Bars on the windows, lace at the door

Editor’s Note:

The Wabash County Sheriff’s House and Jail, located on Main Street, was built in 1880 and served its original purpose until the current jail was built next door in 1979. Now, county officials are faced with a decision to restore or demolish.

The county commissioners have given Wabash Marketplace one year to find a party interested in restoring and using the building. It was recently placed on Indiana Landmark’s “Top 10 Most Endangered” properties list, with hopes that the right person or group will discover the building.

Dorothy Henderson knows the building well. Her father, Cecil Reynolds, served as the Wabash County Sheriff from 1947-1955, during which time she lived in the building. Now a resident of California, she shares her story. It’s easy to read and hard to forget.

by Dorothy Reynolds Henderson

“What am I doing in jail? This can’t be happening.”

Not exactly what I’d want to include on a resume or put up on a college application! I can see it now.

“Where did you spend your teenage years?”

“I put in my time at the Wabash County Jail in Indiana.”

I had plenty of time to contemplate life both inside and outside the heavy metal door that clanged shut with such finality on the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In those years, I learned firsthand about elements of life to which some people are never exposed: evil, deception, violence and weakness. I grew up more rapidly than most teenagers, as I was involved with men and women from all walks of life. I, however, was free to enter and leave through the front door. My dad was County Sheriff Cecil Reynolds, keeper of the jail, and this was home for my parents, my dearly loved grandma, and me.

I remember being very proud of Dad, being elected to the highest office in the county, but wondering if this somber, red brick building would ever seem like home. If the first night was any indication, I really wasn’t sure. After tossing and turning, I finally got to sleep, only to be awakened by shouts, the sound of scuffling, and words you don’t use at a tea party or in Sunday school.

“You got the wrong man, I didn’t do nothing!”

It sounded as if it was right outside my bedroom window. It was! Only I was on the second floor, looking down on the scene.

“You pipe down and go inside. You’ll get your chance to tell your side of the story to the judge. You’re drunk and you get to be the guest of the sheriff tonight!”

Then the clanging door shut and our “guest” got acquainted with his bunk, his buddies, and bars. His escort was one of the city police officers.

My family had left the security of our modest home on Adams Street, lined with maples and scarlet oaks, and traded the faces of long-time neighbors for the sullen faces of inmates who passed through the heavy door. Later, I would learn to read those faces and sometimes be able to remove the masks of anger, arrogance, boldness, defeat or fear. Now, I was learning to cope and adjust – even laugh. Later in my jail time, the disgust and aloofness I felt softened into compassion as I learned some of the prisoners’ stories – weakness and circumstances they hadn’t been able to overcome.

My dad taught me to be humble.

“They may be criminals behind bars, but they’re human and they deserve some kindness along with their discipline.”
He also taught me not to be too soft and not to believe all their stories – bits and pieces I heard through the food section door while helping my mom serve meals.

“Quit baking cupcakes for them,” he said. “This isn’t a hotel! Then I’ll stop calling you ‘Cupcake.’”

“I will when you tell Mom to quit serving them chicken and noodles for Sunday dinner!”

Anyway, my jail nickname stuck, and years later my did still chuckled as he repeated it.

We experienced some special events in our jail. A wedding took place in the office for an inmate and his lady friend who were expecting a baby and wanted to tie the knot before the child arrived. An accommodating judge presided and my parents stood up with the couple. Mom baked a cake to serve before the groom was locked up in his cell. Even still, I remember the bittersweet moment as the bride left alone via the jail door instead of leaving on a honeymoon.

Shopping for the prisoners was commonplace for my mom.

“Look what I just bought!”

She showed me blue pajamas and receiving blankets.

“Mr. Johnson and his wife are having a baby most any day, before he gets out of jail. They’re hoping for a boy.”

“Mom, you’re more of a pushover than I am.”

But the sweetness of her shopping trip didn’t escape me.

“Well, he gave me the money for it!”

Sometimes she liked to have the last word.

There was a time when water began to seep through the kitchen ceilings. We were puzzled, but Dad headed upstairs to the women’s section. One occupant, who, mad at the world in general, decided to stuff some article of clothing down the toilet and then have a field day flushing. I wondered if Dad were still certain of the human side of his prisoners.

I didn’t have long to ponder this question. A few days later, an inmate slid a note through the food section. Its message, scrawled on toilet paper, revealed that a couple of roughneck prisoners from the Chicago vicinity had taken a section of pipe apart and were planning to use a piece of it as a weapon.

The scheme went like this: one of them would pretend to be sick to get Dad to open the door while the other stood behind it with the pipe ready to do its dirty work. Dad, forewarned, took his deputy and a police officer with him and turned the tables on the inmates. To this day, I’m grateful to that man, who thought enough of the sheriff to warn him. One of my lessons in compassion happened that day, as I saw beyond a weak face, stringy hair, and whiskers.

I remember taking a shortcut from downtown one day through the alley, dodging potholes, slipping on loose gravel, and looking up at the back of the jail. I was tired and said to myself, “Boy, it’s good to be home!” I might not have realized at that moment just how far I had come in adjusting to jail life. I no longer saw the run down rooming house next door and the courthouse looming across the street.

As I rounded the corner and approached the front door, I saw movement at the front door. My mother was hanging lace curtains, which fell softly and gracefully into place. They were warm and friendly, yet added class. They seemed to say, “Come in.” I wanted to hug my mom and tell her she was the one who expressed those qualities, and it was she and dad who had enabled me to look at the cement slabs and brick of a jail and see a home. I wish I could tell them now.

So, my teenage jail time didn’t consist of bread and water and the subject never came up on a resume. My experience was positive, as I learned to accept change and see more than the surface of a man or his situation. I grasped, partially, the grace of taking things in stride. I wouldn’t trade those years of excitement, adjusting, growing, and laughing along with my family.

My dad’s life and work years could be summed up in something he once wrote in my autograph book: “If you would have a friend, then be one!” Concise, disciplined, almost like an order, yet softened somewhat by its context. He was able to demonstrate the in the way he ran his ship and lived his life.

My mom? She taught me about home not being a house on the South Side or a red brick building. She knew all about smiles, warm dinners, and a kind word spoken through the food section door. She knew about prayer when my dad got called out in the middle of the night or had to leave his Thanksgiving turkey untouched on his plate. Most of all, she taught me to hang my own lace curtains.

Posted on 2014 Jul 29