Couragous Lawman Ended Reign of Water-Pistol Bandits

Five rustlers rode into downtown Johnson City on a late 1959 afternoon, firing their weapons carelessly into the air. The rein of terror ended abruptly when the alert local “sheriff” apprehended the gang, averting a potential tragic incident.

This event was not as ominous as it appeared. The bandits were not on horseback or in a car; they were traveling by “shank’s mare” (on foot). The guns they were toting contained water, not bullets. In reality, it was a harmless prank that went awry. The five outlaws were sophomores at Science Hill High School.

I must confess that I was one of those desperados; I will not disclose the identity of the others so as to protect their “innocence.” School dismissed at 3:15 each afternoon, the same time our bus left the city depot, making it impossible for us to get to the Boone Street bus stop on time. With idle time on our hands, we sought ways to entertain ourselves before catching the 4:15 bus.  Sometimes we snacked at one of the local downtown cafes or bowled at the Johnson City Bowling Alley on Spring Street.

On this memorable afternoon, we stopped at Kress's and purchased water guns, mine being a bright yellow one. After filling our pistols at their water fountain, we exited the store onto Main Street. Our escapade began as harmless fun; we starting spraying each other with water. Our walking soon escalated into running, as we dodged each other’s water barrage.

We began bumping into and wetting a few locals who happened to get in our way. We were having a refreshingly good time. As we rounded Fountain Square toward the depot, we ran smack dab into Rodney Rowlett, a city police officer, who was on patrol. Officer Rowlett sat us down on the curb in front of the bus depot and confiscated our weapons. He told us to bring our parents with us to police headquarters on King Street if we wanted them back.

The sheriff then advised us to start behaving as adults, cautioning us that any future occurrences would have dire consequences. We humbly apologized to him for our actions and abruptly boarded our bus for home, vowing to one another not to tell our parents about the sordid incident. The Johnson City Press-Chronicle carried the occurrence the next day as a front-page news story, praising the heroic efforts of “Sheriff” Rodney Rowlett.

Let me turn the clock ahead thirty-two years to April 1991, while I was working for Tennessee Eastman Company. The company newspaper printed a story about a security guard, Rodney Rowlett, pursuing some intruders inside the plant fence. I couldn’t believe my eyes; could this possibly be our Sheriff Rowlett?”

When I contacted him, he laughingly acknowledged that he was indeed the infamous sheriff, remembering the episode because of the humorous newspaper clipping. After I inquired about my water gun, he purchased and mailed me a new yellow one. I still have our letters of correspondence. I planned to bring my new water pistol to his retirement party in 1993, but that never occurred. Sadly, the good-natured “sheriff” passed away in May 2003.


Rodney’s yellow gun is now a cherished reminder of yesteryear when five mischievous high school students “terrorized” downtown Johnson City.