Macomb's Memories - Sheriff “Big Jake” Theut
By Cynthia S. Donahue, Macomb County Facilities & Operations
On New Years Eve, Jan. 1, 1941, a crowd of nearly 300 supporters thronged the streets and walkways of downtown Mount Clemens to help celebrate the induction of Jacob Frank Theut into the office of sheriff.
Amidst the sounds of the crowd, noise makers and city police sirens, Theut led his parade from the County Building to the old jail on Front Street, followed by newly appointed Undersheriff Harley Ensign, Process Server Edward S. Calahill, Matron Gladys Burr and Edward W. Kunath, instructor of deputies.
At the sheriff’s office entrance, former Sheriff “Smiling Bob” Havel handed the keys over to the new sheriff. The 15-by-18-foot private office held two desks, several chairs, two large cabinets, floral arrangements, gift boxes and about 40 well wishers who all sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to the newly elected sheriff.
Theut later held a reception for the public in the basement clubroom of the John R. Murphy Hotel at the corner of Cass Avenue and Walnut Street, while Undersheriff Ensign and Instructor Kunath were busy assigning new deputies to their shifts and handling the many details of law enforcement in the new administration.
Theut was born on June 8, 1899, in a log house in Warren Township near Lorraine and Nine Mile. His father, John, was born in the house next door, while his grandfather and great-grandfather were both early residents of Warren Township. The Theuts moved to a farm on 15 Mile near Dequindre when Theut was young, and Theut and his five brothers attended County Line School. When Theut was 20, the family moved to 7220 Engleman Street in Center Line; Theut lived there with his parents until their demise in the early 1950s.
Theut was appointed the sole deputy sheriff for all of Warren Township in the early 1920s where he earned $4 a day plus car mileage and was one of the first Center Line police officers. He was involved in a gun battle with four desperadoes in 1925 at the corner of 12 Mile and Van Dyke where he was shot through the hand. In 1926, he then helped capture an airplane loaded with narcotics and Chinese when it landed in a Warren Township field.
In the winter of 1930, he slipped and fell in icy water while hunting up north and contracted a bronchial condition. Advised by his doctor to seek a warmer climate, he moved to Port Isabel, Texas, where he operated a cattle ranch, citrus fruit farm, a shrimp business on the Gulf of Mexico and also served as a U.S. Marshal. It was here that he fell in love with his trademark 10-gallon hat. After two years in Texas, the deciding factor in his return to Michigan came when a hurricane struck both of his shrimp boats.
Theut served as a Center Line bank officer, and lost everything when the bank went under during the depression. At the time, he was worth slightly over one million dollars.
He served as Justice of the Peace from 1934 – 1938 and then ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 1938. He was elected sheriff in 1940 with the campaign slogan, “6’4, and every inch a Sheriff.”
He served for four years with a staff of 19 deputies and one matron. During his regime, he was known as the “Nemesis of the Detroit underworld,” and stood as a “solid bulwark against that gentry’s unceasing efforts to spill across the Macomb County line.” While sheriff, he continued his business partnerships in 13 enterprises.
It was at this time he and John E. Donahue Sr. formed a business partnership (Donahue-Theut Investments) and a friendship that was to last the rest of their lives. Primarily dealing in real estate, one of the first businesses that the two owned was a Texaco Gas Station in Warren Township that was turned into Texco Tools during the war effort where they employed future Sheriff Les Almstadt.
At the end of Theut’s term, he was quoted as saying, “It’s been a swell four years!” He also stated, with a grin, “I don’t believe I ever worked so hard – or made so little money since I was a boy.”
An ardent hunter and fisherman, Theut purchased a lodge on 290 acres on Batchawana Bay in Canada. It was here that he and John Donahue ran across a bear cub whose mother had been shot by a hunter. The two smuggled “Batchawana Billy” back to the states via their car trunk, whereupon Billy started his new life as an American citizen in the Donahue’s basement. Donahue’s wife, Evelyn, eventually tired of Billy eating her preserves in the fruit cellar, so Billy went to live on Detective Leon Kandt’s farm on Romeo Plank and Hall Road. Billy and Leon’s friendship continued for fifteen years; when Billy passed away, Leon placed an obituary for him in the Macomb Daily.
Theut’s home in Shelby Township was filled with trophies from his African hunting trips.
Theut died at the age of 96 in his home. His dying wish to be buried with his 10-gallon hat was fulfilled. He had never married, but was well known and loved in his community, and was “Uncle Jake” to his many nephews and nieces.