The Old City Jail
Corsicana, Navarro County, Texas


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The Old City Jail - Corsicana, Texas
by Mary Love Sanders
Originally published in "The Navarro County Scroll", Vol. XXII, 1977
Reprinted with permission of the Navarro County Historical Society

Although a small (15' x 17') log jail had been built in Corsicana during the term of office of the town's third mayor, Thomas J. Haynes, who was in office from November 1872 until November 1875 (Murchison 1974). This calaboose, as it was called, was too small and unsanitary to accommodate the growing numbers of inmates which accompanied the growth of the town.  As a consequence, it was abandoned after the construction of a new County Jail in 1876.

The City of Corsicana's first permanent brick jail was built in 1908.  On March 30, 1908, according to the official minutes of the City Commission meeting, Mr. H. B. Lochhead, a Corsicana architect, appeared before the Commission are presented sketches, plans and specifications for the proposed new jail, the cost estimated to be $4,000.  Upon action by the Commission, these plans were adopted at this time.

The presence of the City Hall on the northeast corner of City Block 266 probably dictated the location of the new jail and although no official mention was made at this Commission meeting concerning the purchase of a building site, it seems almost certain that a preliminary verbal agreement had been reached with Mrs. Rebecca A. Croft, owner of the land adjacent to the City Hall property, the logical site for construction of the jail.  Mrs. Croft was the widow of Judge William Croft who had first begun practicing law in Corsicana in 1850 (Love 1933, p. 256) and had the reputation of being a tenacious as well as an extremely fair attorney and judge.  The Crofts' grandson, Charles W. Croft, 1104 West 4th Avenue, Corsicana, a retired 78 year old banker, remembers that W. A. Townsend told him, in 1920, that in the early days he had seen deer grazing on what was later known as the "Croft property" (Croft 1976).

On June 1, 1908, during a regular session of the City Commission, Commissioner of Public Improvement (also Mayor) E. A. Johnson reported that low bids on the erection of the proposed new jail had been received and were held "pending the recovery of Chairman Walton of the Building Committee".  At a subsequent called session of the Commission on June 3, 1908, the Commission ratified the action taken by the City Council in awarding a contract on the construction of the jail to Berry and Metcalf at $5,275.

Further official action of the Corsicana City Commission on June 15, 1908, in joint called session with the City Council, authorized the purchase of a lot 25' x 85' known as the "Croft property" at 207 West 5th Avenue, immediately west of the City Hall, on which to build the jail.  The Council approved the purchase of this lot and appropriated $750 to cover the cost.

The land on which the Old City Jail now stands was to be used as a county seat for Navarro County (Taylor 1962, pg. 10) which was formed from Robertson County.

"originally granted to a Mexican settler Jesus Ortez, by virtue of his certification of settlement, dated March 16, 1838.   This Certificate was traded and passed through several hands, prior to its final location, being at one time owned by G. A. Campbell, and finally passing to David R. Mitchell, who was Surveyor of Robertson County Land District.

He held in his name the title of this for himself and associates Thos. I. Smith and J. C. Neill.

The title was finally cleared, and the hundred acres known as the "Old Town Plat" was conveyed to the Commissioners [i.e., the Commissioners for the August 1849 term of Court] on June 30, 1850" (Love 1933, p.67)

Mitchell, Smith and Neill along with C. M. Winkler, E. H. Tarrant, Jacob Eliot and William Love had been members of a committee which forwarded the organization of Navarro County.  They were assisted in this endeavor by Jose Antonio Navarro, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and a member of the first State Legislature, and they recognized his help by naming the new county in his honor.  In addition, the county seat was named in honor of the home of Navarro's parents, Corsica (Love 1933)

Early surveyors of necessity were involved in numerous encounters and skirmishes with Indians of the area who were anxious to protect their ancient hunting grounds from incursions by white settlers.  Thomas I. Smith and J. C. Neill had been sent, in 1844, "to meet at Tehuacana Creek in Limestone County, to enter into a treaty with the chiefs of the Comanches, Wacoes, Keechies, Caddoes, Anodayuas, Delawares, Cherokees, Lipans and the Tonkawa Indians (Taylor 1962, pg 42.)

