One of Hays County’s most historic architectural gems from the 19th Century is the “old” Hays County Jail, shrouded for years behind thickening vegetation on Fredericksburg Street in San Marcos, not far from the courthouse square. The Hays County relic is described architecturally as “typifying late 19th-Century jail construction in the Italianate style. It is a two-story limestone block structure with a simple brick detailed cornice on the cell section.” Now visible to the public from the street and currently behind a security fence, the Old Jail is in the process of being restored as museum.
The historic site, listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1983, was vacated by the county in 1937 and eventually sold to San Marcos contractor Oscar Payne, who utilized it for many years for storage and as part of his construction yard. Payne’s heirs sold the property to Preservation Associates in the 1990s, the necessary seed money for the purchase coming from a local foundation.
Various plans for the building have been offered and pursued for years, including the Junior League of San Marcos once envisioning a enlarged thrift store and the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT) offering support for a law enforcement museum at the site. Then Southwest Texas State University Professor Jim Kimmel from the university’s Department of Geography crafted a plan in 2000 that would have given direction to that effort.
Over recent years, caretaking by Preservation Associates took the form of stabilization and assessment. Structural engineers were called in to address the stability of the building (a corner had sunk into the ground) and to prepare it for “a basic mothballing of the building” that bought it time. Ownership was passed back to Hays County.
According to the narrative in its National Register documentation, Hays County Commissioners met on Valentine’s Day, 1884, to sign a contract for the construction of the new jail on the same lot as one built in 1873. Edward Northcraft and B.F. Donaldson were given until August 12 to complete their task, an unimaginable schedule in today’s world, for which $11,500 was allocated. Specifications called for the jail to be constructed of the best stone, brick, and lumber. The urgency with which county fathers addressed the jail situation was pushed along by a local newspaper editor’s critically worded article. He offered testimony in the form of an article by a Kyle man who described “19 men confined in the 10 X 12-foot cell (in the jail then being utilized).
Commissioners were apparently also influenced by reports of the suicide of an Alabama lawyer who was a prisoner there and an attempted escape. The building served its intended function for almost a half century before being replaced by the county’s next jail.
The old Hays County Jail documented its most dramatic point in history when, on April 9, 1915, the only “official” hanging in Hays County was held in the jail yard there. The condemned man, Benjamin Guerrero, is reported to have puffed on a cigar at the end of his life and offered only the cryptic comment, “Fine show, no?” to the crowd gathered to witness his execution.