Time Machine

Time machine: Cedar Rapids' first Black police officer was hired in 1890

Obediah 'Obe' Claire began working as an officer at age 27

Obediah #x201c;Obe#x201d; Claire was hired in 1890 as a Cedar Rapids Police Department jailer. He was the first Black of
Obediah “Obe” Claire was hired in 1890 as a Cedar Rapids Police Department jailer. He was the first Black officer on the force. (Gazette archives)
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The first Black police officer in Cedar Rapids grew up in Canada.

Obediah “Obe” Claire was born in Ogdensburg, N.Y., on Dec. 7, 1862, and his family shortly thereafter moved to Canada. When he was 10, Claire began working for a farmer in Canton, N.Y. When he turned 16, he clerked at a hardware store and then moved to Clinton, Iowa, in 1878.

He arrived in Cedar Rapids in April 1890 and, at age 27, began working as a police officer. One of his duties was to drive the patrol wagon.

In 1891, he was promoted to day guard at the police station. He was well-liked and was sometimes the object of teasing. When his treasured Waterbury watch went missing, he was unsure if it had been stolen or hidden by other officers as a joke, although they all vowed no one had taken the watch.

Long before the Humane Society was established in 1928, a police officer was assigned to capture and dispose of stray dogs. That, too, was one of Claire’s duties.

Grasshoppers, friends

As soon as he was able to put enough money aside, Claire bought a small farm with rich soil near Kenwood, a 20-minute trolley ride to the rural area along what is now First Avenue and 32nd Street NE. He would catch grasshoppers at his farm and bring them to the station in a large jar for his fellow officers to use as fish bait.

Claire was put in charge of transporting prisoners to the county home or to the penitentiary at Anamosa in the patrol wagon. He made friends while driving the wagon. One of the most notorious was Will Gadbois, who was serving a five-year sentence at Anamosa and who was, according to The Gazette, “known all over the country as one of the most dangerous and expert crooks.”

While in prison, Gadbois made scarf pins, charms and other jewelry from sea shells and asked Claire to sell them for him.

Gadbois was back in jail in July 1898 and repaid Claire by escaping from his jail.

Two months earlier, a jail renovation resulted in a new window — with three-quarter-inch bars set an inch apart — being cut into a wall. It was covered with a heavy wire screen.

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Gadbois pulled a stair railing loose, pried apart two of the bars and pushed through the resulting hole.

That escape was cited as an example of why a new jail — eventually built on May’s Island — was needed.

Personable, funny

Claire was a personable man. When a little boy was lost and found by a bank janitor, no one could get him to talk. Someone called Claire, whose gentle questioning prompted the boy to say his father worked at the Sinclair meat market. The boy was taken home.

Claire also had a sense of humor. An 1896 Gazette described him as “always on the alert for an opportunity to get a good joke on someone, but as Obe can take his medicine when it comes his way, he is always forgiven for his tricks.”

Claire once noticed that a jail inmate was nearly a dead ringer for a local resident. When about 70 people came to the jail asking to see the man who had confessed to being a thief, Claire let about five of the curiosity seekers in to see the real criminal before switching him out with the double. Some of the visitors handed cigars and money to the impostor, leaving the jail confident they had seen and talked with a desperado.

Claire was fired in 1899

It was “a surprise to everyone” when, in April 1899, The Gazette reported that the station’s popular day jailer had been fired.

“Obe has been in the department several years, and why he should be dismissed at this time no one seems to understand,” the paper reported. “It is understood that a strong effort will be made for his reinstatement.”

That didn’t happen, and Claire worked as a janitor for the Third Presbyterian Church. When that building burned, Claire ran a confectionary and ice cream store for a few years.

In 1908, he was back working at the jail, but as a janitor this time. When the new jail was built on Municipal Island in 1909, police headquarters were moved, leaving behind the piebald rats that had lived at the old station for many years. The multicolored creatures were believed to be the offspring of the city’s rats and a family of white rats that escaped from a First Street saloon.

A few years later, Claire took a job with the Pure Food Baking Co.

He died of heart disease in February 1916. He is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery.

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