Tuolumne County Museum

Tuolumne County Museum located at 158 Bradford St., Sonora, CA, 95370

By 1960, the Tuolumne County jail, built in 1866, was obsolete and a new jail was constructed one block north.  At the time, the Tuolumne County Museum and History Collection was located in the Veterans Memorial Hall on Washington Street in downtown Sonora.  Carlo De Ferrari, County Clerk, was assigned the administrative responsibility of the museum after the retirement of Ruth Ann Newport.  The Board of Directors, of the newly formed Tuolumne County Historical Society, discussed the need for expanding exhibit and storage space.  At the request of the Society, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors designated the old jail as the Tuolumne County Museum and the Society became stewards of the Tuolumne County History Collection.

“Board committees were busy with planning for the conversion of the jail to a museum, and looking forward to the day when a library and research center could be added….Remodeling was under way by January 1962 and finally completed in 1965….Next came the cases, ten of which were ready in November 1967, and exhibits were installed in the former jailor’s quarters.”    Chispa, Vol. 25, No. 4, April-June, 1986

In 1974, the Museum Board of Governors was organized to provide continuity on museum issues.  A Master Plan was developed for the site and the exhibits; Phase 1 called for construction of a new building north of the museum for storage and library use, Phase 2 called for rehabilitation of the museum building, and Phase 3 provided a plan to convert the prisoner’s exercise yard into a patio for public use.

The old kitchen of the sheriff or jailer’s family was converted into a turn-of-the-century office, which was originally occupied by the Chamber of Commerce and now home to the Tuolumne County Genealogical Society.  Reproductions of many old photos, antiques and costumed mannequins are on exhibit depicting the six geographical regions of the county, “Our Towns” – Sonora, Crossroads of Tuolumne County; North to Columbia; Jamestown and the Way West; South of the River; Out to Tuolumne and Up in the Hills.  Other displays contain information on the overland trails across the Sierra Nevada between 1841 and 1860 and pioneer firearms.

History of the Jail

The history of law and order during the Gold Rush mirrored the social, cultural, economic, and political turbulence of the time.  Hoodlums seeking their share of the gold and covered by the cloak of anonymity made targets of travelers and miners.  The absence of social controls and “hometown morality” led the predominantly male society to activities such as gambling, drinking, and prostitution, which often resulted in staggering law enforcement problems.  During the year 1850, at least 30 murders (twelve during one week) took place in the county, which then reported only 8,351 people.

With housing at a premium, detention was improvised by securing prisoners to a chain and locking them around a large oak tree.  Next came the construction of a 20’ X 50’ log building.  The number of escapes indicates that this jail was not secure.  In early 1853, the county purchased a building on the north bank of Sonora Creek, which served as its jail until 1857 when the public demanded something be done to prevent frequent escapes and provide healthier quarters for prisoners.  As a result of the 1856 Grand Jury report, the Board of Supervisors purchased two city lots on which to build a county jail.  B. Stout’s bid for $13,300 was accepted and the work began.  Completed in 1857, the final cost of the jail was $20,186.

On December 20, 1865, the newly built jail was destroyed by a fire set by a prisoner.  Using salvaged material, the present structure was rebuilt by J. D. Patterson for $8,400.  On September 19, 1866, the displaced prisoners were transferred to the new jail by Sheriff Bourland.

The Tuolumne County jail was used continuously from 1857 to 1961.  This is a good example for the type of facility for the incarceration of prisoners during the county’s first hundred years.  Used for its original purpose and limited in the number of its alterations, the Museum serves today as an example of law enforcement and corrections in the no-too-distant past.

The jail is also an example of city and county cooperation to avoid duplication of public services.  The two cell blocks, one of which was divided into two parts, allowed for the incarceration of women and juveniles and also city prisoners as the occasion arose.  This flexibility accommodated all types of prisoners in a single facility with a minimum of supervisory staff.  This supervision included the sheriff and sometimes his deputy, and later, a jailer. 

Family quarters were an important part of this building and demonstrate the degree to which the sheriff or jailer’s family participated in jail life.  In addition to rearing her family and preparing the prisoners’ food, the sheriff or jailer’s wife served as matron for the female prisoners.  In the absence of the deputy, she was keeper of the keys while the sheriff was in the cell blocks.  As was common practice at that time, the sheriff could and did contract to provide food services (prepared by his wife) and maintenance for the jail structure.

Constructed in 1866

The jail walls were constructed using two thicknesses of red brick with criss-crossed iron strips between, and set on a foundation of well laid schist rock.  The jail yard, which served as the prisoners’ exercise yard, was enclosed by a high brick wall.  A contraband wall jutted out to the street on the east side.  Prisoners entered the exercise yard through an iron gate at the west end of the corridor fronting the cell blocks.  A flight of wooden steps led down to the yard below.  All of the doors and windows had iron bars and shutters to provide security and air.  The front of the jail opened out into the booking hall which divided the living quarters into two parts.  The living/dining room, kitchen, and porch were on the west side of the booking hall and the bedrooms were on the east side.

The entrance to the cell blocks was located in the narrow corridor behind the present exhibit gallery.  From this hall, each of the two cell blocks could be closed off by iron doors and gates which had heavy locks.  A wicket was cut into each iron door, which allowed for the passage of goods and other supplies to the prisoners.  The length of each cell block was open space ending in a sink.  This allowed half of the cell block to be used for recreation purposes.  On each of the outside walls were constructed five cells.  In the west block, the cells had barrel ceilings and narrow windows opening above the jail yard fifteen feet below.  Two of the cells on this side had iron rings in the floor to which unruly prisoners could be shackled.  In the hall fronting the cell blocks was a heavy iron crank, which turned a rod above the cell doors to provide a simple lock-down system.  On this rod was mounted heavy iron claws, which descended when the crank was turned and clamped each door firmly shut. 

Three cells in the east block had large windows and were used for women and juveniles.  The last two cells were reserved for prisoners from the City of Sonora, and these were separated by a wooden wall with a stout door.  All walls were regularly coated with lime to eliminate the problem of lice.  Water for the jail was supplied by a well in the yard until 1858 when water was furnished by the Gold Mountain Water Company.

At some point, a lean-to was added onto the west end of the wooden structure in front of the jail wall.  In 1908, to accommodate the sheriff’s wife, a new bride, the lean-to was replaced by a kitchen, bath, and a back porch which led to the street.  At a later date, a bedroom was added to the front porch when the sheriff’s family outgrew the living quarters.  The roof structure was changed from the original as a result of fire in 1911.  Early photographs show a gabled roof.  Outbuildings housing the sheriff’s team and carriage and storage space were removed from the Jackson Street side of the jail walls in the 1960s.

Conversion to Museum

By 1960, the old jail was obsolete and a new jail was constructed one block to the north.  The space allocated to the County Museum in the Veterans Memorial Hall was being crowded by their office space needs.  At the request of the newly formed Tuolumne County Historical Society, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors designated the old jail as the Tuolumne County Museum.  The existing cell blocks and family quarters were turned into exhibit space and an office.  All objects were transferred from the former museum space at Memorial Hall, and the Tuolumne County Historical Society became the steward of the County History Collection.  This same building, which faithfully protected the citizens from the acts of human misfits, now houses displays illustrative of Tuolumne County’s colorful history.  Since its inception, the Museum Board of Governors has overseen extensive reconstruction of the building, construction of the History Center building, the installation of a community-use courtyard in the former exercise yard, and development of an old fashioned garden.  The History Center stores that portion of the County History Collection not on display and provides work space for volunteers.  The collection includes thousands of documents, a library and photographs, which are made available to a variety of users.