Two old jail cells sit on the grounds of the Van Wert County Historical Museum. (DHI Media/Jim Langham)
Two old jail cells sit on the grounds of the Van Wert County Historical Museum. (DHI Media/Jim Langham)

VAN WERT – Two old jail cells on the grounds of the Van Wert County Historical Museum represent the history of law enforcement justice in the county. The sign beside the cells indicate that they belong to the jail county law enforcement used to punish crime between the years of 1891 and 1989.

Current Sheriff Thomas Riggenbach detailed a history of law enforcement in which he included historical documentation of county jails over the years.

Riggenbach’s history states that the county’s first jail was issued as an order by county commissioners in 1838. Under the leadership of the county’s first sheriff, William Major, (paid $2 a week), the contract was issued to Jesse King of Mercer County to be built on or before Nov. 1, 1839, at a cost of $483. Money for the facility was to come from the sale of lots in Van Wert. The first jail was built next to the courthouse with one side occupied by the sheriff and his family.

“The jail was built of hewed logs, the sides having three thickness, the middle ties being upright,” recorded Riggenbach. “The door was a heavy wooden one, with the outside covered with sheet iron. As the lumber dried out, the logs could easily be pried apart so that escape was very easy.”

“Many instances occurred when a prisoner would crawl out of the jail through the logs during the night, go to a saloon and spend the night, and then crawl back into the jail before daybreak,” recorded the Sheriff.

Finally, in January of 1861, the local residents approved the construction of a new jail at a bid of $6,356 to be given to S.F. Fletcher for the building of the second jail. This one was constructed of brick and stood close to the courthouse. A year later, a second floor, including sheriff quarters, was added to the facility.

The second jail served the community for the next 27 years, but in 1888, it was deemed unsuitable as many escape attempts were pursued due to the worsening condition of the building. In 1891, the voters said yes to a new jail. In 1892, the third jail of Van Wert County, the one bearing the Historical Society cells, was completed.

“In 1980, there were still problems with the jail situation. The old jail, built in 1891, had been in disrepair for several years. Prisoners were transported to different locations. For years the county commissioners had spoken of a new jail but it had been turned down by voters,” recorded Riggenbach. “In March of 1980, the state ordered the jail closed.”

When Van Wert County Sheriff Stan Owens took office in 1989, he had his work cut out with the demolition of the old jail plus the work it took the commissioners to get the money together for a new facility.

Riggenbach noted that the construction of the new jail consisted of two phases, the acquisition of the Traditions Restaurant property at a cost of $665,374.28. Phase II was the construction of the 82 bed facility in 1997 and 1998 at a cost of $3,796,700.96, with a total of state grant money funding of $1,625,000 and the residents of the county left with their portion of $1,871,700.90.

“The new jail facility was opened in September, 1998, with a mortgage burning held on Feb. 17, 1999 as the new Van Wert County Correctional Facility was paid off,” indicated Riggenbach.