WAYCROSS, Ga. -- Just once, Joseph Johnson Jr. says, he’d like to see a local postcard with a picture of something still standing.
“You see all the postcards of what we used to have in Waycross,” but the sites have all been torn down, he said.
He has a chance — albeit a slim one — to save the old one-cell jail that sits on ground earmarked as the parking lot for Ware County’s new administrative complex.
There are others backing the preservation of the jail that was around in 1889 that now houses the county’s planning office, but they haven’t gotten much attention.
The county has offered to save the big oak on the building’s grounds, but the only offer it has made for the building itself, which has remnants of the barred windows, is a historical marker or plaque.
County Commission Chairman Jimmy Brown said the $10 million administrative complex will be funded by a 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax. Demolition on the old hospital building that once housed some county offices will begin sometime this year, he and Commissioner Carlos Nelson said.
Neither would hazard a guess on the completion date for the new offices, saying it depends on tax revenue.
“We wait for the sales tax kettle to build up before we start,” Brown said.
Brown said he’s leaving it to the county manager and facilities manager to figure out what preserving the old jail would cost, but so far it looks prohibitive.
Not only must an addition be torn off the jail, inspectors found there had once been a fire in the top of the old jail that even Brown, who spent decades as the county’s fire chief, didn’t know about.
Fixing that damage could add to the cost, he said.
But Johnson wants the county to finally start valuing its historic structures, many of which are long gone.
The old wooden courthouse that was built in 1874 or 1875 and the brick structure that replaced it are gone to make room for replacement structures.
Johnson has some allies, among them Sue Lott Clark, whose maiden name goes deep into the city’s history. It was her great-grandfather, physician Daniel Lott, considered one of Waycross’ founders, who gave the land in the 1870s for what is now the courthouse grounds.
An author and historian herself, Clark says the old jail — or perhaps the big oak outside it — got the reputation as the city’s hanging jail. That reputation is probably undeserved because, Lott said, the best story was a near hanging.
Clark said it went this way:
On Nov. 18, 1909, a judge sentenced Dell Jones, a 20-year-old African-American, to 20 years for rape. That wasn’t enough for local townspeople who got together a mob outside the jail and demanded that the sheriff surrender Jones to them so they could hang him.
The sheriff couldn’t quiet the mob, so he phoned the governor, who in turn called out the Georgia National Guard to put down the unrest. The local guardsmen double-timed from the armory to the jail with rifles and bayonets fixed and took up positions in front of the crowd, likely composed of their family members.
Then one of the guardsmen suggested he change clothes with Jones. Jones took the guardsman’s place outside with an unloaded rifle while the sheriff let mob representatives inside to show them that his only inmate was a white man, that Jones wasn’t there.
The mob dispersed, Jones took his place back inside and was then transferred to a state prison where he served the majority of his sentence.
People need to be able to see where that happened and not just hear the story, Clark said.
Clark doesn’t see why a few parking places can’t be omitted to let the historic building survive.
“This is not a big building. It will not be in the way,” she said.
Johnson called the offer of a historic marker an effort to placate those who value history and said it won’t work.
But Nelson wonders what will happen to the old jail even if it is spared because the county has no money for preservation and maintenance.
“Would we save it just so it could rot down later?” he asked.