The Old Lumpkin County Jailhouse by Rachel C. Gaston
The property for the Historic Lumpkin County Jailhouse, at the time the “New Jail,” was deeded by W. P. Price to James R. Lawhon, ordinary of Lumpkin County, on May 29, 1884 at a sale price of Two Hundred Dollars. The sheriff was William H. Satterfield, the 22nd sheriff of Lumpkin County Georgia. The small brick structure was constructed on Clarkesville Street (now divided into both Enota Street and Main Street), with Spencer Street (now Johnson Street), Perkins Street (now Hill Street), and Amelia Street (now the northern portion of Short Street) running along the sides of the original 1884 Jail Lot. The jail was built further away from then existing roads because it was anticipated that the width of these streets would be increased in later years. The jail grounds were surveyed by B.M. Hall, and the property covered nearly an acre. The interior of the jail included a downstairs for the living quarters of the sheriff’s family, and an upstairs meant to hold the prisoners. Although the sheriffs often had large families, the first level was made up of only four rooms, a central hallway, and a back porch commode. The center of the upstairs was an area called the cellblock, with walls 12 inches thick. The cellblock held the most dangerous inmates, while the remaining area, known as the runaround, housed the others.
Life at the Jailhouse had its ups, and it had its downs. Some positives were that the sheriff’s wife regularly cooked the food served to both the sheriff’s family and the inmates. Rumor has it that the meals were so good, criminals intentionally had themselves locked up so they could eat the delicious food and have a free place to stay. Also, the sheriff’s children always had someone to chat with or play cards with, although their playmates were prisoners, mainly moonshiners. So many white lightning drinkers passed through the jailhouse that the sheriffs’ families accumulated excessive amounts of sugar and mason jars, a benefit to the cannery next door. The prisoners would sometimes offer the children of the sheriff a few cents to fetch them some snuff and cigarettes. On the downside, the jail was small, very chilly during the wintertime, and early sheriffs rarely received enough pay to support their families. Additionally, inmates would constantly attempt to escape. There was an eight-inch gap between the window bars and the runaround staircase, and thin prisoners would occasionally manage to squeeze themselves through the gap to escape. In one instance, cellblock prisoners set fire to their mattresses in order to create a distraction, which was unsuccessful because the sheriff quickly extinguished the flames. Another time, a prisoner heightened himself into the tower on the roof, jumped off of the jail building, and ran away as speedily as he could.
One factor that I find inviting in studying the history of the old county jail is my mother’s family connection to it. My great-great-grandfather, Jim Davis, served as Lumpkin County Sheriff from 1898 to 1908, and served again from 1916 to 1924. He, his wife, his six sons, and his two daughters lived tightly in the small county jail. Jim Davis, a very short- tempered and opinionated man, is best remembered for capturing the well- known train robber, Bill Miner, along with his fellow outlaws, with the help of two of his sons, Joe (Lumpkin County Sheriff from 1932 to 1937 and from 1941 to 1942) and R.T. Another of Jim Davis’s sons, C.C. Davis, was the father to my grandpa, also called C.C. Davis. My grandpa attended North Georgia College during The Great Depression and could not afford to pay to live in a dorm room. Fortunately, his Uncle Joe was sheriff at the time and allowed him to live in the jail for a short time, sleeping under the stairs on a cot.
A rehabilitation project of Lumpkin County’s historic jail took place during the 1980s, and the Old Jail is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the jailhouse serves as the home of the Lumpkin County Historical Society Museum. The museum is open on festival weekends, and holds several artifacts that exemplify old-fashioned daily life.
The intriguing history of the Old Lumpkin County Jailhouse is not very well known. It is obscured by other historical events of Dahlonega, but if one looks past the gold, the mining, and the mountains, they will find it pays more to dig deeper past the ordinary knowledge and unearth other valuable information.
Dahlonega’s Historic Public Square, by Anne Dismukes Amerson
Dahlonega, a Special Place, by John D. Anthony Jr.
“I Remember Dahlonega”, by Anne Dismukes Amerson
“I Remember Dahlonega” Volume 4, by Anne Dismukes Amerson
History of Lumpkin County for the First Hundred Years, by Andrew W. Cain
Lumpkin County Sheriff s Office
John Gaston, Lumpkin County Surveyor
Deed Book V, pages 284 and 285, Lumpkin County Clerk of Superior Court records
Lumpkin County Historical Society website: http://www.lumpkinhistory.org/jail-museum