If you’ve ever wondered what a jail was like in the late 1800s, a visit to the historic Austin County Jailhouse, built in 1896, is the place to go. This recorded Texas historic landmark, located at 36 South Bell Street in Bellville, now known as the Austin County Jail Museum, served as both living quarters and a jail.
And who better to take you on a tour and answer your questions than someone who lived there. Bruce Noviskie, now president of the Austin County Jail Museum Association, has great stories from when his father was the Chief Deputy Sheriff under Sheriff Truman Maddox.
“My father was the jailer and my mom cooked the meals for the inmates,” Noviskie recalls. “I was 15 years old when we moved in there in 1967. We lived there in the lower part of the jail until 1982.”
The first floor housed the living quarters and the second and third floors housed the inmates. The old cells are still in it as well as the gallows, housed on a small 4th floor. Visitors are not allowed in the gallows area. This is the fourth jailhouse for Austin County and they all occupied the same site.
There were several escapes over the years with each followed by increased security improvements.
“We had three or four escapes while we lived there,” Noviskie said. “The old jail locks were easy to pick. There was only one hanging when we lived there. There were two homicides in Austin County prior to the jail being completed in 1896 that were 38 days apart. There was a double hanging in what is now Bellville Park, known as the Pines Area at the time, located half-mile northwest from the Bellville square. That double hanging was performed in the year 1896 before the jail was completed and first occupied.”
The historical marker near the entrance of the museum reads: “Calling their old jail ‘unsafe, unfit and inadequate,’ the Austin County Court contracted in 1896 with Pauly Jail Building Co. of St. Louis to erect this structure at cost of $19,970. Romanesque Revival style, with crenelated parapets, bartizans, and stone window arches harmonized with the 1886 courthouse, which later burned. The gallows, used only in 1901, have been removed, jailers quarters have been enlarged but original exterior is preserved. Entered in the National Register of Historic Places – 1976.”
In addition to the museum showcasing the jail, it also contains pieces of the history of Austin County. New special exhibits include the Sheriff Truman Maddox exhibit and the Austin County Texas Outlaw William Longley exhibit.
“The purpose of the exhibit is educational to help preserve the history of Austin County,” Noviskie said. “We have murals depicting the Texas Land Grant that was given to Stephen F. Austin by the government of Mexico. Another mural describes Sam Houston and Santa Anna’s travels post battle of the Alamo until the Battle of San Jacinto and describes the burning of San Felipe. That’s another mural we have on permanent display.”
The building itself continues to be owned by the citizens of Austin County. We encourage our citizens to visit the museum and learn about the history of their county,” Noviskie said. “It’s one of the oldest county buildings in Austin County. We are always looking for volunteers to be docents.”
The jail museum is open for visits and tours Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. or by appointment for group tours. Visitors can enjoy a guided tour or a self-tour. Admission is free and donations are accepted.
For more information or to schedule a tour, contact Noviskie at 713-385-7141 or Becky Larson, board member, at 979-877-8814. The museum is manned by volunteers and the board members are also volunteer. Go to the Facebook page for updates on museum activities.