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Jefferson Co. workers setting up shop in former jail

July 03, 2008|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. -- As Bill Polk leads a brief tour of the former Jefferson County Jail, he stops by sections where cells used to be.

Although the building has been renovated for court facilities, parts of the old jail were left in place.

Iron bars still cover some of the windows of the nearly 100-year-old building and Polk, director of maintenance for Jefferson County government, shows heavy iron doors that were used while inmates were moved through different parts of the building.

"Pigeons used to be in there," Polk said as he peeks into an area on the second floor.

After a renovation that cost more than $2 million, county government workers are starting to set up shop in the former jail at the corner of George and Liberty streets.

The Jefferson County Circuit Clerk's office, which handles files and other business of Jefferson County Circuit Court, moved into the first floor of the building last week and Jefferson County Family Court, which handles proceedings such as divorces, moved into the second level about two weeks ago, Polk said.

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The renovated building is part of an ongoing effort to create more space for growing government operations, officials have said.

The Jefferson County Commission at one time considered demolishing the old jail, but a group called Jefferson County Alliance to Save Our Heritage worked to save the structure.

Advocates of saving the jail said it should be preserved because of its architecture and because of a series of trials that were held in Charles Town in 1922 for miners involved in a labor uprising referred to as the Battle of Blair Mountain in southern West Virginia.

The commission later decided against razing the jail and looked to use the facility to create needed county government office space.

County government workers and others have been stopping by the building this week to see the finished product.

Jefferson County Sheriff's Department deputies have been recounting their best stories from experiences there, including hints of the place being haunted.

One bailiff who has been stationed at the front door said he periodically hears what sounds like somebody whistling in a nearby corridor. When he goes there, no one is there.

In the Jefferson County Circuit Clerk's office, workers are at desks situated in nooks and crannies. Two workers are seated next to a brick wall that used to be the exterior of the building before the area was enclosed.

In a room next to the circuit clerk's office, a sign on the outside reads "Old Jail Vault."

The room used to house inmate cells, but now is a storage room for court files, Polk said.

At one end of the room, a small iron door remains - another vestige of the jail.

The door was used to pass meals to prisoners, Polk said.

"Now, they're using it to pass files," Polk said.

When people come to the circuit clerk's office and request to see a court file, court workers plan to use the door to pass files through from the file storage area, Polk said.

In the old days, a stainless steel cell on the second floor led to a steel spiral staircase that authorities could use to lead inmates to a courtroom to be arraigned, Polk said.

Although the cell was dismantled to make way for a family court courtroom, large wooden beams were left in the ceiling of the room.

Old floor coverings were ripped up and wooden floors were sanded and refinished. Original furnishings including an ornate ceiling light remain as well as an wooden bannister at one end of the building.

"Overall, it's a good move," said County Commissioner Dale Manuel, who supported renovating the jail.

Manuel said the new family court facilities are superior because parties can be better separated and the building gives needed storage space.

"We're preserving a building the same time as making it functional," Manuel said.

Manuel said there still are plans to do historic interpretation in the building and he thinks the facility will be a way to promote tourism in the county.

Country music star Kathy Mattea is expected to tour the facility July 18 and participate in a panel discussion about the project, officials have said.

Mattea is a native West Virginian who maintains an interest in state issues.

An official dedication of the renovated building is slated for Sept. 20, officials have said.

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