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Former Sheriffs

The Sheriffs of Hamilton County
Portrait of Rex Richey

Rex A. Richey was born in 1893 and raised on a farm in the Harrison community. The oldest of ten children, he helped his father with the family farm as a young man.

In 1917, after serving in the U. S. Army during World War 1, Richey returned home to begin a career in the restaurant business. His first restaurant was the Broadway Lunch at Eighth and Broad Streets and from 1925 to 1946, Rex’s Lunch Room at the corner of Eighth and Cherry Streets.

During this time many politicians realized what a successful and popular entrepreneur Richey had become, including his friend, County Judge Will Cummings. Although Richey was Republican, Democratic sympathizer Cummings urged him to enter the political arena. Consequently, Richey entered his first political campaign in 1948 for county judge against the powerful and popular incumbent, Wilkes T. Thrasher. Richey was defeated, but he had been bitten by the political bug.

Sheriff Richey with rifle.

Two years later he launched what was considered the fiercest of all campaigns for the office of sheriff. With his wife, eight children, friends, and family, he campaigned from one end of Hamilton County to the other. Nevertheless, the incumbent and four-term sheriff, Frank Burns asserted, “I can sit in my rocking chair on the front porch and beat Rex Richey.” How wrong he was.

Sheriff Richey at his desk.

Richey became Hamilton County’s first Republican sheriff in eighteen years. Richey however, was not just a Republican, he was the people’s sheriff. Adored by Hamilton County citizens and characterized as a man of strong religious convictions, Richey was hailed as being unsurpassed in integrity, honesty and devotion.

In a campaign speech at Soddy Daisy High School, someone yelled that he would look awkward carrying a gun. Richey slammed his fist on the podium and responded, “I carried and used a gun all through France’s Argonne Forest during World War 1, and I’m sure I can handle one now.” His audience went wild with applause, despite strong Democratic bias.

Richey wasted no time fulfilling his campaign promise to stop gambling and bootlegging in the county. His raids of night spots and whiskey stills attracted national attention.

Once, a renowned radio personality, Arthur Godfrey, reported on an electric “whiskey still raid at Lovell Field. Richey’s raids made believers out of still operators who had been unimpressed by his campaign oratory. Richey ran his office based upon a pledge of honest, courageous, and vigorous law enforcement.

Sheriff Richey's service revolver.

In the 1952 sheriff’s race, Richey won by a two-to-one margin, and in 1954 was elected again by a landslide victory. During these years, the legislature still only allowed a maximum of three two-year terms in succession.

While campaigning for his last term of office, Richey and his staff were surprised by critical attacks from his opposition who complained of his destruction of over 200 stills in his first 16 months of office and more than 100 more since then. His opponents felt the federal government should be raiding the hills of Hamilton County, not the sheriff. Deputy Roy Uren commented at the time, “I say it is a testimonial to the sheriff when whiskey raids are the only fault his opponents can find with his administration.”

Richey died in 1981 at the age of 88. He had made the area citizens very proud of their county during his lifetime. His good life and the service he performed remain an important legacy to all.

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