I have been to all 254 Texas counties and have seen many interesting sights. However, I was not prepared for a new and exciting adventure when Rhonda Holley went with me to Gause, Texas in April of 2013 to visit an old house that was destined to be demolished. I had seen this house many times on my way to Fort Hood while working on a large archaeological project for Texas A&M University. I was always struck by the fact that only the porch had been recently painted and it was clearly obvious that the rest of the house had not been painted in a very long time. The lady who lived there had passed away and the entire house was in very poor condition. We had visited this house once before and Rhonda was curious to see if it was still there. It was and there was some discussion about it being haunted and what it would be like to spend a night in it. After leaving the house we decided to look at the Gause City Cemetery (established in 1887) and an African-American resting place that has been documented as a Historic Texas Cemetery. As we drove behind Coats grocery store on the highway (good place for hamburgers during the week) we noticed a tiny concrete structure that aroused our curiosity. We were very surprised to see metal bars in the windows and when we asked about it we were told that it was the town calaboose that was built in 1921. It had a dirt floor and no electricity or plumbing. We thought a lot about what it must have been like to have been locked up in such a place in times of extreme heat and cold.
Calaboose in Gause, Texas
What the heck is a calaboose?
I had heard the term “calaboose” before, usually in western movies, but I had never given any thought to what it meant. In fact, there was a movie entitled “Calaboose” that was made in 1943 starring Jimmy Rogers that was directed by Hal Roach, Jr. I have not been able to see this movie so I don’t know if it is based on a real life tiny calaboose or a larger jail. But here in Gause, Texas was the real thing. A small, almost whimsical structure made of concrete and standing out like a ghost of the past. Webster’s unabridged dictionary defines a calaboose as simply a prison or jail. But they are more than that. They represent a time capsule in small jail architecture that was present in many forms throughout the country until the middle part of the twentieth century. There is no firm date for the beginning of the use of the term Calaboose. The range of supposedly good dates for calaboose construction in Texas varies from a rock structure in Mason built in 1857 to a concrete structure in Van Aystine (Grayson and Collins counties) that was built in 1947. There is a log calaboose in Gatesville that was built in 1855 but it is unlike those in this sample in that the cell is below the ground. It is open to the public (Hall 2007:92-94). Writers of western stories frequently used the term calaboose instead of jail. In an article about the arrest of the Apache Kid in Arizona, R. K. DeArment (2012:48) states that the Sheriff moved quickly “… to relieve the pressure of his overloaded calaboose…” by arranging transportation to take the Apache Kid to Yuma prison.
From the early days of the state until the early part of the 20th century, the calaboose was a common architectural feature on the landscape of Texas and the rest of the country. The word Calaboose as used in Texas was taken from the 18th century Spanish word Calabozo that means jail or dungeon. Although any jail can be labeled as a calaboose this term appears to be most often applied to the very small, one-story buildings that were constructed of logs, milled boards, poured concrete, concrete blocks, bricks, and stone. In fact, more than 90 percent of the small jails depicted on Sanborn maps are referred to as calabooses and I never saw a two-story county jail described as such. A telltale sign of a calaboose is often the bars on windows and/or doors. Unfortunately, these features are missing in some cases. For example, there are no windows in the one in Snook and the door is missing. In cases like these, local informants and historical documents such as the Sanborn maps and old photographs often provide the only proof of their original function.
For the purposes of this study, my definition of a calaboose is a one-story building that can be as small as 72 square feet and have only one room to one with two or three rooms and as big as 400 square feet. The small concrete jail in Memphis occupies an area of 350 square feet and has two cells. It is not classified as a calaboose for two reasons. (1) It is referred to on the Sanborn map as a “road camp” that was used to house inmates from nearby prisons who spent the day working on roads in the area. (2) The term calaboose appears to apply to local jails and lockups owned and operated by the various towns and municipalities. Since this particular structure was under the jurisdiction of the Texas penal system it does not represent a local calaboose in my opinion.
