- Archeology Pt. 1: Archeology Month
- Archeology Pt. 2: Cemeteries
- Archeology Pt. 3: The Mercantile
- Archeology Pt. 4: The Country Doctor
By Peggy Smith
Henderson County Historical Commission
October is designated each year as Archeology Month by the Texas Historical Commission. Often when we hear the word archeology, we associate it with digging methodically in sands of some foreign country. I must say that it used to bore me when I saw articles talking of the hours spent painstakingly digging small pieces of bone or pottery, etc… Archeology, as defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary, is “the study of the life of ancient peoples, as by excavation of ancient cities, etc…”. Now that in itself didn’t entice me but as I matured I began to research my family history. Curiosity provoked me to research what their lives were like. Though curiosity didn’t do much for the cat, it has given me many discoveries in my own family.
The Texas Historical Commission has dedicated itself to preserving the rich history of our enormous state. It is a daunting task, but historians love to preserve history and are always looking for new sources of evidence. Archeologists are trained to examine evidence and put it in a framework in history.
We all have treasures that are priceless to us. Uncle George’s pocket watch that came through the civil war, Aunt Ida’s pearls that were sold three times to buy supplies but were recovered each time, or the old deed that Great Grandpa kept when his grandparents bought the farm he still lives on. What stories we hold. What memories to pass on to our children.
There are so many stories that need to be told. There are many discoveries that still need to be made. This is why the Texas Historical Commission celebrates Archeology Month.
One story is the history of the Henderson County Jail. Henderson County came into existence in 1846, carved out of Nacogdoches County. It was named after the first Texas Governor James Pickney Henderson. The town of Buffalo was chosen as the county seat. This town was located on the Trinity River but only survived four years before the county seat was moved to Athens. During this time the county gave land for three other counties in the northern part of the county. In 1850 Kaufman and Van Zandt counties were carved from Henderson. The town of Athens was laid out and the County Commissioners began talking about a jail. The first Courthouse was a log cabin built in late 1850 and in 1851 Commissioners ordered that J.B. Luker be appointed to draft a plan for a jail. It is supposed to have been finished by 1856-7. We don’t know exactly when. Then another new jail was built in 1874 and the old one was referred to as the “Log Calaboose.” It has been said that if a prisoner wanted to escape the old log calaboose it would be very easy, but few did. The new jail, which was built in front of the old one, serviced the county until a fire broke out in the Masonic hall on November 1, 1897. It burned every structure on the block including the jail.
In the November 1897 Commissioner’s Court minutes it was ordered that four lots be taken for the new site of the County Jail on what is now Larkin Street. It was completed in 1898.
During these first years of the county such names as Judge John Brown (Red-because he had red hair), Judge Samuel Tine Owen, Sheriff James Ball, Sheriff W.C. Bobo, Judge John H. Reagan and Sheriff J.P. Morrow. As with any public building, age and disrepair took it’s toll on this building. The Commissioners ordered many repairs but the old building was old and too small to service the community.
The Commissioners discussed a new building in 1924, stating that the present one was dilapidated and unsafe. The basement was flooded most of the time and W.D. Justice stated that there were too many prisoners and that they could escape just about any time they wanted to. Some citizens of the county were against having such a fine place for prisoners to be housed. Times were hard and citizens of the county wondered where the money would come from for a new building. The county voted to build a new jail there on the same property. It is a two story structure with a basement that was finished in 1925.
This fine jail housed many criminals. What tales those walls could tell of prisoners brought in by the famous Sheriff Jess Sweeten, J.W. Brownlow and Joel Baker. Some of the jailers lived in the basement and provided food for the prisoners.
By 1989 the county needed still more space for prisoners and new rules stated that male and female prisoners must be separated so the need for another building brought us the new structure on Murchison Street that is in use today.
The “Old Jail”, which was actually the fourth old jail became storage for county records until March 1997 when it became the home of the Henderson County Historical Commission. This building sees many visitors and houses many historical documents and county history. There are people to help find information on families, organizations, schools, and cemeteries of the county. I encourage you to visit this wonderful old building, take a short tour, look through the bars, and talk to someone about your stories that need to be recorded for future generations.