Go to Jail, Go Directly to Jail…

By Mike Steely

If you’ve played Monopoly you know that card well. Drawing it sends you to jail in the game and you sit there and miss two turns unless you roll doubles or have a “Get Out of Jail” card.

If you’re a law or history buff you might like to take a drive and visit some of East Tennessee’s most interesting former calabooses, clinks, hoosegows, slammers or prisons. By far the best known and now open to the public is the former Brushy Mountain Prison in Petros, Tennessee.

James Earl Ray escaped that isolated big house briefly only to be captured in the rough mountains behind the prison that is now Frozen Head State Park. The abandoned prison is a tourist attraction and distillery now.

But you don’t have to drive very far in our area to see other abandoned or repurposed jailhouses. We’ve got several worth a visit although most are locked up tight and you can’t go inside. The architecture of most is very basic and austere.

In Rogersville all that remains of the old jail there are a few steps along the street behind the Hawkins County Courthouse. I know those steps well because, in the 1970s, I was actually thrown out of jail and across the taller steps  because of a story I wrote. I’ve often said that I may be the only journalist tossed out of jail instead of being tossed into jail but that’s another story.

On a recent trip to a state park, my wife and I drove over to Huntsville, Tn., the hometown of the late Senator Howard Baker. The small town has a huge old jailhouse that is striking and interesting.

The Scott County Jail may be the oldest standing jail in our state, built in 1907 and replaced in 1963 only to be reopened and operating until 2008. The huge three-story rock building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Huntsville’s Scott County High School has an entire museum complex which, each September, hosts the Heritage Festival. The museum grounds has a frontier village with a one-room schoolhouse, artifacts, and a museum that is interactive and features items from the U. S. S. Tennessee battleship.

If you find yourself in the Rutledge area you may want to take a right just before the courthouse and take a look at the outside of the old Grainger County Jail. Back at the courthouse is a replica of Andrew Johnson’s tailor shop. Did you know President Johnson was a tailor?

Maynardville has a repurposed slammer along Highway 81. On the west side of that main route stands the former Union County Jail. Built in 1954 by Knoxville architect James E. McDonald it was used until 1974 when the main jail was moved into the courthouse complex.

Other nearby counties also have buildings that were once jails including the ones Claiborne County built in 1816, Jamestown in 1860, Greene County in 1882, and the Bledsoe County Jail in Pikeville. Many of the old jailhouses serve or have served as Chamber of Commerce or County Historical Society headquarters.

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