Road Camp in Memphis, Texas
Although it is often written that the calaboose is a small town icon, they were also present in county seats and often they were erected before funds were available for the construction of a formal county jail. Once the county jail was in service the little calaboose was no longer needed and it was often demolished. In some cases, the calaboose remained for a short time and may have been used for minor offenders while the county jail housed the more serious lawbreakers. The Sanborn maps for Stephenville appear to support this statement. In 1885 (Sheet 1,) there was a two-story stone county jail in town. In 1902 (Sheet 2) a small one-story wood calaboose had been constructed next to the county jail. In 1907 (Sheet 2, the wooden calaboose was still there but this time the stone jail was vacant and there was a new four-story concrete jail. The calaboose was still present in 1912. In 1921 the building that once housed the stone county jail and the calaboose were gone. The most likely scenario is that the wood calaboose was constructed as an interim lockup while the new county jail was in the planning and construction stages and eventually razed when no longer needed.
The small Texas towns and communities (often unincorporated) usually lacked the funds for a formal police force and the County Sheriff was not always available to make on-the-spot arrests or to transport prisoners. Therefore, local citizens with titles of Constable, Marshall, or Night Watchman were often charged with the responsibility of enforcing the law.
John J. McGraw’s Badge
Many calabooses were often constructed with minimal funds using the most expedient materials available. During the early to middle part of the 20th century concrete was a common building material and was often used in towns where other resources might be considered to be more easily accessible. Concrete calabooses in East Texas sometimes seem to be out of place in an area known for its forests and lumber industry. The same can be said for those in the Hill Country and western parts of Texas where native stone is plentiful. The small calaboose In Snook was made with bricks. According to a local resident there was only one brick building in town at the time the calaboose was supposedly built. It may be that there was enough leftover from the other building to allow the town to build a small calaboose. This theory seems to be validated by the fact that it is very small (72 square feet) and the door is less than five feet high. There are those who believe this building was never used as a calaboose and there are others who have a different story.
Calaboose in Snook, Texas
The calaboose was mainly used as temporary housing for minor offenses such as fighting and public drunkenness or as a holding facility for prisoners until they released or transported to the county jail. The temporary nature of the calaboose is described in An American Glossary by Richard Hopwood Thornton (1912) in the following quotes made in 1840 “The pugnacious gentlemen were lodged in the calaboose” and “… He will be put in the calaboose tonight and tomorrow sent to jail or to the hospital. …” Another reference to calabooses can be found in an article by Jim Schutze that appeared in the Dallas Observer on November 24, 2011. His article states that those who have committed criminal acts were often “off to the calaboose.”
The earliest places for incarceration were sometimes back rooms of businesses and even rooms in private residences. Sometimes, prisoners were chained to hitching posts or trees until they could be transported to a jail or released. There were three saloons in the town of Burlington during the early part of the 20th century and the local economy was supported in large part by migrant works hired to pick cotton and many of them were frequent prisoners in the local calaboose. Leo Helpert was a child in the 1930s and he remembers seeing the local calaboose full to capacity on Sunday mornings. Sometimes he witnessed prisoners tied to trees when there was no more room in the jail.
Although some calabooses were still being used into the middle of the 20th century, it seems that they were no longer the major form of incarceration in rural Texas after the introduction of the popular Farm-to Market Road system. These new roads were paved and made it easier for prisoners to be transported to county jails. Also, counties had more reliable transportation than in the days of the wagon and Model T automobiles. Before the construction of paved roads, it was often considered a major trek on muddy roads that were sometimes impassable in bad weather. The first farm to market road in Texas was completed in January 1937. There was a three year pilot program to test the efficiency of these new roads and it was so popular that the Farm-to-Market Act was created in 1949 to provide access to as many rural areas as possible.
Small jails that fit the definition of a calaboose can also be found in other areas such as U.S. Army forts and plantations. Jails on military installations are usually referred to as the guardhouse or stockade and some Texas forts have replicas of the old jails. There is an interesting calaboose at the Boot Hill museum in Dodge City, Kansas. This wooden structure was moved from the fort to its current location in the 1950s. It is discussed in more detail under the Menu Item Calabooses (Other States).
Military Calaboose at Fort Dodge, Kansas
Mary Phillips of Lockhart has been researching local history and she found two very interesting quotes about calabooses on Texas plantations. The first is a narrative of Gus Johnson, a slave who lived on a plantation in Sunnyside, just outside of Houston.
