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Old Lavaca County jail to be renovated (w/video)

By Jessica Priest
June 24, 2014 at 1:24 a.m.

The old Lavaca County Jail was sold to Roger Chambers, a real estate agent. The jail was built in the 1800s. It could only house 14 inmates. The old jail has sat vacant  since 2005, when the new jail opened. Chambers plans to renovate it and turn it into a tourist attraction and gathering space. He bought it for $35,000.

HALLETTSVILLE - Roger Chambers ran his hands across the cement and mortar walls of the old Lavaca County Jail, where inmates, some of whom may have resided more than 100 years ago, left behind messages.

"I'm the rat," an inmate wrote in crude capitalized letters.

"If you pray and have faith in God, your prayers will be answered," another inmate etched nearby.

Chambers paused over some tally marks.

"It looks like somebody was keeping score here," he said, casting a look outside from a second floor window, the bottom half of which was covered up. "This is like someone said, 'You know, what? You're not going to get to see the birds and the trees.'"

Behind him were cells outfitted with half-inch, flat plate iron bars unlike the ones used in jails today.

Chambers bought the property, 305 N. Main St., from Lavaca County in May for $35,000.

He plans to allow the lay person for the first time since it was built in 1885 to come and go at their own leisure.

Ideally, a nonprofit, such as the Hallettsville Chamber of Commerce or the Lavaca County Historical Museum, would operate the jail, charging between $2 to $5 for a tour of the upstairs as well as renting out the old deputy offices downstairs for special occasions, he said.

"There's no place that's for small events for 30, 40 or 50 people in Hallettsville," said Chambers, the president of Market Realty, based in Burton. "I'd split fees with them so I can get a return on my investment."

Chambers caught the end of the Hallettsville Chamber of Commerce's board meeting last week, but the group has not decided what role they'll play on the property, if any, said Sharee Rainosek, executive director.

"It's a great idea, though," Rainosek said. "I think people have always been curious about that property, especially the history of it. It would be interesting to know if we have any infamous criminals that stayed there."

When contacted Tuesday, Lavaca County Historical Museum administrator Janice Saunders did not know that property had sold.

She, too, said the museum's 14-member board, which meets quarterly, would have to weigh in on whether they'd be up for helping Chambers run the place.

"Personally, I like the idea of somebody reworking it now," she said.

Saunders found at least three newspaper articles about life in Lavaca County in 1900s on microfilm at the Friench Simpson Memorial Library.

The county accepted a bid from Picket & Mead in 1884 to build the jail for $12,111.

It was completed in 1886 when the sheriff was A.P. McElroy.

Before, prisoners were locked up in homes and barns and guarded by private citizens, according to a 1936 article in the Tribune.

A Hallettsville Herald reporter, however, wrote the jail was erected in 1884, costing taxpayers $16,200. The architect was J.E. Dietz, and its dimensions were 51 feet long, 31 feet wide and 38 feet tall.

And a Lavaca County Tribune-Herald article documents its expansion.

Sheriff Hilmer Woytek and Lavaca County commissioners invited the public to tour the facility Oct. 14, 1976.

At a cost of $177,806.72, the project met a new government requirement that female inmates be kept separate. A front section with central air and heat was added, bringing the number of cells from 14 to 18.

Lavaca County Judge Tramer J. Woytek remembered spending a lot of time there when his father was sheriff from 1971 to 1985.

He remembers the rear of the structure being rebuilt after a flood in 1985.

The county began in 2005 using a new jail off U.S. Highway 77 because the older jail's layout was not secure. Inmates were escorted down hallways where dispatchers sat, he said.

"After it was ordered to be sold by the commissioners court, there was a buyer, but the deal fell through," Woytek said. "When I came into office, I wanted it to change hands because as it sits there, it's nothing but a liability."

Keeping up with landscaping was also a hassle, and the county couldn't use the building for storage because it is in a flood zone, he said.

"It was really kind of heartbreaking to me to see how bad it had gotten," Woytek said. "It's going to take that gentleman a considerable amount of time to get it right, and I look forward to seeing it once it's finished."

Chambers estimates repairing the place will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"It's really in the embryo stage right now," he said.

His first priority is patching the metal roof.

He plans to strip the lead paint off the downstairs hallway and rip out the wood paneling that covered many of the deputies' rooms.

He is also considering demolishing the carport and the offices in the front, so eyes focus on the older architecture.

Chambers will keep the second floor the same and will not apply for a historical marker because then, he'd be under restrictions that would hinder the renovation.

He's been in the real estate business since 1984.

His side business, Rita Inc., bought the jail.

In October, Rita Inc. bought a general store in San Gabriel.

Chambers goes up there every four weeks to clear out dry goods that have sat there for about 15 years, selling them to passersby.

Chambers is also the landlord for El Vaquero Mexican Restaurant in Hallettsville and the White Horse Tavern in Burton.

"I don't want this to sound egotistical or cheesy, but I don't have children," Chambers said. "I want to leave something behind. I want to give something back to the community and show it's not all about going to Target or Wal-Mart."



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