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Old Burnet County Jail reopens as visitors center after renovations

Vonnie Riddell Fox and Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd

Vonnie Riddell Fox, 95, the daughter of former Burnet County Sheriff Wallace Riddell, stands outside of a jail cell with current Sheriff Calvin Boyd during the opening of the newly renovated historic jail on the courthouse square in Burnet. Fox lived most of her childhood in the jail, which her family called home for 40 years. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

The Feb. 10 opening of the newly renovated historic Burnet County Jail began with a chain cutting. Burnet County Judge James Oakley held one wooden handle of a large pair of pruning sheers, while Vonnie Riddell Fox, the 95-year-old daughter of former Sheriff Wallace Riddell, grasped the other handle. Together, they snipped a length of black plastic chain in two, allowing a small crowd of family, elected officials, and county employees through to see the 137-year-old building’s new look. 

The building, located at 109 S. Pierce St. in Burnet, soon will be open to the public as a visitors center and museum on a regular basis. 

The Riddells called the old jail home for more than 40 years when it was operational. Fox grew up in the jail, delivering trays of food her mother cooked to the prisoners. Wallace Riddell served 39 years as sheriff and held the record as longest-serving sheriff in the state of Texas until 2008.  

“This brings back wonderful memories of my family,” Fox told DailyTrib.com at the event. 

Ann Riddell and Vonnie Riddell Fox with portrait of Wallace Riddell
Sisters-in-law Ann Riddell and Vonnie Riddell Fox pose in front of a portrait of Sheriff Wallace Riddell, Vonnie’s father, now hanging in the newly renovated historic jail, which held a soft opening Feb 10. The portrait was painted in the 1970s by Fanny Thelma Normann, a renowned artist who was also grandmother to Burnet Mayor Christa Gobel. Photo courtesy of Burnet County Judge James Oakley

She posed for snapshots with her sister-in-law Ann Riddell and Burnet Mayor Christa Gobel in front of a large painting of Sheriff Riddell that hangs at the top of the stairs. Gobel’s grandmother Fanny Thelma Normann painted the portrait sometime in the 1970s to honor the sheriff. At one time, it hung in the Herman Brown Free Library on the courthouse square but has been in storage for years, Gobel said. 

“Judge (Oakley) made sure it was kept safe the whole time,” she said. “I’m thrilled — we are all thrilled — to see it in a place of honor as it is now.” 

The “we” to whom Gobel referred included her three brothers, John, Jeff, and Perry. All attended the event, posing for a family shot in front of the portrait. 

“She (Fanny Normann) made the frame, too,” said Jeff Gobel, pointing out the Texana features on the massive frame. 

Old Burnet County Jail
Perry Gobel and brother John wait at Perry’s Model T in front of the old Burnet County Jail for their sister, Burnet Mayor Crista Gobel, and other brother, Jeff. The Gobels came to the jail’s opening to celebrate the renovation of the 137-year-old building. Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd talks to residents on the sidewalk outside of one of the jail’s two entrances. The old jail, which will be a visitors center and museum, is located on the courthouse square in Burnet. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Perry Gobel parked his Model T car outside of the jail, which featured quite a few other antiques inside, including a bedroom suite once owned by Gen. Adam R. Johnson, the blind man who founded Marble Falls. The kitchen contains a period stove that fits when the jail was built in 1883-84. 

An antique roll-top desk in one of the two entrances will be where Blair Manning, the newly hired Burnet County tourism director, will work. Most of the family rooms and cells have been restored to reflect the years the jail was in service and home to the sheriff and his family. Only two rooms on the second floor are a bit more modern. They will be used for community meetings. 

Old and new collide when it comes to lighting and internet connections. The building is fully wired, but the lights are designed to look like old fixtures and cast a candlelight glow. Recessed lights keep the place bright. At night, the flickering candlelights will be left on to shine out onto the courthouse square.

suzanne@thepicayune.com