Now 93, Vonnie Riddell Fox recalls life on the Burnet County Courthouse square, where she grew up as one of four children of Rachel and Wallace Riddell. Wallace was the longest-serving sheriff in Texas; his wife was the matron of the jail. Photo by Mark Stracke
Vonnie Fox lived in the Burnet County Jail from the time she was 13 to when she was 24. No, she was not a prisoner. The jail was her home, where she lived with her father the sheriff, her mother the jail matron, and a growing family of siblings.
LaVonna Rea Riddell Fox, 93, was the third of four children of Rachel Hollingsworth and Wallace Riddell. She is the only one left in her family to tell the stories of the state’s longest-serving sheriff.
First elected in 1939, Sheriff Wallace Riddell served for just over 39 years. He died in office in 1978. A farmer, rancher, cattle driver, and rodeo cowboy, Riddell, his wife, and their first three children were born in Spicewood in southern Burnet County. The family moved to Shovel Mountain about 13 miles away when Vonnie was 2 years old.
On the farm, the three sisters — Vonnie, Modena (Curington), and Daisybel (Grigsby) — each had a horse. Their grandparents ran the Shovel Mountain store, which was about a quarter-mile from their house. They attended the Shovel Mountain school through the sixth grade. Their aunt, Grace Herbert, was teacher there.
“Every year, the community would get together to see whose car they were going to use to drive the older kids over to the Marble Falls school,” Vonnie said. At the time, her father had a truck, which he used to haul cattle to market for nearby ranchers. “That’s when the Fort Worth Stockyards opened up, and we were their first customers.”
At the urging of friends, Riddell ran for sheriff, winning on first count by only 12 votes. A recount narrowed the margin to six votes, but he was in for the long haul, quickly moving his family to Burnet.
“I was scared,” Vonnie said when asked about moving from the seclusion of a farmhouse surrounded by family to the Burnet County Jail. “After about two weeks, I settled in and everything was just fine. I was happy there.”
She credits her mother for making the jail a home and the friendly folks in Burnet for the welcome they gave the new sheriff’s family.
As matron of the jail, her mother took over the feeding of the prisoners, along with her family.
“We ate what they ate,” Vonnie said. That was usually a meal of beans, cabbage, potatoes, and beef. “It was good home cooking, just everyday food, whatever Mama cooked.”
During the holidays, Mrs. Riddell always roasted enough turkey and dressing for everyone.
Vonnie’s most memorable holiday happened when her mother started having pains on Christmas Day and was whisked off to the hospital until the next evening.
“We got a baby brother that night,” she recalled. “We were all happy about that. We didn’t have any boys in the family.”
She and her sisters hurried home from school every day to help take care of little Wallace Patten Riddell.
“We were three grown girls and a baby,” she said. “That was something.”
Vonnie loved her life on the Burnet square, quickly adapting from the seclusion of the country to living in the center of town. School was only three blocks away, close enough that she came home for lunch every day. The family attended the Church of Christ, which was just across the street from the jail. Two theaters on the square provided entertainment for a quarter a show. Her father’s office was just across the street in the courthouse.
Their large family kitchen had a table that sat 16 and was often fully occupied by family and friends. The kids would take tin plates of food to the prisoners in their cells, then sit down at the family table to eat together almost every meal.
One not so fond memory is of when the sheriff took his daughter to a crime scene. A 22-year-old had shot and killed his father on the east side of town. Riddell took his school-age daughter on the call to show her “what goes on in the world.”
“Daddy had to arrest the young man, put him in the car, and take us back to the jail,” she said.
She noted that, for the first 17 years in office, Sheriff Riddell worked alone. The county had no deputies until 1956.
“It wasn’t like it is now with so many more people,” she said.
Sheriff Riddell also made sure his kids learned to be polite.
“I would go out with him and walk around the square, and people would come up to him to shake hands,” Vonnie said. “If I didn’t shake their hands and greet them politely, I’d get my pigtails pulled.”
At 24, Vonnie married Billy Joe Fox and moved back to a ranch, this one in the northern part of the county. Together, she and her husband developed the Delaware Springs golf course and community. Billy Joe died in 2018. She sold the family farm this summer.
“I just don’t need that much anymore,” she said.
Vonnie still owns Fox Real Estate and continues to work as a consultant and Realtor. At 93, she keeps her mobile phone at her side to take business calls.
When asked what Burnet means to her, she doesn’t hesitate with the answer: home.
“I’ve never lived out of the county,” she said. “I’ve always lived with Burnet County people, and I’ve always been friends with Burnet County people. It’s like family, really. Everybody always helps each other. I’ve had a good life. We were happy.”