both at 7 p.m. She said she’s hoping all living elected sheriffs will be present.

Another interesting tidbit, Burwinkel said, is that for many years the sheriff’s wife automatically became the matron of the jail and also took care of the cooking and cleaning.

As part of her display, Burwinkel has collected photographs of 17 of the 48 elected sheriffs. She also has uniforms, election memorabilia, firearms, badges, scrapbooks, all sorts of documents, and much more.

“I got involved in the historical society about a year ago, was placed on the board and put in charge of historical education,” Burwinkel said. “I don’t know what made me start thinking about the sheriff’s office, but I started talking to (current sheriff) Donnie Barrera and he said he was interested in putting some old sheriffs photos up in the sheriff’s office, so I just started looking into it. I started reading old court records in that room by the old jail, read books, looked through microfilm at the library, and went through old files at the Highland House Museum. I went to every source I knew of to look, and the more I looked, the more interested I got.”

A lot of the old-time postmasters, Burwinkel said, were almost like mayors, and many of them became sheriff.

Looking over Burwinkel’s displays this week, local historian Jean Wallis said that in the mid 1850s there were 64 post offices in Highland County. She said many of them closed around 1906 to 1907 when rural route mail delivery began.

One of the documents Burwinkel found is sheriff Carey Pope’s (1872-1875) original commission signed by then Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes before he became the 19th U.S. president.

She has the original commission and a uniform worn by sheriff Walter Reffit (1957-1977), who was the county’s longest serving sheriff.

She has an election ballot from 1928 with six political parties – Democratic, Republican, Socialist, Socialist Labor, Prohibition and Workers Communist – listed on it.

Burwinkel also said that all 88 sheriff’s offices in Ohio wear the same uniform and drive vehicles marked the same.

The exhibit will remain open through the end of October, when the historical society will begin preparing for its annual Christmas display.

Many of the items in Burwinkel’s display have come from family members of the current and former sheriffs.

“This is very sentimental stuff to these people and I’m just honored they’re willing to share it,” Burwinkel said. “Learning the stories has been really interesting and I hope people will come and look and hear my story.”

Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.

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