Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
The Rusk Penitentiary closed its doors nearly a century ago after four decades of providing a facility for an overflow of prisoners from the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville.
Now Sandra Rogers of the Texas Prison Museum hopes to reach out to members of the local community to help preserve the stories of the people and businesses that worked with the local prison.
“For the past 10 years, I have collected photos, artifacts and stories from inmates and employees of the prison system in every area of the state,” said Rogers, who is the collections registrar for the museum.
But, “there are many holes in our history, one of them being the Rusk Penitentiary,” she said, a facility that operated from 1883 to 1917.
According to a website operated by the University of Texas Library system, a state penitentiary was created in 1848 by the Texas Legislature.
It began in 1849 as a single institution, located in Huntsville, but by the 1870s, that facility became overcrowded, and the state began seeking a site to build a new facility, according to the website.
In 1877, a 19,000-acre tract in Rusk was purchased from T.Y.T. Jamison and building contractors Kanmacher and Denig of Columbus, Ohio, erected buildings of 2 ½ foot thick sandstone that housed administrative offices, a hospital, chapel, dining area and cells, according to a state historical marker on the site.
Rusk prisoners helped to construct the Texas State Railroad that ran from Rusk to Palestine and helped build an iron ore smelting furnace dubbed the “Old Alcalde” which produced iron products for construction throughout the country and for the use of erection of many state buildings. Convict labor also was contracted for local projects, the marker reads.
In 1917, however, the state legislature closed the prison and repurposed the facility as a state hospital for the mentally ill, going into operation in 1919 and eventually given the name of Rusk State Hospital, according to the marker.
Except for two buildings – one, which formerly housed prison cells and now utilized as an administration building, a second, now a business office – most traces of the prison were gone.
“It's been a long time, and the prison connection is simply lost,” Rogers said, adding that the prison system “didn't have a very good system of keeping records.
“I know there are probably letters, and ledgers or bills from the people who did business with the prison, bits of paper and simple documents charging the prison system for land, for food and meat that might not be of importance to anyone but us,” she said. “There has been so much time (passed since the closing of Rusk Penitentiary) that people have forgotten, and this is what we worry about. We need to hear from them before they're gone, because they're the only connection we have.”
Rogers said the state prison museum is interested in any and all items related to that period connecting citizens to the penitentiary.
“There are so many people in town who were involved in the prison system, but we have so little information,” she said. “There may be a lot of things thrown out because (the families) don't know what they are, but to the Prison Museum, they're very valuable – we're interested in preserving the history of the people through photos, letters, stories and documents.
“There has been much written about the inmates and the iron foundry etc., (but) there is absolutely nothing written or gathered about the citizen employees and their families,” she added.
“Things we would like to know about: Does anyone remember the prison cemetery/cemeteries? Does anyone remember the wall around the prison or remember when it was demolished? Does anyone have an iron flower pot or piece of furniture made at the prison that I could photograph? Does anyone have any documents such as bills of laden, railroad receipts, death certificates, bills for work done or food received by the penitentiary? Does anyone have a photo of the Wells Camp or a Texas State Railroad engine/train at Maydelle before World War II?
“We're also looking for cemetery information, of where inmates were buried here – Wells had a huge convict camp, so did Alto,” she said.
The list of information – including oral histories Rogers said she is willing to record and documents or photos that she will scan to computer before returning them to their rightful owners – is endless.
“All of this will be carefully catalogued and kept safely in our museum vault, she said, before reiterating, “We need to reach the 80-90 year old population also as they will remember parents or grandparents who worked at the penitentiary – our goal is to preserve their photos and stories in the archives at the museum.”
To contribute to the museum project, contact Sandra E. Rogers, Texas Prison Museum collections registrar at 936-661-9882 or email email@example.com.
The Texas Prison Museum is located at 491 Hwy 75 N, Huntsville, TX, 77320.