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Cole County’s jail has been in six locations

Staff piecing together history of sheriff’s department

Robin Blevins, support services supervisor for the Cole County Sheriff’s Department, has been collecting photos, documents and newspaper articles regarding the history of the department.

Robin Blevins, support services supervisor for the Cole County Sheriff’s Department, has been collecting photos, documents and newspaper articles regarding the history of the department. Photo by Michelle Brooks.

The first four Cole County Jails have been cleared away, just as the fifth site soon may be.

Robin Blevins, support services supervisor, was surprised to find the newest jail at the corner of East High and Adams streets was the sixth version.

Blevins, who has been researching the history of the sheriff’s department, equally was curious to learn the first location was in Marion. A log cabin jail in the 1830s stood on the northeast corner of Commercial Way and Monroe Street and then two buildings were constructed near today’s Jefferson City Police Department.

A genealogist, Blevins volunteered to begin collecting the department’s history, inspired by the move to the new location in August 2011.

The walls of the offices in the basement of the courthouse and old sheriff’s house held portraits of several previous sheriffs. From a 1936 News Tribune story listing those who had served as sheriff since 1821, Blevins now hopes to collect a portrait for each man who has held the office.

“It’s nice to put a face to the name,” Blevins said. “You wonder what things were like when they lived here and the changes that have been made between then and now.”

The local newspaper has been a treasure trove for Blevins’ preliminary research.

Beyond the historical societies, libraries and archives, she hopes local individuals and former employees will share their artifacts, photos and stories to complete the sheriff’s department’s story.

The newspaper’s accounts from the early 1900s highlight mostly the frequent escapes from the “old, old” jail, which stood at the corner of Monroe and East McCarty streets where the Veterans Plaza is today.

In February 1929, a headline read “8 sawed out of jail early today, 7 tracked down in the snow.” And in May 1928, another headline said, “Old east window yields again and 3 prisoners desert Cole County Jail.”

A federal inspector in April 1935 said that jail was one of the worst in the nation and prompted the county judges to expedite the building of the “old” jail, adjacent to the courthouse.

Sheriff Snorgrass requested to remain living in the “old, old” jail, even after the “old” jail was completed and the sheriff’s house ready for use, a newspaper article said in December 1936.

At one time, prisoners were sent home for the weekends, she said.

In the 1930s, the primary crimes were for alcohol (during Prohibition) and theft. In the 1950s, hooking — leaving skid marks with a car — was a trendy crime and in the 1970s, so was streaking.

“I didn’t have a clue of any of this until I started digging in,” Blevins said.

Taking time to pause and reflect on the past can create an appreciation for how things are today, she said.

“I think people may be more interested because of what’s going on with the (old jail) building,” Blevins said. “If it gets more people talking, this is good.”

On Wednesday, the commission will consider three options for the old jail and sheriff’s house:

• Tear down the old structure and build a new structure to house a large courtroom, address other office needs and provide Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility.

• Save the outside of the building and gut the interior so that it could be repurposed.

• Do nothing to the building.

To share stories or items of history about the sheriff’s department or jail, e-mail to rblevins@colecounty.org or call 573-634-9160.

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