“Old massa, he name Adam and he brother name John, and dry was way up yonder tall people. Old mass die soon and us have missy to saw what we do. All her overseers have to be good. She punish de slaves if fen day bad, but not whip ’em. She have de jail builded underground’ like de storm cave and it have a drop door with de weight on it, so dry couldn’t git up from de bottom. It who’ was dark in dat place.”
The next quote provided by Ms. Phillips was by Richard Caruthers, a slave on the Billy Coats’ plantation in Bastrop County near Elgin, Texas.
“They was a calaboose right on the plantation, what look like a ice-house, and it was who’ bad to git locked up in it. Us got provisions ‘lowanced to us every Saturday night.”
After realizing that I had stumbled onto a very interesting part of Texas history through architectural expression I decided to visit and document as many calabooses as possible. Not only did I want to identify examples but I also wanted to attempt to answer some questions that interested me such as are there regional variations in building materials, what is the variation in size and number of cells, and time period when they were most common. In addition, I especially wanted to document those that are not being protected. I was fortunate to be able to record the calaboose in Frisco before it was demolished due to its deteriorating condition.
After finding the calaboose in Gause I immediately sent a picture to my cousin, Roger G. Moore, an archaeologist in Houston with a strong interest in historic buildings. That was the first one he had encountered and we wondered how common this type of building was in the early days. My curiosity was peaked and I began a search on the Internet and found additional specimens on two very good websites, Red River Historian and Texas Escapes. These sites have photos of a variety of historic sites including calabooses and jails, courthouses, gas stations, cemeteries, movie theaters, stores, and much more. Arguably, the most important source of information for locating jails and other buildings in Texas towns in the early days is the set of fire insurance maps prepared by the Sanborn Company. My review of these maps revealed numerous examples of towns where calabooses still exist today and were once present. A list of Sanborn maps I have examined can be found by clicking on the Menu Item Resources, followed by Sub-Menu Item Sanborn Maps.
The calabooses that I have visited can be seen by opening the Menu Item Calabooses where they are arranged alphabetically under the counties, also arranged alphabetically. The number of maps for each town by year varies from only one to as many as 30 or more. Those calabooses discussed under the Sub-Menu Item Calabooses (Vanished) were found on the Sanborn maps or were told to me by local informants. No calabooses were found in the town of Groveton; however, the only maps available for that town were published in 1907 and 1912. It is very likely that a calaboose was constructed before 1907 and later demolished or built after 1912 during a time when the town was presumably not mapped. Other calabooses may be depicted on a map but at the time the structure was no longer being used as such. In Houston there is a small one-story brick building on the courthouse square that is not described as being used. This structure appears on the Houston map dated 1877 (Sheet 3) in city block 31. It is very plausible that this tiny building was once a calaboose that was built and used until no longer needed.
There are several variations in the floor plans of these calabooses and these variations are depicted under the Sub-Menu Item Floor Plans under Construction Methods, also under Calabooses. The Sanborn maps are very detailed and drawn to scale. Buildings are identified by size and material and there is a key to the various city blocks that makes it helpful to know what sheet to look at. The most commonly used name to describe these buildings was calaboose; However, other names used are lockup and jail.
The Sanborn maps for Texas can be accessed online at the Perry-Casteñeda Library Map Collection and the originals can be viewed at the Briscoe Center for American History in Austin, Texas. These maps only span the period from 1877 to 1922. Another collection of Sanborn maps is housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. There is a collection of historic Texas documents and photographs at the University of North Texas in Denton that contain photos of calabooses. These can be accessed through The Portal to Texas History. The Fondren Library on the campus of Rice University has a complete set of Texas Sanborn maps available online.
Once I realized how common these unique structures once were in Texas, I began an Odyssey to visit and document as many of these specimens as possible. I drove to those towns where I was told that the local calaboose was still standing. In addition to those depicted on the Sanborn maps and the other websites, I found more examples by conducting interviews with local historians, city officials and residents, and looking at town and county histories when available. The one in Moran was found while driving through town looking for a cafe and I discovered the one in Riesel driving through that part of town that I thought would have been a likely location for a jail. With the exception of the calabooses at Del City, Deport, Glazier, Grapevine, Hermleigh, Ringgold, Trenton, and Van Alystine I personally visited those discussed under the Menu Item Calabooses.
