Day Trips

Doors to history in Llano
Doors to history in Llano (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Recycling old jailhouses gives new life to one of the first public buildings constructed in the frontier communities. A dozen jails around the state have been converted to museums commemorating past generations of the community.

To varying degrees, the jailhouse museums on this list are underfunded and overlooked. Most have irregular hours; usually dependent upon a volunteer. Catching some of these history depositories open can be part of the adventure. At the price of a donation, these are one of the best travel bargains in the state. Once you get inside it doesn't take long to search for treasures mixed among broken farm tools and ugly hats.

Here's a list of jailhouse museums around Texas beginning with those closest to Austin. I make no guarantees that this is all of them, or of what you'll find when you get there. Let me know.

The Caldwell County Jail Museum in Lockhart looks like a Norman castle made of red brick and yellow limestone trim. The four-story structure once had an indoor gallows. The cells are now filled with furniture and farm implements from the area's settlers. East of U.S. 183 at 315 E. Market St. Open 1-5pm, Saturday and Sunday.

The old Llano County Jail in Llano overlooking the river east of the courthouse square is opened only during special events. An imposing two-story rock structure, it has a ghostly appearance. Check at the county museum across from the courthouse in an old drug store for open house hours, 915/247-3026.

LaGrange has turned its old jail into a visitors center. Along with a few historic items there is a large collection of law enforcement tools. Along with tours of the former cells, the building is now the office of the Chamber of Commerce at 171 S. Main, 409/968-5756.

Gonzales has one of the best-looking old jails in the state. Constructed in 1887, it was used until 1975. Fortunately, by the time of its retirement to a museum and chamber office, the indoor gallows had been removed. Ask at the front desk for a map to historical points around the town known as the "Lexington of Texas" [not to be confused with the town east of Austin actually named Lexington]. Next to the courthouse at 414 St. Lawrence St. Open Monday-Saturday, 8am-5pm, and Sunday, 1-5pm.

The Austin County Jail in Bellville is a reminder of the splendor of a courthouse that burned down. Used from 1896 to 1992, it is open 10am-4pm on the first Saturday of the month. At 36 S. Bell St., this place is so creepy that it makes most kids think twice about committing a crime that would result in a visit.

The Hill County Cell Block Museum in Hillsboro saw service from 1893 to 1983, during which time Elvis and Willie Nelson are said to have seen the business side of an iron door here. Just to show they don't have any hard feelings for the troubadour who grew up in nearby Abbott, the museum has added a Willie Nelson memorabilia room along with an extensive collection of Indian artifacts. A couple of blocks north of the courthouse at 200 N. Waco St., the museum is open on Saturdays from April 1 to November 31.

Albany has one of the greatest small town museums in Texas. Along with exhibits on local ranching families, this museum has an extensive and world class art collection. The 1878 jail building is a small part of the entire complex that houses sketches by Picasso and sculpture by Charles Umlauf. One block east of the courthouse on Second Street, the museum is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm, and Sunday, 2-5pm.

Archer City's county museum in Larry McMurtry's hometown can be tough to find open. If you must see the insides at 400 W. Pecan, call 940/574-2489.

The Mobeetie Jail Museum is in what was the county seat from 1879 to 1907, 11 miles west of the current county seat. The town began as a trading post for Fort Elliot and became a buffalo hunter's camp called Hidetown. When the town applied for a post office, the name Sweetwater was turned down. Someone then asked an Indian scout how to say Sweetwater in his language. The exact translation for Mobeetie is unknown, but is speculated to be some other type of water; possibly from a buffalo. Open daily except Tuesday, the hours can be erratic.

558th in a series. Day Trips, Vol.2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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