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In and Out of the Old Gillespie County Jail

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Esthetics was an afterthought when Gillespie County built a new jail in 1885. The rock and steel building, which still stands on San Antonio Street in Fredericksburg, is fortress-like and formidable. It has never been mistaken for a B&B. It was designed and built for a single purpose: to keep prisoners inside, and it wasn't always very good at that.

Fredericksburg Texas 1885 Gillespie County Jail
The 1885 Gillespie County Jail in Fredericksburg
Photo courtesy Michael Barr, January 2021

The county's first jail, built in 1852, didn't stop prisoners from escaping, it only slowed them down a bit. Minutes of the Commissioners Court stated the jail was "badly built and afford(ed) no safety for prisoners, several having broken out at various times without apparent difficulty."

In 1859 county commissioners ordered construction of a new jail. It was "built of hard rocks," with 4 rooms - 3 above ground and 1 below.

While the 1859 jail was more secure, it sacrificed comfort. The sheriff considered the building a health hazard. The air was "damp (with) no sufficient ventilation, especially in the summertime."

In 1874 The Commissioner's Court withdrew $800 from the school fund to build still another jail. It burned 10 years later.

Money was tight when the county built the 1885 jail. The commissioner's court purchased the lot on San Antonio Street for $150 but being unable to fork over the full amount opted to pay the debt in $10 monthly installments.

The jail, built at a cost of $10,000, is an austere 2-story building. The design is functional. The steel clad cells are upstairs. Downstairs is a holding room and living quarters for the jailer. A 5 ft. stone wall, originally topped with shards of broken glass imbedded in the concrete, surrounds the jail.

Builders made some allowances for comfort and convenience. The jail had a wood stove for heat and a water well with an elevated tank that channeled water to indoor sinks, water closets and privy.

Typical of jails of its time, it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It was claustrophobic and unsanitary. And it smelled bad.

Security was lax. The jailer was apparently gone much of the time. It was not uncommon for people to walk up to the jail, day or night, and converse with prisoners through an open window.

Before WWI the jail sat empty for extended periods. "Grain has been stored there, but it has held very few prisoners," stated an article in the November 16, 1913 edition of the San Antonio Light. "County Judge Max Blum remarked that there has not been a board bill for prisoners for the last two terms of the court."

Indigents sometimes stayed at the jail. A former slave named Pete Ferrel lived in a room there in exchange for odd jobs.

But the incarceration business picked up after 1920, and with the rising occupancy rate, combined with an aged facility, escape attempts were more frequent.

In December 1923, 3 prisoners with a knife overpowered the jailer and escaped.

In October 1926, 2 "desperate characters" sawed their way out of the jail.

In July 1929, 5 prisoners tried to escape but officers, tipped off by another inmate, foiled the plan. Constable Henry Schuch, who was watching from a secret location, caught one of the prisoners sawing the bars with a file.

In December 1930 a man broke into the building while the jailer was away and threw the lever that opened the cells. The Fredericksburg Standard called it one of "the cleanest jail deliveries ever recorded."

In 1935 a prisoner sawed 2 bars out of the window, jumped to the ground unnoticed and fled into the night.

That same year another prisoner pried open a rusted steel covering on the floor. He dropped to the first floor (it was unoccupied), opened the front door (it was unlocked) and walked away.

One of the last escapees, before completion of a new jail on the top floor of the courthouse in 1939, was one of the unluckiest. After busting out he walked all night, stopping to rest at an empty cabin near Stonewall. The owner of the cabin, Deputy Sheriff Petmecky, found the intruder in bed, just like Goldilocks.

© Michael Barr
"Hindsights" April 1, 2021 Column
"Town of Fredericksburg is Arcadia of the Southwest," The San Antonio Light, November 16, 1913.
"Fredericksburg," Belton Journal, December 7, 1923.
"Two Men Break out of Jail at Fredericksburg," Brownwood Bulletin, October 16, 1925.
"Prisoners Escape," Galveston Tribune, October 17, 1925.
"Gillespie County Jail Break Foiled," Abilene Morning News, July 18, 1929.
"Man Held For Burglary Escaped For County Jail," Burnet Bulletin, July 11, 1935.
"Prisoner escaped From County Jail," Harper Herald, September 12, 1935.
"Escaped Prisoner Is Brought To Kerrville," Kerrville Daily Times, October 31, 1935.
"County Had Jail Before Courthouse," Fredericksburg Standard, August 10, 1939.

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