When Derrick Diggs became Toledo's Chief of Police a few years ago, he became the first African-American selected for that position. It took more than a century from the time Albert King, Toledo's first black patrolman, was hired for a black officer to rise to the chief's office. In fact, I was hard pressed to determine if any other city or village in Northwest Ohio ever had a police chief who also broke the color barrier. None did, with one exception.
To discover that exception, take a trip to Luckey and go back in time about eight decades. Meet Ben Stone--the first African-American police chief in Northwest Ohio. Maybe all of Ohio.
|Ben Stone as a child.|
Benjamin Franklin Stone was born in 1874 of mixed Irish and African-American parents, presumably of slave heritage. Information about his very early childhood is sparse, but we do know he and his brother, Tom Stone, eventually ended up in an orphanage on Lagrange Street in Toledo. By the time he was 10 years old, Ben and his brother were taken from the orphanage by Bill Dunipace, a farmer near Luckey. Dunipace was a bachelor and gave the brothers the promise of a better life in exchange for working around the farm. Tom didn't take well to the rigors of farm life and took his leave, fleeing back to Toledo at his first chance. But, Ben lived out his childhood in this rural setting.
The two became like father and son. So it was to follow that two decades later when Dunipace died, he left Ben 80 acres of land and a house on Sugar Ridge Road. For a number of years, Ben tried his hand at farming, but Ben was about 30 years old and he wasn't content to just settle down. He had other pursuits on his mind and one of them was guns. Throughout his boyhood, he enjoyed shooting guns and honed his skills as a marksman. Locals say he became so adroit with a revolver he could shoot the eye out of a crow perched in the highest branch of a tree. One neighbor says he actually saw Ben shoot at and hit the same nail-head on a wooden door, four times in a row. Ben also enjoyed other thrills like speed and motorcycles. Stories are still told of how Ben would blaze at high speeds down the back country roads on his motorcycle, "plinking" at prearranged roadside targets with great accuracy.
Eventually, Ben sold off 40 acres to a neighbor, but kept the old cabin. He also took a few odd jobs working for other farmers in the area. His solid reputation for hard work and honesty paid other dividends when he took a full time job as the night watchman for the Schwan Furniture Store and Funeral home in Luckey. Other merchants also paid Ben to watch their stores at night and soon he was officially appointed the town marshal. With that designation he was allowed to carry a gun and he patrolled Luckey's streets at night with a flashlight in one hand and a shotgun in the other. He also tucked a .45 caliber handgun into the side of his well-worn and shaggy coveralls which was his familiar uniform. It can be stated that Ben was hardly a student of modern fashion. His unshaven and grizzly face and his disheveled appearance were not helped by his refusal to wear a glass eye after he had lost one in an accident many years before. His reason for not wearing the glass eye, he said, was that "it doesn't make me see any better".
Ben was clearly a man of modest needs and means and eventually made his home in the back storeroom of the old Schwan Furniture store where his bed was fashioned from empty wooden boxes used for burial vaults.
Locals say Ben would have made a good character for a movie. And if ever there was a great opening scene, it might have been plucked from the headlines about the quiet autumn day in 1933 when this mild mannered marshal became a real-life action hero. As the tale is told from the 1981 Luckey Centennial history book, the story unfolded when a stranger walked toward the Luckey Exchange Bank wearing a hunting coat. Another man, his cohort, was sitting in a parked car nearby, acting nervously. Sensing something wasn't right, some merchants summoned Marshal Stone and when told of the suspicious characters in town, Ben rolled out of bed, put a six-shooter in each pocket, and picked up a double barreled shotgun loaded with buckshot. He headed for the bank where the bandit was already inside, demanding the money in the drawer from the cashier. As some $345 was passed to the bandit, the cashier sounded an alarm and the bandit headed for the door of the bank, where the gun-toting marshal was already there to greet him, and warned, "Stop or I'll shoot!"
That's when Ben Stone says he heard "two cracks" from the robber's gun and then felt something "nip" his legs and…"that's when I let him have the right barrel and he went down in a heap." Someone then shouted that the robber was going to fire again, at which point, Ben not only fired the other barrel, but then pumped three more bullets into him from his pistol. As soon as the gunfire erupted, the driver of the getaway car took off. Ben would recall later, "I'm pretty sorry I didn’t get him too."
By this time, the normally quiet main street was filled with people who came to view the aftermath of this violent bank robbery that ended badly for the suspect, Glenn Saunders, as he laid mortally wounded bleeding profusely, while Marshal Stone dealt with the pain and bleeding from two bullet holes in his legs. One woman who came to town that day to witness the scene, LaVada Graening was a teenager at the time. Before passing away last year at the age of 95, she told me she vividly remembered that day.
"My cousin called me and told me what was happening and I ran as fast as I could to get there,” she said. “The streets were filled with people gathered to see someone shot in the street. It was so public...seeing a body there. Just out in front of everybody. You could see the wound in his chest. It was awful".
By this time, Ben Stone was being transported to Mercy Hospital in Toledo and Mrs. Graening recalled that townspeople were concerned about his recovery.
"Everybody liked Ben. He was a friendly man,” she said. “I can still remember seeing that little smile of his. He used to have little sayings and called some of the girls and women in town his little "Ain-gies", or Angels. He loved children....he was like a Grandpa to me."
LaVada Graening's remembrances of the Luckey's most famous lawman are shared by many. The legacy of this man remains indelibly etched into the historical accounts of the Wood County community as a local hero. An unlikely and unusual embrace of a black man in the lily-white farm country made up predominantly of German and Swiss ancestry at a time when racial prejudice was still practiced openly in many communities. The open warmth that was shown to Ben during this era says a lot about the people of Luckey and says a lot about the character of Ben Stone.
A few months after the shooting, Ben Stone was the guest of honor at a testimonial dinner at the Grace Lutheran Church in Luckey where 160 of his fellow townspeople thanked him for his courage and presented him with a new gold deputy sheriff's badge with his name engraved on the back of it. They also presented him with a check for $150.
Another gift Ben received was surprising and offered a strange twist to the bank robbery saga. It was a letter of thanks from the mother of Glenn Saunders, the bank robber who he had shot dead. Mrs. Saunders of Columbus Grove, thanked Ben for killing her son, saying he had always been trouble and she and her husband were relieved that he wouldn't be causing any more. She continued her communication with Ben over the years and they often exchanged Christmas gifts.
Ben continued his duties for the next decade in his adopted home of Luckey, patrolling the streets, with his guns tucked into the bib overhauls and greeting his friends and residents everyday with a familiar smile. When Ben died in 1943, of heart disease, at the age of 69, his remains were cremated, and his ashes spread over the Webster Township Cemetery at Scotch Ridge. And while the big boots of Ben Stone no longer walk the streets of Luckey at night, the echoes of those footsteps still do.
Lou Hebert has more on this story as well as other stories on local history on his website www.toledogazette.wordpress.com