Guest Columnist

My home away from the home: The Guthrie County Jail

Carroll McKibbin submitted photo
Carroll McKibbin submitted photo

The courthouse square in Guthrie Center served as my childhood playground. Only Father O’Sullivan’s rectory and St. Mary’s church stood between our home and the wonders of a three-story courthouse, a bandstand with white benches, and the county jail.

I climbed the rusty courthouse fire escape halfway to heaven, or so it seemed to a seven-year-old boy. I jumped and hopped about on the bandstand benches. But the center of my attention was the orange brick building locals called the “hoosegow.” From baseball to business, from friendly hoboes to foiling a breakout, the weathered structure and its “jailbird” residents occupied much of my time.

The expansive courthouse lawn served as a sandlot baseball diamond, with the jailhouse as the backstop. Being the youngest boy in the neighborhood, I became the “pigtail” with the heavy responsibility of retrieving foul balls that bounced off the aging structure. I was thrilled to be included in the games in any manner, and soon learned my position next to the jail had its advantages.

“Hey, DiMaggio,” a raspy voice called from behind the rusty bars, “I’ll give ya a nickel if you’ll run downtown and get me a bottle of Grapette.”

The words of the whiskered man grabbed my attention. A nickel! That matched my weekly allowance. With one swift errand I could double my income and have enough money for a Clark candy bar AND a chocolate ice cream cone.

Nicotine-stained fingers holding a dollar bill reached toward me.

I thought, briefly, about asking my parents’ permission. But they gave me a long leash in a small town. I grabbed the greenback and raced to Sue’s Cafe.

My budding business soon expanded to other jailhouse residents. To this day I do not know what forms of misbehavior put my customers behind bars. I do recall they were cordial in a gruff manner and trusted me with dollar bills, a heady experience for a little boy.

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And so baseball or not, I made daily trips to the county clink to keep my clients stocked with pop, gum, and candy bars.

The local pokey also provided an opportunity to meet jailhouse visitors, including two hoboes, Hairbreath Harry and Sackshoe Sam. Their periodic trips to Guthrie Center included a stop at the jail to ask inmates where they might bum a meal.

Hairbreath had been crowned “King of the Hoboes” on three occasions at the Britt National Hobo Convention. Sackshoe, who gained his nickname by using wrapped gunny sacks for shoes, never reached that level of acclaim.

I was fascinated by the travels and tales of Hairbreath and Sackshoe, and sometimes at their urging ran home to make them a peanut butter sandwich. But they also cut into my errand business by fetching cigarettes and beer for my slammer customers, items I could not purchase at my young age. I was relieved when they went back on the road.

My days as errand boy for inmates lasted two summers. When the sheriff, J.C. McCool, built a fence around the residence of my clients, I could no longer reach them. I was out of business. But my connection with the jail was not. We continued to play baseball nearby, and a couple of years later I became involved in a serious episode.

After attending an evening movie, Barry Hinton and I were walking along the sidewalk behind the jail when we heard a scratching sound. It seemed to come from the back of the building. We moved closer. The scratching became louder.

We had read enough Hardy Boys books to be suspicious. We raced to the home of Sheriff McCool, a block north of the jail, and knocked frantically. He came to the door in his bathrobe and asked, “What is it boys?”

“There’s something weird going on at the jail,” I blurted. “We heard some scratching sounds coming from inside the building.”

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“OK, boys,” the sheriff replied. “I’ll look into it. You can run along home now.”

But we didn’t. We rushed back to the scene and hid among the bandstand benches to see if the sheriff would arrive.

Indeed he did, taking a position behind the jail with a pistol in his hand. He remained silent, as did we. Time passed. I worried about getting home late, but was too excited to budge.

When a hole appeared in the jailhouse wall and a hand reached through it, Sheriff McCool barked, “You’re in trouble, boys!”

Later, Barry and I received a “thank you” note from Sheriff McCool, and our parents pardoned our late return home. The Hardy Boys adventure had ended, but not the continuing story of the Guthrie County jail.

Some years later while living in Washington, D.C., I read a small item in the New York Times about my childhood place of employment. According to the article, the Guthrie County sheriff, now Lester Peterson, gave a jailhouse inmate a key in case of a fire.

This occurred in the early 1960s when the Andy Griffith television show, featuring Andy’s bumbling deputy, Barney Fife, topped the list of popular programs. I chuckled at the comparison between law enforcement in Guthrie Center and that of the fictional Mayberry.

When I later returned to my hometown to visit my parents, I asked the then-retired sheriff about giving an inmate a key. “Was that story true?” I asked.

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“You bet,” Lester replied. “We heated the place by an outdated, rusty boiler system that was an absolute hazard. I tried to get the county supervisors to buy a new one, but they wouldn’t budge. I didn’t want to be liable for prisoners burning to death. So I just gave the most trusted one a key.”

“Did you ever have a breakout with your system,” I asked.

“Nary a one. I just told them if they tried any funny business, they’d end up at the state jug in Fort Madison.”

On November 27, 1963, just five days after the assassination of President Kennedy, the residents of Guthrie Center experienced a second shock when the old courthouse burned to the ground

A new Guthrie County courthouse arose from the ashes with a modern jail located in the basement. The weary old hoosegow was bulldozed to the ground, leaving nothing behind but my fond memories.

Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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