The Old Ozark County Jail (part 1)

By 1908, Ozark County's "new" stone jail was housing prisoners on what is now Harlin Drive, just off what is now Third Street. The stone was quarried at a spot along Lick Creek south of Gainesville, and the original iron door and window bars were apparently manufactured by a local blacksmith whose shop was next door, where the old City Hall, now the 416th Bomb Wing Archive, now stands.

This photo of Ozark County's second jail, built in the 1870's, is from the collection of Judy Ford Lyons. A History of Ozark County, 1841-1991 says the two-story jail was attached to the sheriff's dwelling. Removable steps led to a second-story doorway. The lower jail level could be entered from the long porch fronting the sheriff's dwelling. The rough-hewn-log structure was located near where today's Highway 160 bridge crosses Lick Creek, according to the history book. In its Dec. 28, 1905 edition, the Ozark County Republican said, "Sheriff Mahan makes every effort to keep the jail clean, but it is little better than a hog pen, and it is disgraceful to the county. The courthouse is a fire trap and likely to burn down at any time."


The Ozark County Jail made news statewide on Feb. 28, 1890, when an unidentified Kansas City Journal reporter wrote a scathing indictment of Ozark County and particularly of the County Jail. The article was picked up by several southwest Missouri newspapers, and local Gainesville residents took it as a serious affront. The Ozark County News of that week published a rebuttal that was direct and to the point, if not a little tongue-in-cheek at times. The unnamed Kansas City reporter is referred to by the News as “some harmless, wandering imbecile” as well as a “sea cook,” which I’m sure in the vernacular of the day meant something less than complimentary.  
In his diatribe, the Journal reporter wrote, “The only county property that is known is the courthouse, a small one story building in the center of the ‘square’ and a jail. Gainesville has about 100 inhabitants and they are all proud of that jail. It is a sample of pioneer architecture that is shown with pride to all who visit the town. It is a two-story log building, 8x10 feet and 20 feet high. When first seen it gives the impression that a factory has been burned down and the chimney left standing.”  
Aside from the indignation of county citizens being labeled “Bald Knobbers” by this reporter, the News article humbly admitted that the county jail was not a highlight of the community and that “we need a better one.”
That feeling was fairly unanimous in Ozark County at the time, but new jails don’t just happen overnight. As time passed, the situation grew worse, and a 1904 Ozark County Times article brought the issue to a head. In a story headlined “County Property,” the Nov. 25, 1904, issue of the Times reported on the untenable situation at the county jail. In spite of the jail being on public property, “The entire lot, except a small strip that leads out to the street, is enclosed and used as a hog pen and cow lot…when one wends his way from the street to the jail the conditions are so shocking to his senses that he feels like he never wants to make the trip again, and more than that he feels that it is an outrage to shut a human being up with such surroundings, be he ever so hardened a criminal.”
Two years later, the Jan. 11, 1907, edition of Ozark County Times reported that the county court (today called the county commission) had appointed George Boone, W.T. Harlin and Marion Haskins as a committee to “select a site and erect thereon a good substantial stone jail.”  The committee acted promptly and traded the old jail and lot for a lot on what was then High Street, or more accurately just north of High Street (now Third Street) on what is today part of Harlin Drive.
The jail was justified as “a great saving to the tax payers of Ozark County, as the old jail is neither a safe nor healthy place, and the necessity of taking prisoners to another county is more expensive than people generally think, as when a prisoner is taken to another jail for safe keeping, he must be brought back to court, and for each such transfer [and there were many] the sheriff’s fees and expenses amount to at least twenty-five dollars.”
That $25 in 1907 would be equal to $687 in today’s money.
By 1908, the new stone jail was in place and housing prisoners. The stone was quarried locally at a spot along Lick Creek south of Gainesville, and the iron door and windows were apparently manufactured by a local blacksmith. That blacksmith shop stood where Gainesville’s former City Hall, now the 416th Bomb Group Archive,  stands, a structure that was built in 1935 as a Depression Era public works initiative.
The stone jail would serve the county well for more than 30 years, until the new county courthouse and jail were built on the square in 1939.  
In our next Ozark Journey, we will trace some of the history associated with this stone jail that is still standing and housed some rather famous and/or notorious people over the years.

Ozark County Times

504 Third Steet
PO Box 188
Gainesville, MO 65655

Phone: (417) 679-4641
Fax: (417) 679-3423