Northampton Historic Preservation Society To Document Historic Jails

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Photo by Stefanie Jackson – A view of the Eastville Court Green from December 2017. On the far right can be seen the demolition of the 1914 jail in progress.

By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton Historic Preservation Society has persevered in educating the public and saving the history of the 1700s and 1800s, whether it means looking beyond the county for funding or accomplishing its goals by more creative means.

The group recently received a $3,000 grant from Virginia Humanities to produce a documentary on the jails that have stood on the historic courthouse green in Eastville, the county seat.

Virginia Humanities is the state humanities council, based in Charlottesville, Va., about 200 miles from Eastville. The council is one of 56 created by the National Endowment for the Humanities, with the mission that it “connects people and ideas to inspire cultural engagement and deepen mutual understanding.”

The historic society’s documentary will focus particularly on the 1914 Northampton County jail that was demolished in December 2017. Its cell doors featured unique locking mechanisms, similar to those used at Alcatraz and the Indiana jail where John Dillinger was incarcerated.

The locking mechanisms were once considered cutting edge technology, allowing one to three doors to be opened either together or separately.

When contractors submitted bids in the fall of 2017 for the jail’s demolition, Joyce Kappeler, then president of the historic society, was prompted to ask county supervisors for funding to remove cell doors and other historic artifacts from the building.

The Northampton board of supervisors had donated money for historic preservation in the past. For example, in the 1950s, the board contributed funds to repair and refurbish the 1731 courthouse, the old clerk’s office, and the old debtor’s prison, according to historian Frances Bibbins Latimer.

But in 2017, Kappeler’s request for funding was turned down, with supervisors citing financial hardships such as “teachers to pay” and “schools to build.”

Reportedly, a local welder had volunteered his services to the historic society, but that plan also fell through.

But none of that stopped the historic society. Mike Ash, its current president and a past member, took the initiative to show up in person at the jail demolition site, and he discovered the contractor was happy to help the historic society’s cause. The main door to the jail cell block was lifted with a crane and placed directly on a truck to haul it away to safety.

That and other salvaged items, like a dumbwaiter that transported food from the kitchen to the third floor, remain in storage in Eastville’s historic district, awaiting restoration of the 1907 jail, where the historic society hopes the artifacts eventually will be displayed.

The 1907 jail is one of five historic buildings still standing on Eastville Court Green, with the 1899 courthouse that now serves as the county’s administration building, the circa 1814 debtor’s prison, the 1800 clerk’s office, and the 1731 courthouse.

The historic society decided to produce the jail documentary on the advice of historical architecture expert Carl Lounsbury, who retired from the Colonial Williamburg Foundation.

The documentary is the second in a series of three. It was preceded by a film about Pear Valley, a circa 1740 planter’s cottage in Eastville and an example of early Chesapeake architecture.

Originally known as the Northampton County branch of Preservation Virginia, the historic society maintained Pear Valley for Preservation Virginia since 1986. In 2013, the Northampton Historic Preservation Society got its current name and became an independent nonprofit. In 2014, it received the deed to Pear Valley from Preservation Virginia.

The third documentary will cover the Eyreville archaeological dig site, near Eastville.

A film premiere will be scheduled for the jail documentary later this year.

The historic society will continue its popular Lecture on the Lawn series this spring, with two events scheduled in June – a lecture at the Cessford plantation house on Courthouse Road, and a walking tour of Willow Oak Road, both in Eastville.