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Texas History

The Texas Calaboose

Tiny jails were common in 19th-century Texas

Texas has always been associated with being big, but this article focuses on the calaboose, a building considered small by today’s standards but important until the early part of the 20th century. The word “calaboose” comes from the 18th-century Spanish calabozo, which means “jail, dungeon or cell.” My research shows that the term is associated with small buildings constructed of logs, milled boards, poured concrete, bricks or stone.

Calabooses were prevalent throughout the U.S., and, at one time, a calaboose was probably present in most of the 254 Texas counties. Based on my review of Sanborn maps—historical town maps created for fire insurance purposes—and interviews with local informants, I determined that at one time there were at least 238 calabooses in the state. I have identified 74 that still stand in 2015. Many had no indoor plumbing or electricity, and dirt floors were common. In some cases, the only source of light and ventilation were tiny windows. The brick calaboose in Desdemona has no windows.

Although calabooses are typical of small towns, they were also present in county seats and were often erected be-fore funds were available for a county jail. The Sanborn maps for Stephenville show that in 1885, there was a two-story stone county jail. In 1902, a wooden calaboose stood next to it. In 1907, the calaboose was still there, but the stone jail was vacant, and nearby stood a new four-story concrete jail. In 1921, the building that housed the stone county jail and the tiny calaboose building were both gone.

The most likely scenario is that the wooden calaboose served as an interim lockup while the new county jail was in the planning and construction stages.

During the early decades of the 20th century, small Texas towns and communities usually lacked the funds for a police force, and the county sheriff was not always available to make on-the-spot arrests or to transport prisoners, especially at night and in bad weather. Therefore, local citizens serving as constables, marshals or night watchmen were charged with enforcing the law. The calaboose served as a holding facility until the prisoners were released or transported to the county jail.

The typical prisoner in a calaboose was there for drunkenness or rowdy behavior. Leo Helpert and Billy Prescott, both born and raised in Burlington, said they were old enough to remember that the prisoners were there for drinking or fighting.

Calabooses were constructed with minimal funds using the materials that were most readily available. Concrete was commonly used because it was inexpensive, weather-resistant and strong. Stone had to be cut and shaped to build a calaboose.

The majority of calabooses depicted on the Sanborn maps were made of wood. Sometimes, the walls were constructed using 2-by-4-inch boards stacked on top of one another. This method created very strong walls, as opposed to walls built by simply nailing boards to a frame. The boards were joined at the corners in much the same manner as dovetail joints in the houses and cabins built in the 19th century.

This once-common building began to lose significance as better roads and more dependable vehicles made it easier to transport prisoners to the county jail and for the sheriff to patrol small towns. By the time of the farm-to-market roads act of 1949, the calaboose had virtually disappeared. My review of Sanborn maps failed to turn up one calaboose still standing after 1950 that was not vacant or being used for another purpose.

Some of the existing calabooses are in excellent condition and are being preserved as a legacy of the past. The town of Grapevine moved its calaboose to the corner of Franklin and Main streets, where it is a popular attraction for tourists and school field trips.

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Bill Moore is an archaeologist in Bryan. His calaboose website is tinytexasjails.com.