Fannin County Museum of History


One Main Street, Bonham, Texas

In Need of a First Class Jail

Bonham Daily Favorite, December 5, 1993

The 1870 Fannin County jail appears to have been no great improvement over the primitive first jail constructed shortly before the onset of the Civil War. Despite its seeming inadequacy the structure was satisfactory enough to meet the needs of the County judicial system for many years. In the decade after its completion the County Commissioners' records contain only occasional references to repairs or additions to the building. Two years after completion, at the July 1872 term of court, the Commissioners accepted a bid by S.W. Thompson for covering the jail with walnut shingles for $125.00
In 1874 the Court ordered that Sheriff J.W. Dunn have a well dug in the jail yard to supply water for the prisoners. From time to time repairs such as these appear in the records, but no real problems seemed to have surfaced until the beginning of the second decade after the jail's completion.

Sheriff Smith Lipscomb was the first to point out to the Court that the facility for housing prisoners was inadequate in terms of space and security. His successor, Frank Blair, launched a campaign to have the building replaced with one designed to meet the increasingly pressing needs of the Sheriff's department.
As expected the Commissioners talked over the situation for several terms of court without arriving at any real solution. Several committees of local citizens were organized to provide advice to the court. Finally at the March 1885 term of the Court it was announced that the decision had been made to hire a professional firm of architects to design the structure, the first time ever that the county was to engage experts in the construction field.

At that meeting an agreement was entered into with the firm of Ritenour and Wood, Architects, of Sherman. In a little less than three months the plans were completed and on June 8, 1885, the Court ordered that a notice was to be published in The Bonham News advertising for bids on the new jail.
Ten days late the bids had been received and on June 18th A.P. Chamberlin posted his bond in the sum of $2500 for "faithful performance of his duties in building an addition to the jail in Bonham." Sureties on his bond were from all over the county, W.S. Lankford, Silas Hare, Zac Farmer, and J.T. Cunningham.

Also appearing at the session was an agent for the Champion Iron Fence Company who posted bond in the amount of $10,000 for furnishing iron work to be used in the jail.

In directions to both firms, the Commissioners specified that the jail was to be completed by November 1, 1885. It would appear that the Commissioners had an unrealistic idea of how long construction should take.

The specifications for the building are entered into the Court records and demonstrating their professional requirements each specification is spelled out in minute detail. Ten pages of the large record book were necessary to describe the construction of the building.

The completion date was not met and no reasons were given nor is there in record of the court awarding extensions. Neither do there seem to be penalties specified in the performance bonds and no penalties were assessed.

By February, 1886 the Court was approving the final payments to the architectural firm, the construction company, and the ironworks company. The best description of the completed building is not from the Court minutes but from the Friday February 12, 1886 edition of The Bonham News.

"Fannin County has long been in need of a first class county prison, and The News on several occasions during the past four years has referred to the matter.

About a year ago the Commissioners Court let the contract for the building of the structure which we now have under consideration, the plans and specifications were furnished by Ritenour and Wood, architects of Sherman. Mr. A.D. Chamberlin of the same city was the contractor and builder.

In architecture the building is Norman, in size is 27 by 38 feet, two stories, the lower story is 12 feet between floor and ceiling, the upper story 10. The walls are constructed of the celebrated Kaoline stone, commonly known as white rock, or sulphur rock, or Honey Grove stone, and was quarried near Gober ten miles southeast of this city. The stone is cut with rustic face; around all openings dressed stone is used, which makes the building appear to splendid advantage. The building is fireproof throughout, the doors and windows are iron, the floors below and above are concrete, the ceilings are of corrugated iron. The sleepers are of iron each having sufficient strength to contain seventy-five thousand pounds. The roof and cornice are metal.

​The lower story is divided into four rooms with corridor and two cells for insane and females in the center which can be used for county convicts and prisoners. Two of the rooms will be used by jail guards, the other two will be used as a prison hospital and may be fitted with cells. The upper story is one large room and is supplied with a large prison cell divided into two compartments and a corridor with ample capacity for 25 prisoners. And there is room in this story for another cell of the same size which can be supplied when necessity demands.

Each cell is furnished with water closets and sinks, the building is well provided with water pipes and amply provided with heating apparatus and is ventilated thoroughly. This comprises a general description of the building.

The important part of a prison is its security. In this respect Fannin certainly has the boss jail in its construction. Seventy-five thousand pounds of steel and iron have been used. All of this was manufactured and furnished by the Champion Iron Fence Company of Canton, Ohio. The cells are constructed on five ply hardened steel and iron combined and combination locks are so systematically arranged that the guards may never enter the cells.

The old jail has been remodeled and rebuilt and rendered fire proof. New iron doors and windows have taken the place of the old wooden ones. It has been coated with cement in imitation of stone. A new metal roof has taken the place of the old shingles and it has been separated and throrougly fitted."

This combination old and new facility was the last built by Fannin County in the nineteenth century. Its replacement and the present jail are the only two 20th century structures.