Day Trips

County jails on the Texas frontier were often ornate on the outside but grim on the inside. A perfect example of this is the old Austin County Jail in Bellville (pictured above). Completed in 1896, it housed prisoners until 1982. Built of red brick accented with chiseled white limestone trim, it looks like a castle, with gargoyles protecting every corner. But on the fourth floor of this castle were the gallows, although they saw action only once -- in 1902.

The townsfolk preserve the old jail as a museum and open it on the first Saturday of the month from March to December for Market Day. Contact the chamber of commerce, 409/865-3407, for a Bluebonnet Trail map.

In the Gonzales jail, the gallows on the second floor have been reconstructed. Gonzales, located along the Chisholm Trail and one of the oldest towns in Texas, had a need for a large, strong jail house. Gonzales was home to John Wesley Hardin and many other men who lived by the gun. The jail, used from 1887 to 1975, could hold up to 200 prisoners, and six hangings were held there until the gallows were removed in 1950.

The three-story structure next to the courthouse at 414 St. Lawrence now serves as a museum and offices of the chamber of commerce, 210/672-6523. Hours are Monday-Saturday, 8am-5pm, and Sunday, 1-5pm.

In Pearsall, the Frio County Jail is the oldest building in town. Built in 1884, the two-story, Romanesque building was used until 1967. As a museum, it opens on Saturday and Sunday, 1-5pm at the park at Cedar and Medina Streets, 210/334-3896.

Another jail house that has lost its penal feel is the Caldwell County Jail in Lockhart, 315 E. Market St. The castle-like building with flags flying from the turrets houses a museum, open Wednesday-Saturday, 1-5pm.

In Fredericksburg, the Gillespie County Jail, 117 W. San Antonio behind the old courthouse, was built in 1885 and is open only on special occasions. In Llano, the jail, once know as "Red Top" for its red roof, was built in 1895 of local granite. To see the original gallows, call the chamber of commerce at 915/247-5354. The ornate county jail in La Grange was used from 1883 to 1985, and is now the chamber of commerce's visitor center, 800/524-7264.

The ghost town of Helena has been turned into a museum, and one of the county's four cells sits on the lawn outside the frontier courthouse. The iron cage was hardly big enough for a man to stand up or lie down in. The historic buildings are open Tuesday-Saturday, 9am-5pm, 210/780-3210.

In Hillsboro, the Cell Block Museum was used as a jail from 1893 until 1983. Elvis Presley spent the night here on a charge of drunk and disorderly. The museum at 120 N. Waco opens the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, April to November, 10am-4pm.

Coming up...

Guided tours at Pace Bend Park takes visitors through the rarely open wildlife area in the center of the peninsula. The two-hour treks offer hikers scenic views of Lake Travis, 10am-noon, Sat. through Feb. 24. Reservations requested, plus park admission, 264-1482.

Birdhouse Day at LBJ State Park in Stonewall takes children on a tour of the park to view different birds and their habitat, Feb. 3. 915/533-5147.

Mardi Gras! Galveston continues a tradition begun in 1867 with parades, costume balls, and royal coronations, Feb. 8-20. 409/763-4311.

Day Trips, Vol.1, a book of the first 100 day trips from this column, updated and expanded, is available for $6.95, plus $3.05 for shipping and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, 1712 E. Riverside Dr., Box 156, Austin, TX 78741. n

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