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If the Old Jail could talk

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POSTED: September 5, 2012 3:28 p.m.
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The first permanent Liberty County Jail has sat at 302 N. Main Street in Hinesville for 120 years. This photo shows how it looked in 1939.

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“A rotten, filthy rathole” was what I was called when I was 80 years old by Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, who also condemned me!  When I was new I was described as having all the modern improvements of a first class prison. 

I sit at 302 South Main Street in Hinesville and used to do nothing except think of the days gone by. Now, though, I house the Hinesville Downtown Development Authority and a small art gallyer. I feel important in this community even though I am referred to as “The Old Jail.” I was not the first one in the county but I did serve the longest time, being completed by the contractor, Mr. Parkhill, in October 1892. I am a two-story brick building, 64 feet wide by 75 feet in length, covered with composition shingles. Originally, my roof was tin. I am surrounded by a one foot thick, three feet high brick wall that was topped with metal security bars five feet tall. Two fireplaces warmed my insides for 49 years and then heaters were installed in 1941.

Looking over some of the invoices pertaining to my upkeep were several for cleaning the sewer pipe, $8.50 paid to Mr. B. Shaw for wood for the fireplaces, $3.33 paid to Martin Brothers for 50 rolls of toilet paper, $1.90 to Amanda Taylor for washing 19 jail blankets, $4.50 to Dr. T. S. Layton for medical services to prisoners, $1.25 to Henry I. Rahn for white-washing the jail and $22.50 for clothing for discharged convicts.

In 1916, Sheriff J. H. Baxter complained to the county officials of my condition and they secured Ben G. Way to make the repairs. He did at the cost of $5. In 1964, the County Commissioners suggested that I was too old and needed too many repairs and that I be replaced by a new jail.  Finally in 1968, a bond election was held and passed to build a new one. I was worried about my outcome.

On March 3, 1970, I was to be auctioned to the highest bidder by the Liberty County Board of Commissioners of Roads and Revenues.  The Liberty County Historical Society had been formed to save old historical buildings such as myself.  So, on this day the LCHS and a company from Savannah came to bid on me. The Savannah company did not want me but wanted the land where I sat. They were going to destroy me with a big bulldozer.  As I watched the bidding go back and forth that day I was so scared my cells were trembling! The bids went back and forth and higher and higher.  I saw the LCHS members go into a huddle from time to time. My very life depended on them to save me!  Finally, they made the final bid of $4,500. This was a tremendous amount more than they had anticipated. But, thanks to them, I was saved from destruction.

After numerous fundraisers the LCHS was able to put a new roof on me and removed the exterior white paint that was applied by a prisoner.  I was restored to my original natural brick by the Happy Bear Company at a cost of $561.

I was owned by the LCHS for a number of years and then sold to the city of Hinesville for $1. I am in their hands now. I want to share with you a few of the unique moments or prisoners that are in my memory.

One summer day, our first Sheriff Olin C. Smith made a trip to Jones Creek. While there he received a letter from his jail deputy requesting him to return to Hinesville. An inmate had died of natural causes and could not be removed from the locked cell as the sheriff had all the keys.

John H. Baxter was sheriff in 1920 when two black prisoners were lynched. The Liberty County Grand Jury indicted several local law enforcement officers. They were tried in Liberty County Superior Court, found guilty and sentenced to prison.

While Paul Sikes was sheriff, Ethelda Lee and her young friends often played on the jail grounds and they sometimes talked to the prisoners. As a joke, Sheriff Sikes locked young Ethelda in one of the empty cells and scared the daylights out of her.

In 1959, Robert V. "Bobby" Sikes was elected sheriff. One prisoner during his term was Ernest Newmiller, a military trained demolition expert whose wife operated a photography studio on Ft. Stewart. One night they had a quarrel and Mrs. Newmiller called the sheriff and advised him that her husband was on the way to town to rob a bank. The sheriff, deputies, and several local policemen took heed of the warning. They tailed him coming into Hinesville from Walthourville and stopped him at the entrance to Ft. Stewart. A search of his clothing produced several sticks of dynamite and a hand grenade. The laundromat beside a bank revealed enough dynamite to blast the laundromat as well as the bank. Then they learned he was wanted in New York for murder. He had connected a hand grenade to a garage door and when the woman lifted her door she was killed by the explosion.

Then there was Foster Sellers, a professional bank robber, who stayed a short time with us. As he had a record for previous jail breaks he gave Sheriff Sikes his “word” that he would behave while here. After his trial, conviction and transfer to a prison in Jesup, the Jesup warden called Sikes.  Sellers requested a conference with Sikes. Meeting with Sellers in his old cell here he showed Sikes where he had sawed the security bars through and left the jail at night. He walked to a local car dealership, selected a used car, located the keys and drove to Savannah for a night on the town.  He was always back in his cell in the morning.

A hot situation arose in February 1966 when a prisoner attempted suicide in his second floor cell. After arranging his bed linens around him he proceeded to ignite both the sheets and himself. The other prisoners were removed but police hesitated to go on the second floor because of the dense smoke and flames. Sheriff Bobby Sikes did not hesitate to hurry up the stairs and drag the unconscious, 200-pound prisoner to safety.  As a result of his bravery, he received the ‘750 Award’ from WSB radio in Atlanta for “his heroic rescue of the trapped prisoner.”

The jail that was built in the early 1970s on Liberty Street was long ago outgrown and another was constructed on Airport Road. Sheriff Don Martin and Sheriff Steve Sikes have held office, which included watching over it.

I have seen a lot in my 120 years. I am a monument to time and history in Liberty County as I am the oldest surviving brick structure. I am the cornerstone of Hinesville’s past and hope to be a vital part of its future.

 

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