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October 7, 2013

Honoring the old jailhouse

Texas Historical Marker to be set

Athens — The old Henderson County Jail will be recognized for its historic significance during a ceremony this month.

A Texas Historical Marker is set to be dedicated at the jail on Oct. 17 at 11 a.m. The marker has been in the works for several months and will commemorate the historical significance of the structure that was the headquarters for county law enforcement and housed prisoners from the 1920s until the current jail was opened in 1991.

The jail, on Larkin Street was occupied by several sheriffs, including the long tenures of Jess Sweeten and J.W. Brownlow.  The two were in office, except for one term, between 1933 and 1980. Sweeten, who had been serving as deputy, defeated the incumbent Joel Baker in July, 1932. He took office at midnight on the following Jan. 1, becoming the youngest sheriff in the state at the time.

Brownlow’s 26 years in office is the most in county history. Brownlow’s son, Ronny Brownlow, who served as sheriff in the present facility, said he remembers playing at the old jail as a child while his father was in office.

The jail underwent a major renovation in 1980, but by the end of the decade, plans were in the works to replace it with the new facility on Murchison Street. The capacity of the jail,  built when the population of Athens was about 6,000, was not enough to keep up with the increased number of prisoners held there on a daily basis.

After the opening of the new Henderson County Justice Center in 1991, the old jail has been used largely as a storage building. The building is also home to the Henderson County Historical Commission.  The Commission’s job is to preserve Henderson County's historic and prehistoric resources for present and future generations.

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