David R. Mitchell at one time kept an inn "located about midway of the South side of Block 263, of the Old Town Plat...sometimes called the Lower Hotel" (Love 1933, p. 81) and also operated a store on the west side of the Court House Square (Taylor 1962, p. 13).  After his death in 1853 he was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Corsicana, a part of the original 100 acres of the Old Town Plat (Love 1933, p.245) in 1899 grateful citizens erected an imposing monument to his memory.  The inscription of this monument voices the sentiment which he had been know to express: "He was ever ready to smoke the pipe of peach but warned the Red Man he came to stay."

Limited data are available concerning other names present in the abstract which details the changing ownership of the piece of land on which the jail was built.  R. N. White, born in North Carolina in 1810 (Taylor 1962, p.40), was the first County Clerk of Navarro County and served in that office for eight years.   Fifth Avenue was originally called White Street in honor of White who "assisted in securing a railroad for Corsicana, and later was a member of the shoe firm of Bates and White" (Love 1933, p.255).  He was also one of 16 people who organized the Third Avenue Presbyterian Church in Corsicana in 1853.

G. L. Martin was an original trustee of the Presbyterian Church (Putman 1975, p.117) and was a signer of a resolution to vote for secession in 1861 (Love 1933, p.106).  Robert Morrell very early operated a saloon on the south side of the Court House Square (Love 1933, p. 84); Morrell's daughter Mattie M. Brown also figures in the abstract.  A copy of this abstract is appended to this paper (see Back Cover) because of its unusual clarity and completeness and its value as a document of historical interest.

Final acceptance of the new jail took place at a regular meeting of the City Commission on October 5, 1908.  The official name of the building and the year of its construction are still clearly visible on the exterior of the structure.

As designed by the architect the jail was a two story red brick building of I-beam construction facing north northwest, built on a beam foundation about two feet above ground level.  The exterior walls consisted of three thickness of brick laid in even courses from foundation to roof, and there was a decorative patterned brick trim below the roof line.  The roof was flat, sloping slightly to the rear, with wooden screeds laid in concrete, covered with wooden decking and a mopped surface.  Access to the jail was through wide iron doors, two in the front and one at the rear; some of the inside doors and latches were taken from the Old County Jail (Edens 1976).

Downstairs there was a small lobby with two cells in the rear, "the one on the left for drunks and one on the right for Negroes an Mexicans" (Patterson 1976).  On the second level were the police chief's office and another small lobby.  Wooden frame, double sash windows, protected by heavy iron bars, furnished light and ventilation.  Amenities and comforts were few and the facilities were strictly utilitarian.

When a new City Hall was built in 1924 on the site of the old City Hall immediately east of the jail, the chief's office was relocated in the new structure and slight alterations were to the 1908 jail in order to provide a larger and more efficient arrangement of cell space (see plan drawing in Back Cover pocket).   Two new cells were installed upstairs, one for women and one for persons who were considered dangerous.  Iron plating separated the rooms, and the second story cells were free-standing and iron-barred, set into place as separate unites.  The ceilings were of plaster, and a wooden stairway with a metal railing connected the first and second stories.  Sanitary facilities were minimal.  The jail remained essentially as described until the present restoration (1976) except for minor improvements and repairs.

In 1974 the jail and the immediately adjacent City Hall property were purchased by the First National Bank of Corsicana which occupies the remainder of the block, in order to preserve these buildings which have played such an important role in Corsicana's municipal history.  Upon completion of a new Government Center, police offices and jail were moved to the new Center.  Restoration and stabilization of the Old City Jail have been carried out by the bank for the jail's new occupants, First Travel Agency under the supervision of Mary Ann Stroube, travel agency owner and Allen Eden, Jr., co-owner of the Builder's Supply Co. of Corsicana (Wyatt 1976).   The integrity of the original building has been maintained and repairs have taken into consideration the appearance and character of the 1908 structure; wherever possible original materials have been reused in making necessary repairs (Stroube 1976).

For the sake of safety and convenience steps now lead up to a small entry porch.  Both steps and porch are reconstructed of cement aggregate with red brick trim, conforming to the original appearance of the building.   A porch railing has been constructed from the original inside stair railing.   The outer iron front door is original while the inside wooden front door originally hung in the Senator James H. Woods home, 504 West 2nd Avenue, Corsicana, built in 1900 and marked with a Texas Historical Medallion. (This house is now the property of Mr. and Mrs. Allen Edens, Jr.)  The wooden period door has been added merely for convenience.   There is no longer a rear entrance to the building.