Each calaboose was documented by taking digital photographs and measurements. Photos were taken of all four sides and close up pictures were taken of doors and windows and other items of interest such as graffiti and furniture (i.e., beds and toilets). The buildings were measured across the front and sides and, when possible, the height from the ground to the roof. In most cases the size of doors and windows were also documented. The collected information was recorded on special forms created for this project. The location of each calaboose was recorded by street and address when possible. A Global Positioning System (GPS) app on my smart phone was used to located it using Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system (UTM) coordinates that can be linked to United States Geological Survey topographic maps. Most calabooses were recorded as historic sites at the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL) on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin. The numbers assigned to these structures allow researchers to access the information and photos of each one. An example of a site number is 41MM384 (the calaboose in Gause). This trinomial system (developed by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1930s and 1940s identifies a site by state, county, and number. When this system was first put into practice there were only 48 states in the Union. At that time the alphabetical position of Texas was 41. The second element in the trinomial is the abbreviation for the county (MM stands for Milam County) and the third element in this example (the number) means that the Gause calaboose is the 384th prehistoric or historic site to be recorded in Milam County, Texas. When possible, I gathered information from locals who had personal knowledge of these structures.
In Archaeology it is expected to document historic structures in great detail and one of the normal tasks is the creation of a site map. This level of work is beyond the scope of this study for every calaboose recorded. However, there is one exception. The calaboose in Frisco was in very poor condition at the time of my visit. I had been informed that it was to be demolished and a replica constructed using as much of the original materials as possible. I drove there and made a detailed site map that depicts its location in relation to the city streets that surround the city block where it once stood. This allows future researchers to identify its former placement on the landscape. The site map was drafted by Lili G. Lyddon of L. L. Technical Services who has been drafting maps for my archaeological reports since 1989. The replica can be viewed on the grounds of the Frisco Heritage Museum.
Site Map for the Frisco Calaboose
Some calabooses were moved to areas where they could be preserved. The calaboose at Stiles (now a ghost town) was moved to Big Lake. Those at Bedias, Grapevine, Montgomery, Moran, Skidmore, and Somerville were moved to a better location within the town. The history of the calaboose in Arp is much different. It was in danger of being destroyed due to new construction in the downtown area. Mr. Loys Arnold thought enough of this building to have it moved to his property less than one mile from its original site. The bank vault from the old Arp State Bank was also taken to his place where they remain today. Since I do not have a strong background in historic architecture, I relied on other sources such as the Internet, architectural historians at the Texas Historical Commission and other colleagues to help identify the architectural features of some of the calabooses. I was able to identify the construction methods of certain examples using the same sources and these methods are described under the Sub-Menu Item Construction Methods.
One of the more interesting stories regarding a most unusual method of housing prisoners was provided by Wayne Smith of LaMesa in Dawson County (as told to him by Annie Bailey). In 1905 the town consisted of only about 100 residents and since it was not incorporated there were no funds for construction of a jail. In town there was a two-story building known as Holloway Hall that housed a drugstore on the first floor. The upper story was the location of City Hall and a place for meetings by other groups. A large wooden piano crate on the second floor served as the local jail until a real structure was constructed. The local Constable would lock a prisoner inside the crate and nail the lid shut. These crates were not airtight so there was some ventilation.
Another interesting story involves the calaboose in Tioga, Texas. James Hilliard is a long time resident of that small community and he told me that there was a man who was placed in the calaboose on a regular basis for drunkenness on Saturday night. Due to the deteriorated condition of the structure there was a hole in one of the brick walls. When the prisoner sobered up the next morning he would simply crawl out of the hole and go home.
There are several colorful anecdotes associated with the calaboose in Port Neches. One story recounts that C. C. Williams jailed an intoxicated sailor from one of the ships in port. As the ship got ready to sail two fellow sailors stole a car and used it and a set of ropes to pull out the bars on one of the windows so the drunken sailor could escape. Apparently it was not uncommon for prisoners to set the mattresses on fire so the officials would be forced to let them out. On another occasion Homer Taylor arrested a fellow citizen for drunkenness. He did not want to lock him up so he told the drunk to wait outside while he went for the key to unlock the jail. Mr. Taylor took his time crossing the street and never looked back to check on the prisoner figuring the drunk would escape given the opportunity. When he returned the drunk was still there so he was forced to put him in the jail. One of the more dramatic episodes told by Christine Rappleye in “The Beaumont Enterprise” in the April 28, 2003 edition claimed that a bunch of teenage boys picked up the calaboose from its original location in Old Town and moved it to New Town where it is today. Rappleye does not say how they did this and I doubt the validity of this statement. There were no Sanborn maps for Port Neches available at the time of this study.
