Save the cells!

Published 7:47 am Tuesday, December 3, 2013

GATESVILLE – No one doubts that injustices may have occurred decades ago at the old jail located within the historic Gates County Courthouse.

However, preserving a visual link to that past while using it today to learn from previous mistakes apparently have more value following a unanimous decision by the Gates County Board of Commissioners to save a room full of jail cells.

The Commissioners learned the impending fate of the old jail during public comments at their meeting held last month.

James Miller of Eure, speaking during public comments, mentioned an earlier comment made by County Manager Jon Mendenhall in regards to tearing out the jail cells in the old courthouse during the renovation process of that facility, built in 1836. Mendenhall confirmed that was in the plans.

“May I ask why the old cells are being removed,” Miller inquired.

“To convert it into usable office space for the county,” Mendenhall answered.

Miller appeared puzzled over that answer, saying that he was under the impression that the renovation process was to maintain the historic value of the courthouse, to include keeping the old jail cells.

“We took this (issue) to the (North Carolina) Historic Preservation Office; we have to save those elements so that they can be turned into some sort of historic interpretative display at some point in the future,” Mendenhall stated. “We can’t scrap them; they are required to be saved for future generations to be able to see in some sort of interpretative display.”

“So keeping them as is in the old courthouse is not part of the plan,” asked Miller.

“No, not at this time,” the County Manager answered.

“The process is whatever changes we make, we have to go through the state Preservation Office and they approve or disapprove that type of repair,” explained Commission Chairman Henry Jordan. “They have approved the use of an alternate roof shingle vs. the old slate or metal roof that was up there and also the removal of the old jail cells with the provision that they be saved. They (Historic Preservation Office) still consider the old courthouse as historic with the modifications.”

Commissioner Kenneth Jernigan then weighed in on the issue, expressing his opposition in removing the old jail cells.

“I’m not in favor of removing the cells from that building; I would like to see them left where they’re at and displayed in the context they’re in today,” Jernigan stressed.

Commission Vice-Chairman Jack Owens said he was under the impression that once removed, one of the old doors to a cell would be placed on a wall near the entrance to the room housing the jail in order for the public passing by to see how they looked.

“I understand what Kenny (Jernigan) is saying when referencing keeping the jail like it is compared to visualizing what it looked like by means of an interpretative display,” Owens remarked.

“I think with the county recently obtaining the old (Gates County) prison (located on US 158 east), we can find enough space there for offices without destroying the historic aspect of the jail cells in the old courthouse,” Jernigan noted. “I’m totally against tearing out those old cells just to see them stored away somewhere. To me that does not make good sense.”

“I go along with Commissioner Jernigan on this,” said Commissioner Linda Hofler, a retired school teacher. “I’ve taken (school) classes through there on tours of the old courthouse and the jail was a major area of interest among those taking the tours….seeing how it was back in the day. I’d like to see the cells remain intact where they are today.”

“I agree, if we can save them I think that’s the way we need to go,” said Jordan.

Jernigan placed a motion on the floor to leave the jail cells as they are today.

“The people that go in there to see how the inmates lived at that time, that’s history,” Jernigan stated. “If nothing else in that building grabs your attention, the old jail certainly does.”

Sherwood Eason asked to make a public comment on the issue.

“Once you take something out and put it in storage, that’s the end of it,” he noted. “After that it’s only scrap metal. What do we need office space for?”

Jordan answered that some of the space would be utilized as an office for the Gates County Chamber of Commerce while the rest would be rental space.

“I’ve heard some talk that the county manager wanted to move his office there, with bulletproof glass and electronic stuff to let you in and out….that might be all hearsay,” Eason remarked.

“What we’re trying to do with the renovation project is to keep everything the same where we can,” Mendenhall explained. “We’ve had to some demolition to remove hidden defects. We want to take the building back to what it once was and plan for a host of uses for the building. There is no bulletproofing scheduled there; we are looking at security system upgrades in all county-owned buildings and in the schools. That’s a separate issue.”

Mendenhall said the reasoning behind removing the jail cells was because county administration staff was under the impression there was a history there that, “was not fully shared by everyone in the community.”

“There were some elements of divisiveness about what occurred in the jail and some of the court cases that occurred in the past,” Mendenhall said. “Some of that was unfortunate, it was a sign of those times.”

“I think there are some elements of change that the board is concerned about; we need to be kept abreast of those changes so we can have some input,” Jordan stated.

“The purpose of history is to learn from history so we do not repeat the mistakes of the past,” noted Hofler. “Certainly, there were some injustices done in the past in the old courthouse; we need to recognize those facts and learn lessons from that.”

Following the discussion, Owens offered a second to Jernigan’s motion, which was approved without objection.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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