Sheriff Ernie Gentry
Term: 1945 - 1950
1901 - 1981
Ernie Harrison Gentry was born on June 1, 1901, in the mining district of Rush, in Marion County, Arkansas. He was the first child of George W. Gentry and Eugenia Hand Gentry. Ernie received his middle name, Harrison, from his paternal grandfather, Harmon Harrison Gentry, who migrated to Marion County, Arkansas from Missouri in 1888. Ernie was the first male grandchild on his paternal side as well as his maternal side of the family. His mother's people, the Hand and Moreland families, had resided in Marion County for many years. His great, great grandfather, William Moreland, settled on the Buffalo River in the early 1820s - several years prior to the formation of Marion County in 1836, and established a small trading post, which would later flourish as a town known as Buffalo City - now referred to as "Old Buffalo City." Ernie's great great grandfather, Hugh Hand, came to Marion County prior to 1860 and established a community, which today is known as Hand Valley. Ernie Gentry's roots were very deep in Marion County.
In 1908, when Ernie was seven years of age, his mother, Eugenia, died during a Typhoid Fever epidemic. Six years later, in 1914, his father, George Gentry, was killed in a mining accident in Carterville, Missouri, near Joplin. At the age of thirteen, Ernie, and his two younger sisters, Dora and Bertha, were left in the care of their paternal grandmother, Kimmie Lee Gentry, who also lived in the mining community near Rush.
Ernie and his sisters were educated at the Rush School and at the Number 10 School - both situated in Marion County. Even as a young child, Ernie was no stranger to hard work.... wood had to be chopped, water had to be hauled, livestock had to be fed, and crops had to be tended. The young, orphaned Gentry children were worked hard as children and had very few pleasures that average children might have had in the more urban areas. Life in the country was very hard for the Gentry children since so many of the chores and responsibilities were thrust upon them at a very early age. Their grandmother was not exactly pleased about being left with the responsibility of raising her three orphaned grandchildren. The only source of enjoyment the children at Rush may have experienced were picnics and the annual Decoration Day celebration at the Pleasant Ridge Methodist Church, but hard work on a daily basis is was what they remembered the most.
When Ernie was about ten years old, he became the "water boy" in the Philadelphia and the Morning Star mines at Rush. He would walk deep in the tunnels to deliver buckets of water to the thirsty miners. Delivering water was no easy task in those days since the only source of water would have been from the fresh water springs several hundred feet below at the base of the mountains. Young Ernie would wear a yoke over his shoulders and collect two buckets of water at a time and then have to climb up an extremely high hill, trying not to spill any of the water. Then he would have to walk a long distance in the cold and dark tunnels to deliver the water to the miners. Eventually, he was "promoted" from being a water boy to pushing the heavy mine carts, loaded with zinc-ore, to the end of the tracks and dumping the contents into the piles far below.... a very hard job for such a young child.
In 1920, Ernie was 18 and still living with his aged grandmother, Kimmie Gentry, in the Jefferson Township of Marion County (near Rush). The 1920 Census records show his occupation as a "Teamster" in the zinc mines.
Ernie left home sometime around 1921 and tried his luck working in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Texas. He soon realized that the oilfield was not the life for him, so he returned to Rush, Arkansas, where he continued to live with his grandmother. On weekends, he would ride horseback from his childhood home near Clabber Creek in Marion County to the Cedar Creek community to pick up his sister, Dora, who was teaching at the Cedar Creek School. It was on one of these weekend trips to pick up his sister that he caught the eye of one of his sister's pupils, Maye White. The two dated for several years, and were finally married on September 24, 1927 in Baxter County. When they married, Ernie was 26 and Maye was 20.
By 1930, Ernie and Maye were living in the Walls Township of Douglas County, Missouri, where Ernie worked in a stave mill for his uncle, Luther Evans. The 1930 Census reported his age as 23 and his occupation as a "stave miller" in the business making "barrel staves." Ernie would later form a partnership with his cousin, Curt Evans, and the two would open a stave mill of their own. The mill would make oak staves for barrels and these barrels were later exported to many well-known wineries in Italy and France, where they would be used to store wine. Ernie and his cousin later dissolved their partnership and Ernie opened a stave mill of his own. At some point in the early 1930s, Ernie and his wife opened a little country store and gas station at a crossroads in Douglas County and the little community that grew around them was called "Gentryville, Missouri," a small spot on the road that exists to this day.
On November 8, 1932, Ernie was elected Sheriff of Douglass County, Missouri and he served in that capacity for four years. He became very well known and respected in the area around Ava, Missouri. Ernie's term of office ended in 1936, and a few years later, in 1939, Ernie and Maye Gentry left Missouri and moved back home to Arkansas - settling on the outskirts of Mountain Home. Upon his return to Arkansas in 1939, Ernie opened a lumber yard in Mountain Home. This business would later be called "Gentry Stave Company."
