Museum displays the town's old 'calaboose'
The Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center took in an interesting new object this spring – the jail cell that held prisoners in the basement of City Hall, now the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, located next door to the museum.
The rusted, strap iron cage is divided into two 4-foot by 6-foot cells and stands only 6.5 feet tall. Much of the space inside each cell is taken up by a collapsible bunk. A recent visitor to the museum remarked, “I wouldn’t want to be bad in this town!”
The jail exhibit can be seen, along with the museum’s other exhibits – Black Mountain College, Pathways from the Past, Hands on History, and Jerry Pope’s original artwork of historic downtown.
In 1971, the free-standing, double cell was decommissioned and auctioned off. The winning bidder, Billy Ricketts, purchased the cell to use as a booth in his well-known Black Mountain restaurant, Pepper’s. The cell was never able to be used for that purpose because of its size, weight and configuration, and so it sat in storage until earlier this year when Rickett's son donated it and helped assemble it on the first floor of the museum.
The age of the cell is unknown. However, it was manufactured by Pauly Jail Building Co. of St. Louis, founded in 1856 when the Pauly family, who had been steamboat blacksmiths, saw a need for portable steel cages that could house prisoners in remote areas without large detention facilities. The cell looks very similar to the historic Montgomery County (Texas) Jail which dates to the mid- to late 1800s.
Many of the company’s early records have been lost. But in 1929 the company fulfilled an order for a cell in Asheville. Whether this is the jail now in the museum’s collection is uncertain.
As early as 1910, however, Black Mountain operated a jail in town. On March 19, 1910, The Asheville Citizen reported that officers from Greenville, South Carolina were in Black Mountain looking for a bail jumper. They apprehended him without notifying local law enforcement and locked him up in the “village calaboose.”
Hungry from their journey, the two officers left him in the jail while they went to dinner. When they came back, someone had broken the lock from the outside and their bail jumper was gone. The man remained at large for several weeks before the bail bondsman enlisted the help of a local deputy who was able to apprehend him from the “mountain fastnesses.”
Little else is known about the town jail. In the early part of the 1900s, most small town calabooses were free-standing, one-room structures with a door accessible from the outside.
The next mention of Black Mountain’s jail in local papers also made statewide news. On June 24, 1917, The Charlotte Observer reported, “The national guardsmen on duty guarding tunnels and bridges in the vicinity of Black Mountain stormed the Black Mountain jail early this morning, rescuing three of their comrades … who had been confined in the jail on disorderly conduct … after consuming considerable liquor … (The guardsmen) mount(ed) guard over the entrance while one of their number broke the lock.” Black Mountain officials rearrested the three men later at their camp and took them to the jail in Asheville “for safe keeping.”
Arrests were heavily reported in the local paper and, at least early on, most prisoners were held in the jail in Black Mountain rather than being transferred to Asheville. In May 1921, The Asheville Citizen reported that officers found a 60-gallon moonshine still under a trap door in the house of a local man, who “made a break for the door” and was arrested and held in the jail after taking deputies on a short chase.
By 1924, according to fire insurance maps, the jail was part of Town Hall, which was located behind the businesses on Sutton Avenue and Cherry Street.
Within the next three years, the town constructed a new city hall on State Street. The jail was eventually relocated to its basement. Even in the new space, however, the jail had problems with escapees. In 1936, a local man broke open a lock on the prison door to free the two prisoners. He was sentenced to four months working on the county roads.
At some point, prisoners found that they did not need outside help to escape.
The jail "wasn’t bolted to the floor," Jake Robertson, who served as police chief in the late 1960s, remembered in a 2003 interview archived at the museum. "It was just a cage built and set there. If you could get some help, about four men could pick that thing up, and there was clearance enough in the ceiling that you could pick it up, and then of course the prisoners could crawl under it.”
Eventually, though, the deputies “got wise and they got four barrels and set on top of it, (which) made it to where it wouldn’t clear the ceiling,” he said.
The jail cell that Robertson speaks of is certainly the same jail on display at the museum today, though the volunteers who helped relocate the cell, piece by heavy piece, and assemble it in the museum cannot believe that four people could fit in the cell, much less lift it off the ground from the inside.
By the late 1960s, the jail was mostly in use to house homeless people making their way through town who needed a place to stay for the night, or to hold prisoners before transferring them to the Buncombe County jail.
"The Town of Black Mountain wrote the final chapter this week on a ‘home’ for the penniless, often intoxicated ‘knights of the road’ for many years,” The Asheville Times reported in March 1971. The jail was closed instead of renovating the facility to meet state standards, which would have cost $3,000-$4,000.
The museum, open Tuesday–Saturday 10 a.m.– 5 p.m., is at 223 West State St. For more, visit swannanoavalleymuseum.org or call 669-9566.