by BRENDA STEWART
It’s hard to imagine now, but Kyle used to be a rollicking little frontier town with saloons and regular drunken brawls in the streets. According to the local history books, as the new town of Kyle grew it garnered the reputation as one of the wildest towns in the area.
To counter the raucous behavior, in August 1884 the Hays County Commissioners Court decided Kyle needed a lockup and moved in one of the old cells from the county jail in San Marcos. Hauling it just north of the 4-way stop at Center St. and old Hwy. 81 downtown Kyle, the two-room jail baked in the sun, detaining prisoners for 40 years or so.
Unfortunately, according to Hays Free Press publisher Bob Barton, the jail has a bitter history of housing an inordinate amount of black and Hispanic people, with justice being meted out by a predominantly white legal establishment. It’s interesting to note that the jail was known as a calaboose, often described as the Spanish word for jail. More accurate, however, is the word cárcel, the actual Spanish term for a jail or prison. Ironically, the term calaboose offers a much more accurate description of the barren enclosure, the word being derived from the Spanish word calabozo which means dungeon.
The jail was utilized until 1925 and then sat empty until the ’60s. A historic photograph shows the jail, tattered and rough-hewn, during a local election in the 1950s sporting the banner “Kyle Jail in 1896. Not used since Kyle voted dry,” thumbing its nose at folks who continue, to this day, to seek more lenient liquor laws in town.
Aquarena Springs Amusement Park bought the jail and it became part of Texana Village in 1964. After the park was sold to Texas State University 30 years later, the jail languished until, at the last hour, a group called Preservation Associates rescued this rickety piece of Kyle history and moved it to the Old Jailhouse grounds in San Marcos. And there it sat for seven years until that project’s renovation necessitated yet another move for the little jail, and it was relocated to the grounds of the San Marcos Academy.
After being nominated by the Hays County Historical Commission last October, Preservation Texas, a statewide partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, named the Kyle jail to its ninth annual list of Texas’ Most Endangered Historic Places, breathing life into an effort to save historic structures in small towns.
“During the Civil War there was a particular type of construction called cribbing that resembles the construction of the wooden jail, so it may be even older and more rare than we originally knew. It could be the only one of its kind left in Texas,” said Kate Johnson, historical commission president.
It’s been an interesting life for the wooden relic whose demise would have seemed inevitable in the 85 years since it lost its original purpose. But thanks to the tenacity of some sturdy hand-forged nails and a group of folks driven to preserve Hays County history, the Kyle jail survived.
Johnson added, “We had been focused on the stone jail [in San Marcos] and we wanted to make people aware of this little wooden jail. They’ve given it to the Hays County Historical Commission, so we’re looking for ways to raise the funds to restore it and then we can show it off.”
And so it sits, lopsided and lazing in the sun in a field next to an old Ford Falcon and a rusty red gas pump. The tiny jail looking a bit like the town drunks it housed a century ago, snaggletoothed and weathered but ready for whatever curve life throws it.
BRENDA STEWART is features editor for the Hays Free Press where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Free Press and the San Marcos Mercury.Email | Print