Outside brick and brick trim have been pointed up where necessary and new decking and a new mopped surface conform to the original fall of the roof.  Windows on the east side of the jail have been bricked up with the original bars left intact on the inside; this non-structural alteration was made because of the close proximity of the jail to the old City Hall (about 12" clearance) and for the sake of more efficient heating and air conditioning.

The inside walls of the building have been scraped and cleaned so that brick still forms the interior wall surface.  Wooden window frames have been painted and repaired with only two windows requiring replacement because of deterioration.  Stationary single pane windows have been used in both instances.   The heading on all windows are original.  A small bay window has been constructed in the area formerly taken up by the east iron front door and will serve as a display area as well as provide additional lighting.  Original inside iron cell bars protect the glass sides of this window.

All electrical conduits have been removed from the outside of the building for the sake o safety and new conduits have been attached to the exposed inside beams which were encased in rough cedar siding, a practical disposition of necessary features.  The outside light fixture, to be placed over the front door, was in use in the old jail, and inconspicuous base plugs have been installed to furnish modern lighting suitable for business offices.

Some of the original iron cell bars and metal sheeting have been left intact or incorporated into partitions and walls during restoration, at the top of the partition enclosing the Consultation Room and as a floor to ceiling divider for the Manager's Office.  Flat bars, where encountered, are known to be the oldest type in use.  There are double louvered doors at the entrance to the Consultation Room and also on the Coffee Bar nook and closet which open onto the original jail hallway.

Embossed metal ceilings have been installed in the Lounge area and in the small overhang which protects the front entrance, replacing the badly deteriorated original ceilings.  These embossed ceilings were at one time a part of a contemporary structure, the old Merchants Opera House on Beaton Street in Corsicana.  A historical marker now commemorates this building, occupied for many years by the Builder's Supply Co.

Period furniture will be used wherever practical and possible, in the Lounge and Reception areas, in an effort to combine the demands of functionalism with the evidences of history.

On the first floor, room areas have been only slightly rearranged for maximum utility.  There is still a small lobby and reception area and cell space has now been designated as a Consultation Room, Manager's Office, storage space, a coffee bar and electric hot water heater, heating and air conditioning room and a public Lounge area.  A circular iron staircase with wooden steps has replaced the wooden  staircase which had almost collapsed at the time the jail was sold it leads to the second floor where rotten flooring has been cut back to the first beam.  Perforated iron grating from the original jail forms a three-quarter south wall of this room entered through the original iron door.  This second story room will be used for travel presentations, displays or other civic uses.

Mr. Claude A. Patterson served on the Corsicana Police Force from 1914 until 1957, first as a police officer and later as chief of police for the last six months of his career and has been a valuable source of information concerning the building of the Old City Jail and of events connected with city law enforcement in the early years of the 20th century.  Mr. Patterson carries on an active life in retirement; at age 90 his clear memory for names and dates and his continued interest in good government and efficient law enforcement mark him as one of Corsicana's most respected citizens.

Another well-known early law enforcement officer was the highly respected Chief Will S. Knight who had served as a deputy sheriff of Navarro County then had been elected City Marshall before he was appointed Corsicana's first chief of police.  Originally from Robertson County, he came to Blooming Grove, a Navarro County community, as a young man and worked for a time on the farm of Dr. I. N. George before becoming a law enforcement officer.  Knight served as chief of police from October 1906 until his death in June 1936.  Other police chiefs were: Bruce Nutt, 1936-1954; Pete McCain, 1954-1956; C. A. Patterson, 1956-1957; W. A. Massey, 1957-1960; Glen Shepherd, two months in 1960; W. C. Onstott, 1960-1969; Doug Hightower, 1969-1971; and Don Massey, 1971 until the present.

