What a unique experience, as a seven year old. I had to spend a little more than a year of my childhood living in the Martin County jail.
My father, Edmund Morrow, went to work as the only deputy sheriff under Milt Yater in 1936. The Yater's were living in the jail apartment at the time, but soon moved into a house because of the inconvenience of the kitchen in the jail being downstairs and the bathroom upstairs. Milt Yater's son, Carroll was two years old at the time.
The lady of the house (or should we say 'lady of the jail') in residence cooked three meals a day for the prisoners. They ate just what we ate and my mother was paid a small amount per meal served.
I was seven and my brother Billy was five when we moved into the jail.
An interesting memory of our moving was getting the sofa up the stairs to the living room. Not many people had a sofa at that time and we were not about to give it up. The stairs in the jail made an abrupt turn and the sofa would not go! It had to go through an upstairs window. The window also proved to be a little small, so my Dad took the window out of the frame, put boards from the ground to the window for the sofa to slide on, tied ropes on the sofa and pulled it in. Then he replaced the window. A year later when we moved out he repeated the same proven method to remove the sofa.
The bathtub (upstairs, of course) was one on legs. It seems there had been a problem in getting hot water from the kitchen up to the bathroom. Hot water heaters were few then. So, some previous resident had put a two-burner gas hot plate under the tub, lit the burners and soon had a warm bath.
Unless there was a new prisoner that my Dad did not know, he unlocked the small veils and let them use the 'run around', an outside enclosure. We had many of the men there many months. The only state penitentiary was in Huntsville. Transportation not being what it is now, prisoners were not immediately transported. They waited for the 'wagon' from Huntsville to pick them up. It was actually a cattle truck with benches.
It didn't take two children, Billy and myself, long to get to know the prisoners well and visit through the barred door. Some I have vivid memories of. One local man, George Buford, had worked on local ranches and was well known by my Dad. He was working for Sam Wilkinson when he killed a man that he caught with his wife. During his stay in the local jail he was allowed to work each day. He left the jail, walked down the street to Sam Wilkinson's house, then caught his ride to the ranch. He came back in the afternoon and my brother and I fought over the keys to let George back in the jail cell. He served his time and returned in about two years and worked on the farm for some of us.
Another man who was there a long time was Jake Dyer. He was guilty of stealing saddles. In those early years, the theft of a saddle was a serious crime for a man without a saddle was 'unemployable'. The ranches had plenty of horses for the hands to use but not many extra saddles, so a ranch hand looking for work without his own saddle was usually turned away.
He, Jake Dyer, seemed lonely and was always waiting to hear about our school day or he would tell us stories. His mother came to visit him. She came in by bus and was overcome by grief at seeing her son in jail. My mother helped her to the kitchen table, fed her and consoled her. I remember she telling the lady, "It is so hard to raise young people right in times like these". I wondered why she was crying, I thought her son was great! Jake read everything my parents gave him and wrote poetry. He gave a Billy and I a poem he wrote while he was there. We found it in my Mother's things after her death. I wonder if the jilted love he talked about in the poem was a reason from his mistakes.
One morning we were eating breakfast when a man knocked on the door, He told my dad his name and said some time earlier he and escaped from the state penitentiary and was tired of running. He wanted to give up. Daddy took him out to the Court House to the sheriff's office, called Huntsville on the only phone and confirmed that all he had said was true. He brought him back and locked him up.
Life living in the jail was very exciting to a seven year old. We lived there just more than a year. I could not understand why my mother was anxious to move. My Dad and Milt Yater were out at night a lot because the only law enforcement in the county was the two of them plus a 'night watchman'. They would bring in local drunks and lock them up. The cells were directly under our bedroom and the prisoners would pound on the metal ceiling and yell to be let out.
Milt Yater was defeated by Morris Zimmerman for sheriff and we moved out before January 1, 1938, and the Zimmerman's moved in to the three room apartment. We didn't feel that the four of us were crowded when we lived in the jail, and Mrs. Zimmerman later stated that they lived in the same apartment with three children and did not remember being crowded.
Those were pleasant memories for me, living in the jail. The people that I met during my stay did not seem to be bad people even though some of the people that I met were in jail for some crime. I still have the poem that Jake Dyer wrote for Billy and I, and perhaps I can share it with the readers in another issue.
This article is courtesy of THE OLD SOREHEAD GAZETTE
Biggs, Frances "Serving Time in the Martin County Jail" The Old Sorehead Gazette
Spring 1999: 10