By James Newberry,
Special Projects Curator for the Department of Museums, Archives and Rare Books at Kennesaw State University
In 2019, the Department of Museums, Archives and Rare Books (MARB) at Kennesaw State University partnered with Pickens Historical Society to develop a permanent exhibit at the Old Pickens County Jail. Available to view starting this month, the panel-based exhibit tells the story of Pickens County from the arrival of the Federal Road through Cherokee lands to the present day. The exhibit’s special focus is on Pickens County’s longest-serving jail, a 115-year-old marble-fronted structure still standing on Main Street in Jasper, where it symbolizes the region’s early attempts at law and order.
My colleague, Research Specialist Kelly Hoomes, and I led the curational team in MARB with support from members of Pickens Historical Society, regional historians, and community stakeholders. We made numerous trips to the Old Pickens County Jail, where the site’s history comes to life through historical society records including a wide array of documents and artifacts. One of the hardest parts of curating an exhibit is finding quality images, but the historical society has preserved many photographs and other primary source materials that help to illustrate stories in the exhibit. Previous scholarly work boosted our research, which also relied on historic newspapers, transportation studies, and memoirs.
The time we spent at the jail does not compare to the time spent by sheriffs and their families. Between 1906 and 1981, 11 sheriffs lived and worked in the jail alongside their wives, who prepared meals for family members, deputies, and inmates.
“I guess at the time it wasn’t so good,” said Donna Elliott Wofford, who lived on the main floor of the jail for a year and half with her husband, Sheriff Billy Wofford, and one-year-old daughter Billie Jean. “But looking back, it was an experience that I will forever cherish.” Unlike most of her predecessors at the jail, Wofford made about $400 a month for her work.
Sheriffs came to the job with a variety of work experiences. Jim Poole had a fifth-grade education and worked as a farmer and stonecutter before serving as sheriff from 1932 to 1943. Harley Cantrell, who served as sheriff from 1969 to 1981, left Georgia as a young man to work for Chrysler in Michigan. He soon returned to his home state and settled in Pickens County, where he got a job with Georgia Marble Company and worked part-time for the Nelson community police department. Cantrell loved law enforcement and when Sheriff Bill Raye hired him as deputy in 1964, Cantrell moved into the jail.
While the exhibit on the main floor of the jail focuses on Pickens County history and the experiences of law enforcement officials, the second floor explores the space from the inmates’ perspective. The jail includes two cell blocks, one with bunks for four women and one with bunks with for eight men. If accused criminals could not post bail before trial, they were held in the jail.
On one occasion, as many as 35 inmates awaited their court date, recalled Sheriff Billy Wofford. When the jail exceeded capacity, inmates slept on cots and roamed the second floor. In view of Jasper’s Main Street, inmates called out to passersby and even dropped money to friends with requests for cigarettes and candy.
By the 1960s the Old Pickens County Jail was in poor condition. Public officials proposed selling the jail to raise funds for a new facility, but voters showed little interest in improving life for inmates.
In 1980, two inmates filed suit in federal court claiming imprisonment in the jail violated their constitutional rights. The lawsuit listed overcrowding, poor plumbing, and a lack of fire escapes among other “dehumanizing conditions.” As a result, the jail was closed and replaced by a much larger facility in 1982.
The Marble Valley Historical Society, now Pickens Historical Society, led the local effort to restore the Old Pickens County Jail. Members raised over $30,000 to repair the aging structure and added it to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
The group later moved the Kirby-Quinton Cabin next door creating a downtown historic site for tourists and K-12 students and educators. The historical society’s work to interpret the site continues with the new exhibit, which seeks to tell a larger, more complex story of the Old Pickens County Jail.
See related editorial: Historic Sites Don't Run Themselves