Mr. Patterson's recollections about his decision to become a policeman offer a good deal of insight  into community life during the era when the Old City Jail was built.  "I was working in a cafe on the east side of Beaton Street, cooking for a Mr. Walker," he recalls, " and I was getting paid $10 a week.  A man across the street named Sol Waddle offered me $14 a week, to be his night cook, and, well, I had to think about that.  No woman ever went on the east side of the street - the 'sawdust block,' they called it, and no Negro ever went on the west side of the street.  if he had, he'd have been thrown out.  Well, I went to work for Mr. Wadley and I was taking a few days off when one Saturday evening a policeman, Jim Sheets, told me Will Knight wanted to see me.  I thought he wanted my street tax.  In those days every man between 21 and 45 had to pay a street tax, so I said well, I'd see him in a few days.  Jim said, 'There's Will Knight right there, across the street.  Why don't you go see him now?'  Well, I did and Mr. Knight asked me to go to work for him in the Police Department.  I stayed there until 1957." (Patterson 1976).

Law enforcement officers relied on their own ingenuity  and initiative in their peace-keeping activities, usually arresting lawbreakers single-handedly and bringing them to the jail on foot "or just about any way we could get them there," according to Mr. Patterson.  "There were no lights in the alleys in the early days and this afforded convenient hiding places for lawbreakers.  Ed Sheets, the man who ran the City Pound, rode horseback and later on, Bruce Nutt rode a horse when he patrolled several parts of town, but mostly the whole town was patrolled on foot.  If necessary, police officers would walk several miles to answer a disturbance call or make an arrest.  Our first patrol car was a Model T. Ford."  Sometimes private citizens would give a police officer a ride if he needed to answer a call in a hurry, as was the case when Mr. Patterson and a fellow officer went to investigate a complaint involving a broken Peace Bond.  They arrived on the scene just in time to witness a murder, later ruled self defense.

As far as is known, no member of the 1908 Police Force pictured in Fig 16 [not reproducible for this page] is still alive but Mr. Patterson is responsible for the following details on the jail, police department and associated activities at that time.  Other more precise details are lacking since police department records and Daily Reports were destroyed by a former chief.  Contemporary news reports are also lacking since several pertinent volumes of the local newspaper, The Corsicana Daily Sun, were lost in a fire some years back.

In 1914 seven men served on the Corsicana Police Force under Chief Knight; they were Jack Ricker, Ed Sheets, Jim Sheets, E. W. Hornell, Bruce Nutt, Louise Weaver and Claude Patterson.  The Daily Schedule for police personnel consisted of two shifts, a day shift (6 a.m. - 7 p.m.) and a night shift (7 p.m. - 6 a.m.) with a designated day jailer and night jailer.  Until 1914 no itemized reports of arrests were kept.  The police uniform at that time consisted of a blue serge suit with brass buttons and a white felt hat.  "We didn't go into regular police uniforms until Will Knight died in 1936," according to Mr. Patterson.   "They had been ordered during the winter but didn't get there until it got hot, and those 14 oz. wool uniforms nearly smothered us to death!"

Salaries of the Police Force in 1914 were scaled to a seven day week with eleven hour shifts, lengthened in times of emergency.  The beginning salary for a policeman was $65 a month, increasing to $85 after six months service and to $100 after one year.  No special pay was earned for service as a jailer.

Although the cells in the jail were small, they were seldom empty and there were times when they held as many as 80 persons at the same time.  In cold weather there was a gas heater in the jail and the prisoners had cover.  "They were pretty comfortable in there," Mr. Patterson recollects.   "They had mattresses but no springs to sleep on." Women prisoners were detained in one cell, men in another, while Negroes, Mexicans and drunks were incarcerated in yet another cell.

The daily jail menu consisted of sandwiches twice a day and all the water the prisoners could drink, but no ice water or coffee.  Once, when the jail was full to capacity and running over, security came very close to total disruption when a drunk man who had been picked up at the Southern Pacific Depot tore up the plumbing and flooded the jail, an occurrence which brought down the wrath of the chief on the whole department.

Most of the people brought to the jail in the early days were charged with misdemeanors such as drunkenness, unruly behavior or petty thievery, although quite a few arrests were made for the illegal distilling of whiskey and several murderers were brought to the jail.

Other particular problems resulted from the discovery of oil near Corsicana which brought many new people into the community, although the reputation of Chief Knight as a no-nonsense peace officer acted as a strong deterrent to prolonged rowdiness or to any suggestion of lawlessness.  Chief Knight followed a policy of hiring local men as police officers rather than the transients who were following the oil boom who regularly applied to him for jobs.  Knight's men were well known to him and he was able to achieve continuity with a cohesive, well-disciplined force.  His aim was not for personal popularity for himself but respect, for the police and for the community.

