Preservation of the past depends on wisdom of people who understand the future and have courage to act in the present. In 1990, Moore County’s fledgling Historical and Genealogical Society looked into the future and saw the value of preserving the old jail when the new jail was opened.
With only a dream and no finances, the group, represented by Betty Robertson, presented a petition to the county council, requesting the jail. The county agreed to lease it for $1. It was opened as a museum in 1991. It is now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and is a favorite attraction for visitors to Lynchburg.
The third site for the Moore County Jail was opened in 1893, built by the Pauley Jail and Manufacturing Company for $5,946.32. The jail is two stories high and accommodated 12 prisoners, although at times the number reached 20. The office and two women’s cells are on the first floor, and the men were housed on the second.
The building was also the home of the sheriff and his family until around 1986. The sheriff’s quarters consisted of a living/dining room and kitchen downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. The sheriff’s wife cooked for her family and the prisoners on a wood stove. There was, of course, no air conditioning and the only toilet for the family was downstairs.
Visitors to the jail can hardly believe that it was in use until 1990. It was more than just a lock-up for drunks. There were violent criminals who were housed there. Sheriff Thomas Hall reported six murders in six months committed in Moore County in 1914. As the county jail, criminals could be sentenced there for up to one year. A longer sentence would send them to a state or federal prison.
Since opening the Old Jail to the public as a museum, the Historical Society has received the donation or loan of many interesting artifacts related to Moore County. From 2005 to 2010, the Old Jail Museum benefited greatly from the experience of curator Joyce Benwell. She lovingly created interesting, organized displays.
Young people can see relics from the past, such as an icebox, wood stove, Victrola, pump vacuum cleaner, ether machine, party-line telephone, spinning wheel, vintage clothing, 19th century woodworking tools and much more. Around 2010, Mr. Bev Laws from Texas shipped 12 quilts to Moore County after his wife’s death. It had been her wish, because of her Moore County connections. Seven are on display in the Jail.
Longtime residents will enjoy seeing the photographs of former sheriffs, Junior Deputies, class photographs and photos of old-time Lynchburg. There are uniforms, pictures and articles regarding local military heroes. There is an old safe and a mysterious tombstone, both of which have intriguing stories.
The Old Jail’s current curator is Bobby Fuller. As a Tullahoma police officer, he would sometimes be called to assist Moore County Sheriff Ron Cunningham. He has many fascinating stories about the Old Jail’s former residents and its history.
There are pictures in the jail given to Fuller by Johnny Cash and Richard Petty when they came to Lynchburg to do an STP commercial in 1978. After Johnny toured the Moore County Jail, he commented that it was every bit as rough as Alcatraz.
The Historic Society depends on membership dues, the Tour of Homes and Bake Sale fundraisers, and a $1 admission donation for their operating funds. Other donations from the Chamber of Commerce, Jack Daniel’s Distillery and individuals, have financed major repairs and maintenance as needed. The Old Jail is kept open as often as possible by Fuller and five volunteers. More volunteers are needed and the hours are flexible.
As a Moore County transplant, I am impressed with the residents who have had the foresight to preserve this historic treasure. If you have not visited the Old Jail Museum recently, Spring in the Hollow, on April 27 would be an ideal opportunity. When you have visitors, please “take them to jail.” They will thank you.
The Old Jail Museum is open Tuesday thru Saturday, 11 a.m. until 3 p.m., mid-March through December. It is closed on holidays. Arrangements can be made to have the Old Jail opened for groups by calling Fuller at (931) 393-3126 or (931) 841-4244.
By JUNE PUGH (June Pugh is an award-winning writer and a contributor to the Moore County News)