It was illegal to allow cattle to run loose through Clayton. Dumping chicken coops on streets also was strictly prohibited. These two laws from the 1930s, among many others, provide a glimpse into the life of a country village nine decades ago.
During the Depression 30’s, Clayton was a tiny farming town. Poverty was the norm. The only link to the outside world was a single-track railroad best known for its spectacular accidents. Moonshining was the area’s number one business. People worked hard to make a living.
Clayton’s elected officials also worked hard, enacting a bevy of ordinances regulating many aspects of town life. And they took a strict, no-nonsense approach to the law. Scofflaws faced chain gangs and roadwork as well as fines.
Cattle Running Loose
As a farming community, Clayton was faced with the problem of livestock running loose through its streets. Think stampedes down Main Street. To address this issue, an ordinance was enacted prohibiting horses, mules, sheep, goats, hogs or other farm animals from “running at large” through the town.
If animals were found running loose, the marshal had the authority to impound them until the owner was found. The owner was fined 50 cents in addition to being liable for the cost of keeping the animals until they were claimed. If unclaimed within five days, the animals would be sold at a public auction.
Dumping Chicken Coops Prohibited
Sanitation and cleanliness were paramount concerns of the town fathers. An ordinance made it illegal to “place, throw or empty” hogsheads (barrels or vats), chicken coops, waste, rubbish, dead carcasses, or “any sort of filth” on sidewalks and streets. Hitching horses or other animals to trees, fences and lampposts was also prohibited, presumably to control the problem of “road apples” on streets and sidewalks.
Moonshining was Rabun County’s largest industry in the 1930s, but Clayton left no doubt about where it stood on the issue of alcohol. Bringing any type of “spirituous malt, intoxicating liquor or wine” into town was strictly prohibited. Clayton was “dry,” at least in public.
Noise was another concern. It was illegal to make any noise at night that would “disturb public peace or the rest and quiet of the city.” And a list of Enumerated Nuisances included all unnecessary noises from locomotive, gasoline or steam engines; from saw, grist or planing mills; and from whistles and bells. Clayton was not only dry, it also was quiet.
Firing pistols, rifles and shotguns within city limits “at indiscriminate hours and places” was prohibited with the exception of using a firearm in self-defense or for protecting one’s property. More specifically, discharging a firearm was prohibited within 300 yards of Main Street and within 100 yards of any other street, alley or building. There would be no OK Corral shootouts in Clayton.
Dealing with Riots
Clayton officials felt the need to address the issue of riots (the reason for which is not recorded). In the event of a riot, all male residents, aged 16 to 50, could be summoned by town authorities to “suppress such unrest.” A verbal call to duty was sufficient for the summons. Of course, this ordinance presumes that the men called to duty were not responsible for the riot.
The same male residents from 16 to 50 also were required to help maintain Clayton’s streets. This work was not to exceed 15 days per resident in one year. In addition, anyone convicted of violating a city ordinance could be put to work maintaining the roads or paying a fine of 75 cents a day.
Although vehicular traffic was a non-issue for a rural village, Clayton nonetheless had a street- crossing ordinance on the books. It was illegal to stop a vehicle or horse at a crossing to chat with a friend, since doing so might impede the flow of traffic. The same ordinance also made it illegal to drive or ride an animal on city sidewalks.
Quarantining in Pest Houses
In the interest of public health, an ordinance provided for the establishment of a “pest house.” The mayor and town council were authorized to quarantine people infected with small pox or any other infectious disease.
The town’s speed limit was set at 15 miles per hour. Clayton meant business when it came to speeders. Violators were subject to fines of no more than $100 (a huge sum in a poor, Depression-era town), imprisonment or labor on a chain gang for 30 days.
Stopping Irrelevant Town Council Debate
In a nod to efficient town governance, the mayor had the authority to preserve order at council meetings. Toward this end, the mayor was empowered to suspend “irrelevant” city council debate and “command silence” at his discretion. Mayors and city council attendees might welcome this rule today. In addition, council members were fined $1.00 for missing a regular meeting after being notified. Clayton’s marshal was empowered to collect these fines from truant council members. It should be noted that council members were exempt from roadwork due to “their position.”
The annual tax rate on property located within Clayton was 0.5%. City licenses were required for a range of businesses: $5.00 for merchants; $10.00 for livery stables; $10.00 for boarding houses and hotels; and $5.00 for harness. The license for a lawyer was posted at the same rate as that for a livery stable.
$30/Month Plus Stills
In the 1930s, Clayton’s marshal was paid $30 a month. The marshal could supplement his income based on the number of moonshine stills he took out of service. Among his other duties, the marshal was responsible for collecting a number of fees: $2.00 for arrests, 35 cents for serving summons and subpoenas, and 50 cents for taking bond in any case.
Clayton was a law and order town in the 1930s. Officials dealt with everything from chicken coops and errant cattle to rioters, noise and pest houses. And you thought Clayton has to deal with some thorny issues today.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Clayton Tribune on May 14, 2020.