With his background in the sheriff's office in Douglas County, Missouri, Ernie decided to run for the office of sheriff in Baxter County, Arkansas. He was very familiar with the area and with the people. He won the election and took office in 1945. In the meantime, his wife, Maye, opened a beauty parlor on the courthouse square and had a thriving business - Maye Gentry would later move her beauty shop to their home where she styled hair until the early 1970s.
During Ernie's term as sheriff, perhaps the most publicized case he worked on was that of the Merrow murder. Leon Merrow was accused of killing his wife, Vedah, a local waitress in Mountain Home, in June of 1946. Sheriff Ernie Gentry worked countless hours trying to prove the guilt of Leon Merrow. It was later determined that Merrow had killed his wife and then burned her body on a huge brush and log pile. Sheriff Gentry found bones among the ashes of the burn pile and sent them to Little Rock for analysis - they were later determined to be human bones. Merrow continued to deny that he had killed his wife, despite witnesses who said that they had heard a woman's scream coming from his farm the very day that his wife had disappeared. Ernie Gentry, in an attempt to get the accused man to confess, took Merrow to the property one evening to walk around the pile of ashes. Earlier in the day, Gentry had hired a woman to hide in the brush and scream - in hopes that this dramatic effect would entice Merrow to confess... it did not. Eventually, the case went to trial and Merrow was convicted of murder and sent to the penitentiary. This case received nation-wide coverage and the story was reported in several national newspapers as well as many detective magazines across the country.
Many family stories have been passed down in regard to some of Ernie's more interesting cases - some were humorous and some were not. One of the funnier stories that became a "must tell" story at family reunions was when Sheriff Ernie Gentry was transporting a prisoner to the penitentiary in Little Rock. When the two arrived at the prison gate, the prisoner suddenly said: "Hello, I am Sheriff Ernie Gentry from Mountain Home, Arkansas, and I am here to deliver this prisoner." Ernie was dumbfounded and tried to contradict this statement, but unfortunately, he had forgotten his wallet that day and could not prove that "he" actually was Sheriff Ernie Gentry and that the prisoner was only trying to escape. After several hours of pleading and several phone calls, Ernie Gentry's identity was proven and the prisoner was taken to his cell. Later, Ernie would often say that he had learned his lesson and would never leave home without his wallet and identification. His forgetfulness almost landed the sheriff in prison!!!
In the late 1940s, a funny article appeared in The Baxter Bulletin regarding one of Sheriff Gentry's "easy" captures: "Sheriff Ernie Gentry got a break the other day when he received a call from officers at Gainesville asking him to intercept a car carrying several youths who were headed his way. The sheriff was getting in his car parked on the square when the car with the wanted youths drove up and parked beside him. All he had to do was to get out and nab them."
Another interesting story about Ernie, which is probably more fiction than fact, is that the character of Andy Griffith, the sheriff of Mayberry, on the television series, The Andy Griffith Show, was based on the life of Ernie Gentry. It was said that Ernie was often referred to as the "sheriff without a gun," and that the character of Andy Griffith was based on his life. This has never been proven and would more than likely be a fictional story with very little fact attached.... but it made an interesting story at family reunions.
Ernie Gentry's career as Sheriff of Baxter County ended in 1950 after he served two terms. He ran for a third term, but was defeated. His term in office was eloquently summarized in his campaign speech for his third term in which he stated: "No one can fill this office without making some enemies. You cannot concede to the wishes of a few who would desire special favors from this office and at the same time enforce the law as sworn to do, and serve the best interest of the People."
After leaving office, Ernie Gentry began a career in real estate with Miss Nellie Cooper. The two became very prosperous in this venture and, in fact, a few streets in the Mountain Home vicinity were named in honor of Ernie Gentry, and his wife, Maye. Ernie Gentry retired from the real estate business about 1974 due to health reasons.
In September of 1977, Ernie and Maye Gentry quietly celebrated their 50th anniversary at their home. Due to bad health, they did not have any type of celebration. Ernie and Maye Gentry were both members of the College and North Streets Church of Christ for many years. Ernie Gentry died of a heart attack at his home at 441 E. North Street, on September 29, 1981, at the age of 80. He was buried at the Pleasant Ridge Cemetery, south of Yellville, in Marion County. He was buried in his family plot next to his parents, grandparents, and siblings. Ernie's wife, Maye Gentry, would survive her husband by nearly sixteen years. She died on September 1, 1997, in Mountain Home, at the age of 91. She is buried next to Ernie at the Pleasant Ridge. Both were survived by siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins.
David L. Scott
Great-nephew of Ernie Gentry