Old Bledsoe County Jail finds new future

Old Bledsoe County Jail finds new future

April 16th, 2012 by Ben Benton in News

The old Bledsoe County Jail in Pikeville, Tenn., now on the National Register of Historic Places, is slated to be a military museum and home to the Veterans Services Office.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

PIKEVILLE, Tenn. -- The 160-year-old Bledsoe County Jail building likely will never hold another prisoner, but it will offer a home to a military museum and the county's Veterans Service Office.

The old county slammer on Frazier Street -- featuring a rock exterior modified over the decades, a front porch and an upstairs cellblock accessible only from an outside iron staircase -- was replaced by a state-of-the-art facility that opened across town in 2011.

County Mayor Bobby Collier said local veterans groups will use and maintain the building, which is being updated for use by people who aren't packing guns or wearing inmates' stripes.

Two years ago, the county was awarded a $17,000 Historic Preservation Fund grant to put toward restoration. Much of the downstairs portion of the building's front has been updated, while cell areas still need work, Collier said. Wood floors have been refinished and, in one place, plaster stripped off the original brick walls.

"We left that," he said, pointing to the original 1851 brick.

Historical records on the Bledsoe County TnGenWeb Project website show local folks first sought a prison from the state as early as October 1817. In the county's earliest history, a jail stood just a block from the courthouse.

It stood on the same block as the present-day Fabric House, the oldest store building in Pikeville, according to Bledsoe County Public Library Director Carolyne Knight, who keeps and researches the library's collections of historical records.

Records show that finding a place to house Bledsoe's lawbreakers is a problem almost as old as the county, established in 1807. In 1850, members of the Bledsoe County Court -- what today would be called the County Commission -- started planning to replace a former jail that they said was "dilapidated, rotten down, and holley [wholly] insecure and insufficient to secure prisoners," records state.

They decided to sell the old jail site to pay for a new location, according to April 1850 court minutes at the library. Page 109 of Bledsoe County's 1851 deed book states that Samuel W. Roberson and Eliza Roberson, heirs to local notable resident John Bridgeman, sold the lot on what is now called Frazier Street to the county for $50 on Sept. 11 that year.

Construction specifications in County Court minutes state that the Frazier Street jail started life as a two-story, all-brick building, 20 feet wide and 40 feet long and built for $1,500. Records show the county sold a second lot to help finance construction.

The lockup's history becomes foggy in the record until it was nearly 90 years old and its aging condition again forced action.

In January 1937, The Bledsonian and Pikeville Banner newspaper described the County Court's vote to spend about $6,000 for a new jail. The paper noted that 50 percent of the work would be funded by the Works Progress Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal agencies.

But in June 1937, The Bledsonian and Pikeville Banner reported the County Court had retraced its earlier steps, scaling back the project and discussing "repairs and improvements" needed at the 1851-era jail.

Money was the problem. Again.

"Judge [Solon] L. Robinson stated this week that every means to effect economy was being used with the hope that the improvements might be done for less than the amount appropriated," the article says. Local officials wanted to keep costs under the county's $3,000 portion of the bill.

"If only the walls could talk," Knight said last week. "It has seen 46 sheriffs come and go."

She has her own connection with the old jail. Her grandfather, Herb Frady, was the chief deputy under then-sheriff Walter Walling in the early 1930s, she said.

"Walter Walling was sheriff from 1934 to 1938. My grandfather and grandmother lived at and 'kept' the jail for a period of time." she said.

Knight said one photo depicts Frady, Walling and Deputy Frank Goforth standing in front of the old brick jail with a seized moonshine still.

When it was closed to prisoners for good in 2008, the Bledsoe County Jail was arguably Tennessee's oldest operating jail, according to local historians and county records.

Its last major update came in the wake of a 1992 federal lawsuit that forced the county to spend about $400,000 on improvements and repairs, records show. The last $42,000 payment on that work was made in 2006. It was designed, as it stands today, to hold a maximum of nine prisoners, but frequently held 25 or more, officials said at the time.

State fire officials visited the aging building in May 2007, pointing to a lack of corrective action on problems like evacuation plans, fire drills, emergency lighting, firewalls and a sprinkler system. County officials had balked at such an expense when what really was needed was a new building.

The old clink was reopened briefly in 2008 to hold 11 men while the county maintained a state-mandated "fire watch" and forged ahead with the replacement facility. A $7.4 million, 96-bed jail opened in 2011.

Collier reluctantly laughed at the recurring themes surrounding the county jail over its life.

"Times don't change much, do they?" he said.