Wednesday, Oct 1, 2014
Old Jailhouse Ready for Public Debut
HAMILTON CO. -- A new roadside attraction in McLeansboro is ready for visitors. The old Hamilton County Jail was unveiled this week after two years of careful repairs.
The old jail was built before the Civil War and before the railroad made its way to McLeansboro. However, Hamilton County built a new jail 1938. The old one became history and spent years on a farm.
A group finally got to work on their big plans to restore it in 2012.
What started as a rusting, 7-ton, box of steel became a labor of love for the Hamilton County Historical Society and members, like Howard Ritchey.
"A lot of people looked at that and said best thing is to take this to the junk yard and sell it for metal," said Ritchey. "A diamond is just a lump of coal. And I said you wait, one of these days we'll have it fixed up."
It's been nearly two years since the group moved the old jailhouse from a farm to McLeansboro. Volunteers stepped in to spend countless hours repairing and rebuilding.
"Donated steel, money, paint," said Ritchey.
The structure now has a new home just off Route 14 at the Farris Family Restaurant. The jail also has big windows for visitors to peak inside.
"This way people can come and look at it," said Ritchey. "Look through the windows and see what they've got."
Even though most of the work is now complete, the society is still searching for some missing pieces.
"We're trying to find out where it came from, who made it," said Rick Moore with the Hamilton County Historical Society.
The jail was constructed in 1860 and housed inside a brick building on the town square.
"It'd be a lot easier to say that there aren't many features," said Moore. "It was bare bones."
Rick Moore has read the inspection reports from the late 1800s. He knows it wasn't a place a prisoner wanted to stay.
"They talked about how dirty the jail was," said Moore, "how it wasn't fit for occupation."
It's a good lesson in the ways life has changed. The historical society can't wait for school groups and others to come explore.
"This is maybe our biggest project to date," said Moore. "But that's just to date."
The old jail was also home to a few legends. The only person ever hanged in Hamilton County, Fred Behme, spent several months there. The society is hoping to put up signs explaining such stories to visitors.
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