OLD JAIL MUSEUM
Palo Pinto, Texas
I’ve been doing research for a book I’m writing that’s set in the 1880s. I specifically needed to know more about jails, prisoners, sheriffs, marshals, outlaws, etc. I’m always happy to have my head in a book, or eyes fixated on a microfilm reader—I truly enjoy doing research for historical projects—but I also love going to museums. We’ve got some wonderful museums in Central Texas, many within spitting distance of my home (not that I’ve ever tried), and I hope to tell you about every one of them someday soon.
The old Palo Pinto Jail. A sandstone structure built in 1880. Photo by Laura Conner Kestner
But I visited a new one recently that was such a delightful surprise—the Old Jail Museum in Palo Pinto, Texas (Palo Pinto County seat)—that I wanted to share a little bit about it with you now.
The jail, built in 1880, is a two-story sandstone structure that served Palo Pinto County until 1941. It was restored and converted to a museum in the late 1960s. Originally, the first floor was home to the jailer and his family, while the second floor housed prisoners. Now both floors are filled with artifacts and exhibits, including medical instruments and equipment. There are also early day household items, including an antique refrigerator and cook stove. Other highlights include the old telephone switchboard, and the 1850s printing press that was used to produce the Palo Pinto County Star for many years. There’s also a display tribute to Palo Pinto law enforcement.
There are several displays devoted to ranching/cattle, since cattle kings Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving both figured prominently in Palo Pinto’s beginnings.
Although all the cells are gone from inside the building, there are still two (large metal cages basically) in the yard of the museum.
Old Jail Cells. The smaller cell was made to fit on a wagon in order to better transport prisoners to Huntsville. Photo by Laura Conner Kestner
The smaller of the two cells was built (in the county’s early days) so that it would fit on a wagon. That way Palo Pinto officials could transport prisoners to Huntsville as the need arose. According to a museum staff member, it often took as long as two weeks to make that long, perilous journey. I can’t even imagine.
One of the more unusual displays on the second floor is a hangman’s noose suspended over a trapdoor. It was added to the jail in 1906, but was never used. There were executions, but for some reason they took place on scaffolding erected at the nearby courthouse.
The bedroom portion of a “dog trot” style cabin. Photo by Laura Conner Kestner
Early Day Appliances. Here are a few of the things that a pioneer wife would have been proud to own. Photo by Laura Conner Kestner
The museum yard features several log cabins and lots of primitive ranching and farming equipment. Inside the cabins there are displays devoted to early day pioneer life—including lanterns, cookware, bedding, furniture, churns, rub boards and a wringer washing machine with a hand-activated agitator. There’s also a blacksmith shop, complete with tools, and a carriage house with a restored buggy.
I’ve just hit a few of the highlights here, there are so many more things to see at this museum. One word of advice though, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of dining options in Palo Pinto. I saw one convenience store/grill type place (across from the courthouse) but no restaurants. It’s only 11 miles to Mineral Wells, though, and you can find lots to eat there.
The Old Jail Museum Complex is located at 5th and Elm streets in Palo Pinto, and is open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday (10-3) beginning the first weekend of March to the second weekend of December. Thanks for traveling along with me.