“I hear the train a comin’, It’s rolling ’round the bend…” The first two lines of “Folsom Prison Blues,” sung by Mr. Johnny Cash, not only brought the man in black fame, but it catapulted California’s second oldest prison into popular culture mythology.* There are no catchy mid-20th century songs about the 19th century stone jails of Kentucky, but I think they would make fine topics for a bluegrass ballad. On a recent road trip along the Ohio River, I was delighted to find two historic stone jails still standing (and fortunately for any potential inmates, no longer housing prisoners).**
Institutional architecture of the 19th and early 20th centuries – schools, hospitals, prisons – actually possessed some design and often, pleasing architectural elements- and most importantly, they were of a place. Even if the architecture was a diluted version of a nationally popular style, these historic buildings, even jails, seemed to belong within their community, unlike many institutional examples dotted around the landscape today. The historic buildings, have, if I may venture this far, some truth to their construction, materials, and form. (I know some people may be a fan of the thoroughbred barn look of the Lexington jail – and it is certainly something…) The stone jail in the river town of Carrollton, constructed of stone quarried in Louisville and hauled to the site by a steamboat, may be a purely utilitarian building, but it leaves no doubt as to its role and purpose!
Carrollton’s stone jail is a two-story building, with a 22 x 20 footprint, with narrow slits for ventilation. The first floor housed male prisoners and the second floor accommodated women and children. Inmates sentenced to solitary confinement spent their time in the basement level. Used until the 1960s when it was deemed unfit for occupation, the limestone building (the walls are made of 16×20 inch slabs of stone!) was slated for demolition. Fortunately, a group of students in the Community Pride 4-H group stepped up and took the jail on as a project. Countless hours of cleaning later, the jail was saved and in 1983, renovated (thanks in part to a grant from the Kentucky Heritage Council; a grant source no longer available due to state and federal budget cuts).
To the west of Carrollton, in Bedford, Kentucky, is another two-story stone jail. When I first saw the jail, I wondered if it was a WPA building, but the first floor actually dates to 1851; the second floor was added in 1889. Like its counterpart in Carrollton, the stone jail in Bedford is located on the courthouse lawn. Narrow slits pierce the sandstone walls, and it is amazing to think that the jail operated until 1983. It makes one ponder about the rehabilitative effect of being lodged in such a dimly lit, cold, forbidding structure…
Delia Webster may not be as well-known as Johnny Cash, but the abolitionist and Lexington, Kentucky schoolteacher called the Bedford jail home for a while in 1854. This was the Vermont native’s (and graduate of Oberlin College) second stint behind bars; in 1844, she was arrested for helping slaves in Lexington escape. Webster’s farm overlooking the Ohio River in Trimble County was her base of operations, and a well-known stop on the Underground Railroad. Even if the creative muse doesn’t strike anyone after looking at these sturdy stone buildings, perhaps some of their famous inhabitants could be the basis of a ballad? Delia and her sisters…I think that has a nice ring to it.
* Efforts are underway to construct a new nature trail – with a Johnny Cash theme – near Folsom Prison. Read more about it here.
**Other Kentucky stone jails (of which I know) include the old jail in Shepherdsville (Bullitt County), one in Franklin (Simpson County), and in Bardstown (Nelson County), which is now a bed and breakfast!