Tom Mac Holmes of the Trenton Tribune related a story about how the calaboose in that town was destroyed as the result of a prank. The first calaboose in town was adjacent to the railroad tracks. Several youths attached some chains or cables to it and when the train pulled out it dragged the calaboose until it fell apart. A replacement jail was constructed in the 1930s by City Marshall D. H. Glenn and placed in a different location so that a similar prank could not be repeated. In 1976, during the Texas Bicentennial, it was returned to the original site on the northeast corner of Pearl and Saunders streets.
The Romance of the Calaboose
This wide spread use of this term suggests to me that it has some romantic appeal. During my search for the meanings and usage of the word calaboose I found some very interesting quotes and even a poem. Joann M. Ringelstetter is an excellent photographer who has spent much of her time driving the back roads of America. The following is a quote from her website entitled Fine Art Photography by Joann M. Ringelstetter: Research and Technical Assistance by Ruth A. Ringelstetter.
- “Since 1992, we have traveled over 50,000 miles on the backroads of this great country to capture the rural heart of America. As often as we can, we hit the backroads together, with Ruth (Ringelstetter) navigating and Joann photographing. It takes both of our talents to capture the rural scenes and bring them to you. That’s what it’s all about – sharing our backroads adventures in photos and words. We hope you enjoy them.”
- With permission of Ms Ringelstetter, her poem is presented here.
- Two years ago in Iowa,
On a beautiful summer’s day,
Ruth hoped to find a calaboose
And tried to point the way.“A calaboose? What’s that?” I asked;
Ruth smiled as she replied,
“It’s like a prison or a jail,
To hold bad folks inside.”
- So through the town we slowly drove,
Looking left and right,
We stretched our necks, Ruth checked her notes,
But no calaboose in sight.“Maybe it’s not in town,” I said.
“We’d better ask someone.
Otherwise, we’ll waste our time,
And search ‘til the setting sun.
- So I asked a woman who jokingly said,
“Do you have a relative there?”
Then she told us we’d passed it a minute ago
And started to tell me where.
- “Go back one block and take a right,
You’ll see some kids playing near,
And maybe if we locked THEM up,
There’d be more peace around here.”
- The woman was only kidding, of course,
And the jail was easy to find;
It was made of stone with a rounded top,
For our collection, the first of its kind.
- It looked empty inside and was locked up tight,
As it was at the time of its use,
And I no longer needed to wonder and ask,
“What the heck is a calaboose?”
The number of Texas counties where calabooses were once present was a surprise. It appears that most small towns in the state at one time had a small jail or calaboose that was used for minor offenses and as places to detain the more serious prisoners until they could be transported to the county jail. One of the more helpful sources is historic photos of calabooses that have long since disappeared. These images allow us to see what used to be and in some cases we have the benefit of before and after photos. These historic images are included whenever possible. The photo below was provided courtesy of The Portal to Texas History, a collection of books, maps, photographs, and newspapers housed at various libraries on the campus of North Texas University in Denton. Unfortunately, the date it was taken is not known.
Small Stone Calaboose in Rising Star, Texas
After visiting a number of calabooses it became apparent that, although they were often similar in some ways, there was a variety of floor plans. Lili G. Lyddon prepared maps that illustrate the various floor plans to scale for this project. See the Sub-Menu Item Floor Plans. An interesting feature of some of the early calabooses is the freestanding cage or cell, often made of strap iron, that was housed in a building. Many of these metal cages are no longer in their original placement. Some, such as the ones in Montgomery and Lexington, have been moved to city or county parks where they are on display as a historic artifact of the past.
