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Old Burnet County Jail remodel nears end

Historic Burnet County Jail

A statue of former Burnet County Sheriff Wallace Riddell stands in front of the old county jail on the courthouse square in Burnet. The jail is undergoing renovations in the hopes of it becoming a visitors center and museum, said County Judge James Oakley. Staff photo by Alecia Ormsby

Renovations at the historic jail on the Burnet County Courthouse square could be finished and ready for a “soft opening” in December, said County Judge James Oakley, who has made the remodel his pet project over the past three years. 

“It has always been my vision to get that building back in circulation as a visitors center and museum,” he said. “I look forward to it being an attraction on the square, to house displays, and to have room for smaller group meetings. I’m very proud of that building.” 

All of the work is being done in house. 

“It’s just easier to do it ourselves, and it’s way cheaper,” he said. “We can use tourism dollars for this, too, so it doesn’t hit the tax rate. This is not costing the taxpayers anything.” 

Burnet County Judge James Oakley in the old county jail
Burnet County Judge James Oakley gives a tour of the historic county jail, built in 1884 and closed in 1984. He is on the second floor in front of a jail cell wall. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

A fifth-generation Burnet native, Oakley has paid special attention to historic details during the renovation, even bringing in Vonnie Riddell Fox, 95, who lived in the jail when her father, Wallace Riddell, was sheriff. Riddell was once the longest-serving sheriff in Texas. 

“When she first walked in the door she looked over to the side, in that corner, and I asked her, ‘What are you looking for?’” Oakley said during a tour of the renovations with “She was looking for the board they put across the door to barricade it. It was always leaning in that corner when she walked in, she said.” 

A replica will one day lean in that same corner, just one of many authentic details Oakley has planned. 

Built in 1884, the jail housed prisoners and a sheriff’s family for much of its 100 years. In 1984, a new jail — now the old jail and current sheriff’s office on Texas 29 — opened to replace it. Probation officers moved in, framing walls to create office space, installing restrooms, and covering rock work with chicken wire and stucco. When it was all pulled down more than 35 years later, the building’s intricacies were unveiled, including the rock walls and a listening portal to spy on inmates.

“We didn’t know that listening port was there,” Oakley said. “We found it when we tore the walls down. Someone can be in (the jail cells on the second floor) and whispering, and you can hear it clearly in here.” 

The hole is about the size of a small fist, made out of steel, and embedded in the wall. On the other side, it is hidden from view by a grate. 

Old Burnet County Jail listening portal
Burnet County Judge James Oakley points out a listening portal used to spy on inmates in cells on the other side of the thick rock walls at the old Burnet County Jail. The hole was uncovered during remodeling of the historic jail on the courthouse square in Burnet. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

All of the jail cell doors have been restored to working order, including one concave steel entryway that was brought from the Fort Croghan Museum and reinstalled. Bars that covered one of the windows were found in a county precinct barn gathering dust. They fit right back into the space and were welded in place. 

When complete, the jail will have two kitchens: the original kitchen with a locked, steel pass-through to give prisoners in the downstairs cell their meals and a more modern one that was installed years later. The newer kitchen is being upgraded for use during events. 

Oakley might be most proud of the lighting. He is having recessed LED lights hidden behind trim around the ceiling edges in each room. As originally built, no outlets are available for electric lamps. Some of the lighting, such as wall sconces and bedside lamps, will have bulbs designed to look like flickering flames. No curtains will be hung or inside doors installed so that the space will be more visible from the outside.

“I want to have it all lit inside at night so you can see the glow,” he said.

Old Burnet County Jail entryway
The entryway into the incarceration portion of the historic jail on the Burnet County Courthouse square is ‘definitely in the middle of sausage making,’ said County Judge James Oakley. As much of the interior is being restored to working order as possible and should be ready for a ‘soft opening’ in December, Oakley said. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

A few items are still missing. Oakley has accumulated bedroom suites, including one that once belonged to Marble Falls founder Adam R. Johnson, and antique desks. He’s still looking for “just the right stove” and a wooden icebox for the old kitchen. 

“I’m pretty picky,” he said. “I’m into antiques, so I want to have the right period dinette set to put in here.” 

Donations have come in from several people, including former Marble Falls Mayor John Packer, who contributed the granite countertops for the new kitchen. 

Oakley boasted on the county maintenance crew working on the project.

“I cannot be more proud of what these guys have done,” he said. “We have tried to get it all back to as close to the original as possible. It’s taken a while because we are doing the work ourselves and fitting it in when we can.” 

Currently, the crew is on a final push to wrap up the majority of the work by December. 

“I’m challenging them to do it,” Oakley said. “It’s going to start moving pretty fast. We’re buttoning things up.”