The Depression days of the early 1930s created unusual problems for the Police Department.  "There were some good people that got in that jail, White and Colored," says Mr. Patterson.  "Lots of things happened that I don't ever want to see happen again.  Grocery stores stayed open until midnight on Saturday nights and lots of good people hung around until the stores closed just to see what the grocers would throw out in their garbage.  I was Night Jailer at that time and I went into the jail every evening to try to cheer up the people in the jail.  Sometimes they said they were hungry, after working at the City Park or the cemetery all day, under guard.  They said two sandwiches a day just wasn't enough.  Well, I'd go around to Sol Wadley or to Richard Cunningham or some of the other cafe men and they'd give me bread or cakes or sometimes some Irish stew or maybe a gallon or two of coffee for the prisoners.  Sometimes they even gave me cigarettes.   I used to spread out the food in the lobby of the jail then let the inmates out of their cells to eat it.  I did that lots of times."

One incident with an unusual ending occurred during the Depression.  Mr. Patterson received a postal card from Long Branch, New Jersey from a man who said he'd been a hobo and had spent time in over 300 jails from coast to coast.  He was writing to say that the Corsicana jail was the best one he'd ever been in.  His experiences had impressed him so strongly that upon returning to his home in New Jersey he had taken up law enforcement work and had become a policeman himself.  Mr. Patterson has received a Christmas card from the ex-hobo every year since that time.

One jailbreak has occurred during which a new and inexperienced policeman inadvertently allowed an inmate to retrieve a gun which was hidden in the prisoner's coat pocket, and one "free-for-all" fight took place in the jail with several resultant injuries to policemen and prisoners.

The close proximity of the City Jail to the Navarro Hotel, just across the street, was frequently the cause of complaints by hotel guests who during the spring and summer months could hear quite plainly the loud and bawdy laments of jail inmates, especially during the late hours of Saturday night and early Sunday morning.  Once, in the 1920s, when a youthful prankster was caught and placed in jail, he repeatedly called in a loud voice for someone to "call my Mama.   She'll come get me outta this jail!"  Finally, when a hotel guest could stand the uproar no longer, he shouted across the street from his open window, "What's her number? I'll call her if you'll shut up and let me get some sleep!"   The telephone number was gratefully supplied and the call made from the hotel guest to the boy's mother who promptly came to the jail and rescued the prankster (Eliot 1976).

According to Mr. Patterson, the presence of an Army Air Corps Primary Training Field on the outskirts of Corsicana during World War II presented no serious problems to law enforcement officers although there was an influx of several hundred active young men who generally spent their off-duty hours in Corsicana.   Mr. Patterson attributes this situation, potentially troublesome in other areas, to the presence of good military leadership and community cooperation.

The members of the Navarro County Historical Society consider that the Old City Jail is eminently worthy of recognition as a historical site because of the part its presence has played in local law enforcement and because of the uniqueness of its architecture, typical of 1908, at the present time when because of unfortunate economic or utilitarian circumstances many contemporary buildings have been razed or disfigured by poor restoration.  The Old City Jail is recognized as an important landmark by the people of this city; its restoration assures its continued use as a functional entity in the community.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Croft, Charles W., 1976, Personal interview.

Edens, Allen, Jr., 1976, Personal interview.

Eliot, George W., 1976, Personal interview.

Love, Annie Carpenter, 1933, History of Navarro County.  Southwest Press, Dallas, Texas.

Murchison, William P., 1974, The Mayors of Corsicana.  In The Navarro County Scroll, Vol. XIX.

Patterson, Claude A., 1976, Taped interview by Wyvonne Putman and Mary Love Sanders.  March 10, 1976.  Navarro County Historical Society Archives, Pioneer Village, Corsicana, Texas.

Putman, Wyvonne, Compiler, 1975, Navarro County History. Nortex Press, Quanah, Texas.

Stroube, Mary Ann, 1976, Personal Interview.

Taylor, Alva, 1962, Navarro County History.   No publisher listed.

Wyatt, W. D., 1976, Personal interview.


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