CONNIE SWINNEY • PICAYUNE STAFF
LLANO — Whether it is ghost stories or theories about the “gallows,” the Red Top Jail serves as a reminder about the harsh history of incarceration and justice as Llano grew and prospered during the 1890s.
“They didn’t have heat. They didn’t have air-conditioning. They didn’t have visitation. There were no laws for jails back then,” said Janie Prew, who served as a jailer and cook at the 118-year-old structure in the late 1970s. “(Incarceration) was more effective back then than now.”
The Red Top Jail, located at 400 Oatman St., was built in the late 19th century and used as the county jail until 1982.
“It’s the last jail of its kind. It’s an imposing building on the south side of the (Llano River) bridge,” said Frank Rowell, president of Friends of the Red Top Jail. “It’s a one-of-a-kind structure. History took place there, not just people in jail. Families grew up there who lived on the first floor.”
The structure, considered the 39th oldest jail in the state, originally housed the jailer’s family on the first floor. The second floor featured eight jail cells that allowed for four prisoners each. Earlier in history, the third floor included a “dungeon,” more jail cells and a fourth level that featured a device that secured a hangman’s noose to the ceiling.
The architecture is referred to as “Romanesque revival.” The jail included a four-story gallows tower for possible hangings that “became a constant reminder to outlaws that they should keep their guns at home,” according to the Friends website.
“There’s no proof (the gallows) were used, but stories were told that they were,” Rowell said.
Such theories evolved into ghost stories.
“That’s kind of a novelty. The ghosts are open for interpretation. There are numerous theories. Some claim it’s on an Indian burial ground,” Rowell said. “Another story is there was one of the jailers who committed suicide on the first floor. All of those things together give it an interesting theory as to why there are ghosts there.”
Ghost hunters claim to have recorded “extrasensory activity,” including electronic voice projections and photographs of orbs and ghostly figures.
In 2008, volunteers transformed the jail into a haunted house for Halloween.
Shortly after, the Red Top Jail was closed to tours as structural problems surfaced, city officials said.
A combination of city funding, private donations and fundraisers have raised $82,000 to launch the first of three phases for a stabilization and renovation project for the structure.
The funding includes $45,000 from the Friends group that includes two grants: $25,000 from the Texas Historical Commission and $20,000 from the city.
“We’re just starting to do some renovation work on the building,” Llano City Manager Brenton Lewis said. “We’re trying to preserve the history, so people coming through town or the local citizens can see how far we’ve progressed from the 1900s until now.”
Volunteers are working to secure a contractor.
Prew said she appreciates the move to preserve history.
“(Being a jailer) was a very draining job. You were always having to do something for the inmates. You were in jail yourself,” she said. “Everyone needs to know what it was like living in that time frame. It’s great that they’re restoring it.”
For more information on the Red Top Jail, go to www.redtopjail.com.