Metal cage on display in Montgomery, Texas
Some metal cages were probably made locally, but others were ordered from companies that specialized in the manufacture of jail cells. It was probably very expensive to have these cages custom made and shipped. The cages in Crawford and Montgomery are identified by a metal plate as having been made by the Pauley Jail Company in St. Louis. This company is still in business but I was unable to find records of the construction and sale of these particular cages. These cages were made from “strap iron” a type of metal and using a technique that dates to the latter part of the 19th century and possibly earlier.
There is a metal cage with two cells in the first county jail in Sealy (Austin County). The cells were made by E. T. Barnum Iron Works in Detroit, Michigan. This company advertised itself as builders of jail cells. In my opinion, this cage is older than the jail and it may have once been in a calaboose.
In many cases the original structures that once contained these cages have long been demolished. I only found three examples of metal cages in buildings where they were actually used. The cell in Crawford is believed to be in its original location while the one in Weimar was moved from the original calaboose but was also used in its current location. The calaboose in Sabinal was moved there in 1967 from Uvalde and used as a lockup until it was no longer needed. The cage in this case was made by The Stewart Iron Works in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The examples found during this study are described and illustrated under the tab Cages and Cells.
Cage in Weimar, Texas
To date, calabooses (past and present) have been documented in at least 145 Texas counties and more are expected to be idetified. The distribution of these structures across the state is depicted on a county outline map below.
Distribution of Calabooses in Texas as of July 29, 2016
During my search for the sometimes elusive calaboose several interesting structures were observed that merited attention and documentation. Sometimes I encountered small buildings that seemed at the time to be another example only to find that I was wrong. In Chillicothe I saw a small brick building while looking for the calaboose that I was told was there. After walking over the area I spotted the calaboose behind the brick building that I was photographing. I later learned that the brick building was the vault of the local bank that had long since been demolished. A telltale sign of a bank vault can be a concrete pad beneath and around it that was the foundation for the former bank. I have observed other structures that are equally as deceptive and they are described and illustrated in Suspicious Structures.
Bank Vault in Chillicothe, Texas
Some former calabooses were later used for other purposes, and this can make positive identification difficult. In Petrolia, for example, the small brick calaboose was later used as an office for a city employee. The original doors and windows with bars were removed and replaced with modern versions making identification as a former jail difficult. In Eagle Lake, there is a calaboose that had been used for so many years as a building for Girl Scout functions that very few of the locals are aware of its former past and still refer to it as the Girl Scout building. My informants in Snook believe that their calaboose may have served a secondary function as a place for storing hides during the weekly meetings of the local beef cooperative.
Other calabooses have been found as a result of local informants. While discussing a suspicious building in McDade with local resident Andy Wolf he mentioned that there used to be a small calaboose in Paige near the railroad tracks. I drove to that town and did not see a calaboose but there was a small building near the tracks that could have served in that capacity in the past see Suspicious Structures. Today it is being used by the Sons of Hermann. The location, size, and position of the door are all consistent with other known calabooses. When a calaboose has a door offset to the right or left it usually means that there is an entry area behind the door and a cell in the rest of the building. In this case the cell would be to the right of the door. The modern door could easily be a replacement, and the window and utilities could have certainly been added later.
Calabooses in other states
Texas is not the only state to contain calabooses. Excellent examples have been found in many states and a few are illustrated under the Sub-Menu Item Calabooses in Other States. When possible a brief history of these is also included and a few were visited and documented using the same techniques as employed for those in Texas.
Not every building used for holding prisoners fits my informal definition of what constitutes a calaboose. During my travels other very interesting structures were observed and documented but they appear under Menu-item entitled Jails. One of the peculiarities encountered was the presence of two mobile jails that were used to transport prisoners to work in the fields and on roads. They are (near Dennison in Grayson County and in Seguin.
I plan to link this website to as many people and agencies as possible and I encourage others to add my site to theirs as well. The primary purpose of this project is to identify and document this very interesting type of architecture and share the data with others so that these buildings will be appreciated and hopefully preserved for future generations. Some towns have made good use of their calaboose by maintaining it as a historic site that can be visited and photographed. In Grapevine, Texas the local calaboose was moved from its original location to its final resting place where it is a popular attraction during the tours of Main Street sponsored by the city. It is especially interesting to school children of all ages.
For those readers interested in knowing about my background in archaeology there is a condensed version of my vita under Menu-item The Author. I can be contacted at email@example.com or through this website.