The Old Jail

The old jail as it was originally constructed in 1870, minus the stairway leading to the city judge’s office on the second floor.

I just love how one story generates another, it’s a great way to gather more information.  If I had a recorder running in my shop I would have tomes of stories to write.  Last week Lawrence Strouts and F.J. Revere were in the shop and they got to telling me some more stories about Helmick.  One in particular that I forgot to mention was the purported pioneer jail that now sits in Durland Park.  At some time this jail was moved from Council Grove down to the rock quarry near Helmick.  It served for a number of years as a dynamite shack, which, considering the construction, the building was fit for the purpose.

At the risk of ruffling some feathers I will tell you the true story of the old jail and not the imagined story by Bill Coffin.  Mr. Coffin (rest his soul) may have been a generous and noble man and well liked by all fellow citizens, however his ‘ Story of the Santa Fe Trail’ is closer to fabulous than fact.  You will notice the sign in front of the jail that says it has served the city since 1849.  Where Coffin ever got this date is beyond the best historians.  Reason alone would prove this to be wrong.  In 1849 the only inhabitants of Council Grove (outside of the Kaw Indians) were Seth Hays, the Choteau brothers and another trader named Kennedy.  In 1851-2 a few more families trickled into the Grove.  Point is there was no ‘city’ here in 1849.  Furthermore, until Kansas became a territory in 1854, no one had any legal authority to hold anyone in jail.  But to put a hatchet in the head of this false story is a town council report that Ken McClintock has found in years past.  The report shows that the building we know as the pioneer jail was built in 1870.  Lalla Brigham was reasonably close when she states in her ‘History of Council Grove’ that the jail was constructed in 1871.

When the jail was built in 1870 it was a two story structure; the jail on the ground floor and the sheriff’s office above.  As to the original location of the jail there is some question.  Ken McCintock believes the jail was built at the south end of Washington Street near Elm Creek where there had previously been a log guard house.  We do know that by 1873 the jail was located on the west end of the 300 block of West Main on the north side of the street facing the Congregational church.   The Stony Hill apartments are now on the site where the jail stood.  The stairway to the sheriff’s office faced the church and the door to the jail was in the rear.  So what we see as the front of the jail today was actually the back of the jail.

The old jail during the 1954 territorial centennial.

At some point the upper floor was removed and  the jail taken to Helmick and used as a dynamite shack until the 1954 Territorial Centennial when the jail was brought back to Council Grove and placed on Neosho street next to the National Bank.  During the celebration citizens were convicted on mock charges and required to spend some time in jail.  Men who didn’t grow a beard or people who didn’t dress in pioneer garb were required to have their picture taken in the calaboose.   A mock hanging (which I think I have covered elsewhere) was also staged at this event.

Several folks in the city thought it would be a good idea to preserve the old jail and have a place for it to remain for posterity to enjoy.  G. Bill Coffin was a major force in this endeavor.   After the 1954 celebration a location was determined at Durland Park.  A cement foundation poured and the jail placed upon it.  The jail was in poor shape when it was brought up from Helmick, and has in the recent past been restored.  I’m afraid I cannot give you the date on the restoration but I am fairly certain that Mr. McClintock knows, and I am sure there are readers who remember the project.  The entire exterior has been replaced, and to my knowledge the only original part is the interior wall and the iron door and window grates

The claim that the notorious Jack McDowell was held there is wrong.  He was hung in 1867, before the jail was built. And the claim that Jack the Peeper was shot while trying to escape, I cannot say for sure, but it is my opinion that ‘Jack the Peeper’ was used then in the same sense that we use the term ‘Peeping Tom’ now.  During the 1906 earthquake Edith Maskell said, “When the shock came and the house rattled so, the first thought I had was that someone was prowling around and that possibly Jack the Peeper was on hand.”  If Jack the Peeper was a real person who was shot in the 1880s then why would anyone in 1906 be concerned about him?  About the only thing that is likely true is the bootleggers and stillers being held there.  Many locals have stories of Morris County bootleggers, but I’ll save that for another time.

A very deteriorated structure before it was rebuilt in 1998.

Addenda: An article from the C.G. Rep in 1954 reads “The old city jail—or calaboose—which served the cause so well when the bad men and women of the Brothers of the Beard and Sisters of the Swish ran wild on city streets during the pre-centennial celebration days, probably will find itself in a place of honor for the rest of its years.  The structure, the city’s first jail, is known to be at least 75 years old, and many feel that it should be preserved to provide another point of interest in the city.  Consequently, G. S. Peterson, celebration chairman, has named a committee to confer tomorrow with county commissioners as to the possibility of its being moved to the court house grounds.  It is planned that it will be improved as a ‘museum piece.”

The Brothers of the Beard was the beard contest held for the men and the Sisters of the Swish was the dress contest for the ladies.


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