In 2017, the Town of Huntsville undertook a project to restore and preserve the historic Scott County Jail. Located in the historic downtown courthouse square area, the jail was originally constructed in 1904 from sandstone that was quarried locally. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The aging structure was abandoned by Scott County in 2007, following the construction of a new justice center on the opposite side of town. In 2017, Huntsville Mayor Dennis Jeffers petitioned Scott County Commission to transfer ownership of the jail to the town, with a pledge that it would be properly restored and preserved, and opened for the public to enjoy.
In 2018, the Town of Huntsville received a $50,000 tourism enhancement grant from the State of Tennessee to provide funding for the restoration efforts.
Following is a story that appeared in the December 29, 2017 edition of the Independent Herald newspaper, detailing the vision for the jail.
Jail Progress Seen
Oneida Independent Herald • December 29, 2017
HUNTSVILLE — “Here’s the thing,” says Huntsville Mayor Dennis Jeffers, “this jail has touched all of us in some way.”
Jeffers is standing on the third floor of the century-old stone-and-concrete structure that served as Scott County’s jail for more than 100 years. It’s where he’s spent a not-insignificant amount of time lately, helping town crews scrape, clean and work through the beginning stages of restoring the jail.
“Whether it was through an inmate or whether it was through an officer, if you look far enough back, this place has touched all of us in some way, shape or form,” Jeffers adds.
It’s the history behind the jail that has inspired Jeffers’ efforts to save it. He successfully lobbied Scott County to turn the dilapidated old structure over to the town earlier this year. He wasn’t the first person to want the jail; not even the first Huntsville mayor to want it. But he convinced County Commission to do something no one else had asked for: to give it to him — or, rather, his town — for free.
Jeffers feels that personal connection. He has told the story of his mother learning to cook biscuits and gravy from Alma Laxton — wife of the late former sheriff, Jack Laxton — inside the old jail’s kitchen. Others might not feel so intimately connected to the old jail. But if those walls could talk . . .
“I find myself spending a lot of time over here just walking through and thinking,” Jeffers says as he walks through the narrow hallways of the jail.
Standing in the dimly lit cells of the jail’s third floor, it seems almost surreal to think that as recently as a decade ago, prisoners lived in these quarters. In fact, it is in some ways almost as if everyone simply walked off and abandoned the jail in 2008, when the new, modern justice center was completed a couple of miles west on Scott High Drive. There’s a calendar — open to November 2008 — open in the room downstairs where inmates were booked in. Wanted posters still hang on the bulletin board.
The final product of the restored jail remains to be seen. Jeffers envisions its use as a haunted house — in fact, he has already laid plans to use the 2018 Fall on the Mall festival as an unveiling date for the completed project. Jeffers also envisions using the jail for birthday parties — similar to the way Scott High allows the public to use the Learning Lodge at the Museum of Scott County.
But it isn’t hard to see that a big part of the jail’s allure would be the opportunity for lifelong Scott Countians and visitors alike to tour the facility.
From the drunk tank downstairs — “welcome to hell,” someone has scrawled on the wall — to the trustees’ quarters on the second floor to the third floor cells where state inmates were kept on lockdown almost every hour of every day, it’s not hard for one’s mind to wander. There is history to be told. From the early 1930s, when Jerome Boyatt was kidnapped from the jail by vigilantes and murdered a short distance away (and there were actually 10 lynchings that took place from the jail over the years, Jeffers points out) to the many more recent events, this facility has housed criminals of every shape and size, from the common drunks to the cold-blooded murderers. There’s the third floor cell where someone scratched a calendar into the paint, keeping track of the days they had spent inside. There’s the intricate security designs of the jail, from the saw-proof wire on the bars to the way the doors aren’t fully able to open, which prevented inmates from rushing jailers.
These were primitive living facilities, for sure, and Jeffers recalls a trustee working for the town who said he had spent time at the old jail before being asked to be transferred to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros. Why? “Ain’t nobody likes living in that jail,” the trustee said.
Even outside, running one’s hands over the hand-chiseled blocks of sandstone that were used to construct the jail, there’s history to be told. The stone was quarried from the sides of the gorge encasing New River behind the jail, and still visible in each weathered block is a hole that was used to help workers get a grip on the chiseled stone back in 1904, when the jail was being constructed.
For all of that, though, the jail isn’t quite ready for public tours just yet. Far from it, in fact.
But that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made.
“Our guys have been working on it,” Jeffers says. “This is our rainy day project. When we can’t do anything else, we can come over here and work.”
The progress can already be seen. The paint has been tested for lead. Asbestos tests have been completed. The second-floor furnace is working — using parts that were “borrowed” from the third-floor furnace — and that might be the biggest development so far. The jail wasn’t actually leaking too badly, but the walls were sweating badly. The moisture inside the jail had ruined the ceiling tile downstairs, which was causing a bad odor. It was also leading to mold in places. Keeping the heat on will prevent all of that.
“We’ve done a lot of scraping,” Jeffers says from what used to be the sheriff’s living quarters on the ground floor. All of the old ceiling tile on that level has been removed. Floor tiles have been removed where necessary. All of that will be replaced, and a lot of painting will be done. Some of the graffiti will be left — it tells the story of the jail’s past as much as anything — but the tasteless graffiti will be painted over. After all, future plans are for a lot of kids to be inside this facility in some shape or fashion.
The town also plans to repaint the original arrows on the floor, the ones that directed inmates inside the facility. The goal, Jeffers says, is to return it to its original state as much as possible. The town will look at repairing the jail’s old elevator, and Jeffers hasn’t given up on the notion of fully restoring the jail to its original condition by installing a dumbwaiter.
All of it will take time, but the progress will be stepped up when inmate labor begins in the months ahead.
“I’m excited about it and anxious to see where it goes with the next step,” Jeffers says.
The mayor’s hope is that the public will see the progress that’s being made, recognize that the town is sincere about its plans to restore the jail and dedicated to completing the project as quickly as possible, and pitch in to help.
“The town is capable of keeping the lights on and keeping the heat on. But the town sure would like some help,” Jeffers says.
To that end, the town has set up an account that is dedicated to the jail. “Any donations that are made in this jail’s name will be spent on this jail alone,” the mayor says. And those donations will also be tax-deductible. With the tax season at hand, Jeffers is hoping that will help spur short-term donations.
In the meantime, the work will go on. And within the next 10 months or so, the jail should be ready to welcome visitors once more. After all, there are stories that this old structure — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — is just waiting to tell. If walls could talk? As you walk through the narrow, dimly-lit corridors of the old place and let your mind wander a little, you’ll swear they actually are talking.