Maintaining law and order in early Aurora
Former Aurora lawman Sam Miller said the most dangerous situations he encountered involved restoring peace during “family squabbles.”
During the era of Prohibition there were numerous raids staged to “quell wild drinking parties" … which in those days had the reputation of harboring bootleggers back in the woods. Then there was the capturing of the “Bates Gang" of auto thieves that dismantled cars on a farm off of Route 82.
He recalls chasing a thief around the front of the house, falling into a pile of junk and severing a nerve in the wrist that was a bother the rest of his life.
Then there was the night Deputy Sheriff Kerry showed up at the house and got shot in the neck.
“Three hoodlums, sore because of his prohibition activity, took a shot at him,” Miller recalled.
Kerry killed one and the other two were captured. They were sent to prison and Kerry recovered from his wound.
Literally running into the Lostiner Gang was another experience he said couldn't be forgotten. Riding with Deputy H.J. Shreader down Route 43, their car was sideswiped. Turning around and giving pursuit, the two followed the car to a side road in Geauga Lake.
"We were confronted by one of the gang members who wanted to know what we wanted. H.J. said that he wanted payment for the damage done to his car," Miller said.
“The man threw a $20 bill in the back seat and told us to get the h__ out.” Later we found out that they had staged a payroll robbery.
“Violent death, thievery, drunkenness, debauchery, rape, family fights” brought him into contact with the darker side of humanity. These are the situations and people that Aurora’s first peace offer dealt with on a daily basis.
For 38 years, from 1903 and until his retirement in 1941, Miller patrolled the roads of Aurora maintaining law and order. Miller was born in 1873 in Salem, Ohio. He married Flora Schieber in 1896 and together they had 10 children. They lived in a house directly across from the Aurora Train Depot.
When the Millers first came to Aurora in 1900, Sam was employed by Frank Hurd. Hurd often purchased dairy cows from Canada and Sam rode on horseback to Hudson and herded the cows back to Aurora. Sam also hauled sacks of salt to Hurd’s cheese factories. The salt was shipped from England and had been used as ballast in the boats.
Miller was also an ice cream salesman, school custodian, and ran motion pictures at town hall. He was the Township’s first and only constable from 1903-1928. When Aurora became a village he was elected marshall. Throughout his career he never lost an election.
In 1935 the village council set his salary at $50 per month. He worked from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., was allowed an hour for lunch, and had to control traffic in the afternoon when school was letting out. He drove his 1925 Ford Model A and was reimbursed for mileage.
Miller’s job became more demanding in the fall of 1928 when the village council passed legislation “prohibiting the manufacture, sale, furnishing, possessing and giving away of intoxicating liquors … and keeping a place where intoxicating liquors may be may be manufactured, sold, furnished, possessed or given away.” It also made it unlawful to drive a vehicle while intoxicated.
Law enforcement posed a constant danger to those entrusted with keeping the peace. The northwest corner of Portage County where it abutted with Summit, Cuyahoga and Geauga counties and in close proximity to Cleveland, was a natural haven for individuals seeking to circumvent prohibition and Cleveland’s blue laws.
At one point seven taverns and dance halls lined the south side of the road opposite the amusement park stretching from the Solon city limits to East Blvd. Speakeasies also dotted the rural side roads. Operation of the nearby Grantwood racetrack attracted other shady characters to the area.
Numerous raids were conducted by federal, state and local officials. In October, 1923 the “Magnolia Club,” a private club located near the lake, was raided by Prohibition officers. In July, 1925 county officials staged raids in both Geauga Lake and Brady Lake, arresting individuals for possessing and operating slot machines.
Aurora’s noted “Black House” was consumed by fire in October, 1927. It was called the “Black House” for its unpainted and weathered siding and was a notorious gathering place for gangs from Cleveland. A body suspected to be that of Jim Cinci, a track hand on the Erie railroad was found in the ashes.
Further evidence of the type of characters that were attracted to the area can be supported by an event in December, 1931. The bodies of three individuals were found in a cottage in Geauga Lake. William Szpenjna, known as “Bugs” Spaney, Frank Matuszak, known as “Pat” Murphy, and Anton Kornet, known as “Shorty” were the victims.
It was suspected that Spaney had shot both Murphy and Kornet and then turned the gun on himself. Spaney had had a run in with law officials in September, 1925 when he was arrested with five gallons of whiskey and had resisted arrest with a shotgun. It was in this era of lawless that Miller served the Aurora community.
Art Hall took became township constable when Miller was elected village marshal. When Miller retired, Hall became marshal and served in that position until he resigned in 1958.
Hall was “much loved and a bit feared.” When controlling traffic at the school he was a “pal, yet stern disciplinarian” with the children. His treatment of adults was no different. On many an occasion he would send a speeding driver back to the Aurora Inn demanding “Go back and start over! See if you can do it right this time!”
Hall was born in 1885 in Richfield. He married Lottie Manfrass in 1911 and together they had two daughters.
Hall worked 10-12 hours and was on call the remainder of the day except during his two week vacation. In addition to seeing children safely to and from school he directed traffic during the summer at the intersection of routes 82 and 43. On Sundays he directed traffic at the intersection of routes 43 and 306 in front of The Church in Aurora.
Law enforcement was only part of his job. As the village’s commissioner of roads he plowed and patched village streets, cleaned sewers, cut tree lawns and numerous other jobs. Art also volunteered and served as an officer on the Aurora Fire Department
Controversy arose in 1957 when Hall resigned as commissioner of roads and streets. He had been advised by the village that his pay would be reduced. He told council he could not live on a salary less than $225 per month. In December council cut his pay from $325 to $200 per month but indicated he would still be reimbursed for the use of his 1953 Pontiac.
Unhappy with the pay cut he tendered a letter of resignation. He believed that he was being “railroaded” by council which was looking to employ a younger man. Even though Hall was 71, he was highly regarded by the villagers and had their total support.
To quell the community’s outrage council created the position of chief of police and hired Arthur Robitaille. Hall was allowed to remain in his role as village marshal, retiring in 1958.
Together Miller and Hall provided law and order in Aurora for 55 Years. Over the years the Aurora Police Department has been led by seven Chiefs of Police: Arthur Robitaille, Phil Ockunzzi, Ted George, Gerald Dietrich, Mike Tinlin and Seth Reiwaldt. Aurora’s current chief is Bryan Byard who leads a force of 28 full-time officers and patrolmen.
Kudley is president of the Aurora Historical Society.