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He could've been charged with disturbing
one hundred years of solitude

by John Troesser

Rowena is an unincorporated town in Runnels County settled by Central Texas Czechs and Germans. It's 50% of civilization between Ballinger and San Angelo (the other 50% is Miles, Texas). The current population is about 466.

Rowena, according to legend, was named after (what was then) the future daughter-in-law of the founder's son. The marriage never took place, so the town never knew their namesake. She didn't show up at the town's centennial celebration in 1998 either. Rowena was Bonnie Parker's hometown, although it's not announced on the signs that you see when you enter town.

Bonnie left Rowena early. The movies would have you believe she was a waitress drawn to Dallas' city lights like the proverbial moth to a flame. If that was the case, she should've been famous for being the world's only four-year old waitress. No, Rowena can't be blamed for the way Bonnie turned out. It was all those under-tipping businessmen in North Texas that drove Miss Parker to hang up her apron and withdraw money that wasn't hers.

Bonnie's father was a bricklayer by trade. If there had been a few more bricks to lay in Rowena, maybe Bonnie's father would've joined the Union and built a vine-covered bungalow in Rowena and Bonnie could have gone to Baylor and could have become a librarian and could have raised her two sons to be carpet salesmen and her daughter to be a Park Ranger for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in East Texas, but that didn't happen.

There were only a few brick buildings in Rowena and it's entirely possible that Bonnie's father worked on them before he abandoned the family. One of these buildings was a bank. The bank was in Rowena and so was Bonnie. That's our title and we're sticking with it.

Rowena and its bank sat there for years without being disturbed. The Czech-German families would save up their cotton money and take long vacations back to the " Old Country" in Fayette County. We checked with Rose Wynette Neff, (granddaughter of P J Baron, who founded the town) and she consulted her scrapbook that contains most, if not all, of Rowena's history.

She found that the Bank had actually had two attempted robberies before Doc arrived. One in 1936, which has few facts available and one on July 10, 1924. Eighteen- year-old John Keys and his partner-in-crime Virgil Harding engineered the 1924 fiasco. These were two teenage boys from San Angelo who "used no firearms," but they did, however, have explosives.

They attempted to blow the vault door at 12 noon. The blast injured several bank employees and both would-be robbers were captured in short order. It certainly gave the tellers something to talk about the rest of the afternoon.

We won't go into the Newton Brothers Inc. except to say that they were as non-violent as The Barrow-Parker Group was. Both gangs left Texas rather than keep stealing the same money over and over again. The Newton Brothers lived to ripe old ages and paid their debt to society. They weren't rehabilitated since they weren't all that bad to begin with. As Jess Newton put it: "We just wanted the money like any other businessmen." They spent their retirement back home in Uvalde, "robbing" their beehives instead of banks.

Let's just say the Newton Family had a few more black sheep than are usually allotted. Maybe their mother shouldn't have read them to sleep with outlaw stories (which she did). "Doc" Newton, who as a sheep was a little blacker than the others, found himself selling onions in Runnels County in 1968 long after they had all "gone straight."

His "partner" was a 45 year-old onion salesman named Robert Talley, who had never run afoul of the law before. In 1968 there was a Hardware Store next to the Rowena Bank and Doc "fancied some of them guns." He had given up robbing banks, but at 77 years of age, he wasn't afraid of starting a new career robbing Hardware Stores.

While getting change in the bank for his onion stand (Doc knew his onions), he noticed that there seemed to be a doorway behind the tellers connecting to the gun shop. He immediately figured that if he could break into the bank, it would be relatively easy to then jimmy the door to the gun shop.

Well, later the next night, they had their pick-up ready with a full tank of gas and they knew that the nearest police were in Ballinger, eight miles away. They had cased the bank for alarms (the Newtons were good at this) and didn't see any. What they didn't know was that there was an alarm connected to a telephone that would ring if a robbery were attempted. The phone rang and the man who answered it was "Butch" Lisso. Mr. Lisso lived above his liquor store that just happened to be across the street from the bank.

The Ballinger Police arrived when Doc and Bob were still trying to get into the hardware store. They shot the interior of the bank into splinters and brickbats. A brick wall protected Doc and Bob from bullets, but. the Sheriff clubbed Doc when the pair surrendered which gave Doc a severe concussion.

When the Bank President arrived, he gave the Sheriff a tongue lashing for shooting up his bank and then cussed him for clubbing a 77 year-old man. He insisted that Doc be given a blanket to protect him from the February cold. Who said bank presidents are heartless? It's those loan officers.

To wrap things up, the national press picked up on the story (Life magazine) and Rowena got its 15 minutes of fame. Now, after 32 years, most people in Runnels County are unaware it ever happened. Bob Talley pled guilty and got 5 years. Doc spent 8 months in a prison hospital due to his concussion. Doc pled guilty to a Judge in Fort Stockton before the Federal Court could find a map with Rowena on it, thus protecting him from Federal bank robbing charges. So now, if you stop at an onion or honey stand anywhere south of Waco, don't bring Rowena into the conversation. He just may be Bob Talley and if he is - he probably wants to forget it.

Both Bank and Hardware Store sit vacant in Rowena today and are currently for rent.

© John Troesser
First published November, 2000

Our special thanks to Rose Wynette Neff of Rowena for her telephone interview and for getting out her scrapbook.

The Newton Boys: Portrait of an Outlaw Gang by Willis & Joe Newton as told to Claude Stanush & David Middleton. State House Press 1994.

Related Story:

The Day I Rode with the Newton Boys by Linda Kirkpatrick>

More Texas Bank Robberies

About Bonnie and Clyde:

  • Driving Around with Bonnie and Clyde
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • Running with Bonnie and Clyde
  • My Life with Bonnie and Clyde
  • How Bonnie and Clyde Were Caught.
  • Rowena Texas - Birthplace of Bonnie Parker
  • The "Red River Plunge" Bridge of Bonnie & Clyde
  • Bonnie Parker's Alma Mater
  • Ina Knowles Has a Brush With Bonnie and Clyde
  • A Lock of Bonnie Parker's Hair
  • Clyde Barrow’s Funeral
  • Bonnie and Clyde Slept Here

  • BOOK
    The Newton Boys

    The Newton Boys

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