Once upon a time, county jail was a cage
By: Ray Crippen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — You know the knack some people have — they are able to cook well. They may not do fancy dishes. They may only fry an egg and toast a slice of bread, but they do this well. If their meal is set before you, you may mutter, “Oh my — this is good.”
The other day, two women from Nobles County history came to mind, Gladys Nackerud and Donna Peters. (There were others I don’t know.) Gladys and Donna were wives of Nobles County sheriffs, wives of Harry Nackerud and Dale Peters. Through one long era, if a man was elected sheriff, his wife was “elected” cook for county prisoners. The sheriff and his wife had their residence in the county jail; they were in the jail house through all hours.
Donna and Gladys did not prepare fancy menus. There were no charcoal grilled steaks or French puddings. They worked with tight budgets and close oversight. They both earned reputations and salutes for cooking well. Prisoners through passing years had only good words for the food which was served them.
Jane Turpin Moore wrote lately of the original Nobles County courthouse, which now is a dilapidated duplex at 907 Eighth Avenue. That original courthouse — a two-story, wood frame building — stood near the center of the city block where the grim, blackstone government center is today. This first courthouse was nailed together in 1877. I learned only lately that the courthouse housed the Nobles County jail, which also was the jail for Pipestone County, Murray County and Rock County.
The State of Minnesota did not think well of the jail at Worthington. Oh well: by 1887, an official report to the Minnesota legislature said, “It is unfit for use,” although it was judged to be “pretty clean.”
Inside one room of that old wood courthouse, Nobles County placed a cage (the official description) which it bought for $3,000 from a company at St. Louis. The cage was nine feet long, seven feet wide and seven feet tall.
When the state inspectors came, there were three men in the cage but, “as many as nine prisoners have been found in this cage at one time.” The courthouse/jail had no place to prepare food, no running water and no plumbing. (We won’t go into this.) “No sheets or pillow cases were furnished,” the official report states, and, “the jail and court house are exposed to great danger from fire.”
It is thought some prisoners were held outside the cage, at least at night. For special reasons “the three prisoners above mentioned were kept in (the cage) together, day and night, for several days at a time …”
The sheriff of that era, R.R. Miller, lived “some distance away.” With the sheriff absent, the three prisoners had taken a valise — a small traveling bag — and they had torn the covering away. The frame of the valise included some narrow, steel bands which the prisoners used to saw their way through the jail house wall. They were recaptured. Everyone in Worthington seemed to know them. The trio again was doomed to the 9x7x7 cage through all hours.
Historian A.P. Rose acknowledged a decade later, “Prisoners of very ordinary expertness were able to break out (of the courthouse jail) almost at will.”
In 1894, with the Minnesota legislature watching closely, and by a margin of 3-2, the county board of commissioners voted to build a two-story, red brick jail and sheriff’s residence which long stood at the intersection of Third Avenue and Ninth Street. This was the jail where Gladys Nackerud and Donna Peters earned largely unsung reputations for their cooking.
Plans for the freestanding, brick jail, which cost $9,655, were approved on Jan. 3. The building was completed 10 months later — Oct. 19.
There were tumultuous times with prisoners (often drunks) every now and again. One man went on a late night rampage and smashed the plumbing in his cell. Before the sheriff realized what happened, a great part of Nobles County’s jail was flooding. A plumber was summoned in the dark morning hours.
(If you wonder, Nobles County’s jail today — called “Prairie Justice Center” — has room for 102 prisoners in 98,000 square feet. Louise Efner Clausen is chief cook for the sprawling complex.)
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.