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The Sheriffs of Hamilton County
Portrait of Sheriff John Skillern

John Skillern, known as an adventurous Irishman, served Hamilton County as sheriff from 1890 to 1894. Born April 15, 1949, on a plantation near Pikeville, Tennessee, Skillern was known as an adamant Democrat and generous man throughout his life. In the book, Skillern Family by Darlene Appell, it is noted that he completed his primary education at Pikeville Academy, then attended the College of Pikeville for two years. His grandson, William Skillern, relates that the two institutions his grandfather attended were Sequatchie College and Barret College in Spencer, Tennessee.

In 1878, Skillern married Mary Katherine Roberts. Grandson William Skillern remembers family history regarding the sheriff’s marriage: “Miss Roberts was the daughter of a prominent Southern planter whose family enjoyed the privileges of plantation life in the South prior to the Civil War but the plantation was devastated during the war, and Miss Roberts had to work the fields with her family in order to survive.”

The young couple shared many successful experiences together. Early in their marriage, they lived in Igou’s Ferry and Blue Springs, Tennessee, where they ran a small general store and traded livestock. Hotel management prompted their move to Chattanooga in 1884, where Skillern managed the Saint James Hotel and later, the Mannix Hotel. The couple had nine children with only seven surviving.

When Grover Cleveland was elected president of the United States, Skillern developed an interest in politics, and his friends urged him to run on the Democratic ticket in the Hamilton County’s race for sheriff. He was elected and served two terms (1890-1894). He often reminisced with family members of how he had protected prisoners from lynch mobs. Skillern stood for justice and defied angry mobs more than once.

At the end of Skillern’s terms or office, Hamilton County presented him a revolver with his name engraved on it. He then returned to his former career of hotel management, operating the Grand Hotel in Bessemer, Alabama. At 50 years of age, Skillern decided to move his family to Boise, Idaho. In 1900, he moved there, bought sheep, and began a long career in ranching. One of Idaho’s pioneer wool growers, his business flourished. By 1916, Skillern was the largest individual wool grower in the state.

Skillern died May 16,1934, in Boise, Idaho at the age of 85.

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