The Old Cedar County Jail earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places as the last “mom-and-pop” jail in Iowa. It’s also the official museum for the Iowa State Sheriffs and Deputies Association.
The six-prisoner jail was built in 1892—and amazingly, was used until 2001. It’s attached to the former sheriff’s residence, which dates back to 1855, so the sheriff could keep an eye on the inmates and his wife could feed them.
Keith Whitlatch, the retired county sheriff, met us at the historic hoosegow to show us around. The quaint little lockup depicted in Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, this place is not!
There’s a four-bunk cell, plus a two-bunk maximum-security cell. The bunks are little more than steel shelves attached to the walls. And there’s about as much elbowroom as on a submarine.
Adding to the confined feeling is a steel-plate “lid” covering the cells to prevent prisoners from escaping, although several have tried.
Keith tells of the time two prisoners used three hacksaw blades that had been smuggled in to cut through two bars on a window.
Another time, an inmate—a stranger in town—was caught after burglarizing the house of a local dentist. He overpowered the jailer and, because nobody knew him, he made his escape by joining the posse looking for him!
Despite those jailbreaks, Keith says, “If there was a tornado heading for Tipton, this is where I’d want to be. This place is built solid.”
However, we couldn’t help but ask Keith, “With the cramped quarters and that low, steel ceiling, didn’t this place get hot in the summertime?”
With a wry smile, he explained that the jail was finally air-conditioned in the early 1990s, after a prisoner took the county to court for inhumane conditions. “But we made the prisoners pay for it,” he chuckles, “by garnishing the wages of those who were out during the day on work release!”
This content previously appeared in the popular “Road Trip” series in Our Iowa Magazine. Learn more about the publication at www.OurIowaMagazine.com.