Old Porter ‘hoosegow’ still stands

Inside the historic Porter Jail. Photo by Scott Thoma

With a population slightly under 200, Porter isn’t exactly a mecca for sightseers. But tucked away in this modest community 11 miles west of Minneota stands a small brick building, no bigger than a one-stall garage, that has significant historical value.

In 1898, 17 years after Porter was incorporated as a village, citizens were determined that there was a need to construct a “hoosegow,” a popular term for jail in those days, because of the abundance of drunk and disorderly conduct that was occurring at the saloon and dance hall in town. The thought was that these rogues needed to be sent to an adult “timeout” room to cool off and/or to sleep off their inebriation.

The resolution was adopted and approved by a council on April 11, 1898. But the construction of the jail didn’t come to fruition until five years later when Frank Johrn proposed a $730 bid to build the jail. That bid was readily accepted, and the hoosegow was soon built.

It didn’t take volunteer workers very long to assemble the 17’ x 20’ building made of red brick and mortar on Park Avenue. The building consisted of three double-hung windows with iron bars that faced north, south and west. There was just one door that faced east and was made of steel and also included an iron strap-bar inner door to allow air into the cells on hot days.

Inside were two small rooms with cells that could house two prisoners each. Each cell included two bunk-style hinged iron beds. A wood stove in each room would keep the prisoners warm in the winter months.

The Porter Jail was built more than 110 years ago. Photos by Scott Thoma

On some weekends, all four of the sleeping berths were filled. Some prisoners were released without being fined in the morning, while others that were more unruly would stay locked up until a justice of the peace could impose a sentence and/or fine.

“They had a part-time policeman that lived in town and would be on duty during the weekend,” recalled Mavis Anderson, 93, who has lived in Porter her entire life. “I think he was plenty busy. There was a dance hall above the hardware store years ago. If someone had too much to drink and got mean, they would be thrown in jail.”

According to Yellow Medicine County records, the iron doors of the jail cells clanged shut for the last time in 1957, although the jail was used periodically for things other than housing prisoners for a few years after that.

A sample of a constable’s ticket from the early days shows some of the problems the police had to deal with in those days. Photos by Scott Thoma

“Many years ago when they had softball tournaments during Harvest Festival there would be a lot of ballplayers in town and some of them needed a place to stay,” said Ruth VanHyfte, 85, who has resided in Porter for the past 37 years. “So they would let them sleep in the jail like a little hotel.”

But time eventually took a toll on the mortar and bricks of the little hoosegow. A gaping hole developed in the back of jail, and the ceiling was in need of repair. Unless something was done, it would soon become dilapidated, taking history with it.

The city council decided to preserve the jail, and renovations were soon underway. The city of Porter was awarded a “Celebrate Minnesota” grant and also received financial assistance from the Porter Town and Country Club and Lutheran Brotherhood funding.

One of the first orders of business came in 1989 when a cottonwood tree was transplanted behind the jail. That tree was intended to replicate a massive cottonwood tree that stood by itself on the outside edge of town. Porter was originally called “Lone Tree” because settlers knew they were getting close to town when they spotted that tree.

Porter was once called “Lone Tree” because of a landmark cottonwood tree. Photos by Scott Thoma

A metal sign that stands in front of the tree reads: “On the banks of the north branch of the Yellow Medicine River and near the railroad right-of-way stood a lone cottonwood. That tree marked the mail drop for early settlers. The town was later named for L.C. Porter, whose milling company was Porter’s first business in 1881. This cottonwood tree was transplanted in 1989 from an area outside of Porter to symbolize the original tree which was struck by lightening (sic) in the 1950s.”

A few years after the tree was replanted, the hole in the east side of the jail was repaired and then the entire building was tuckpointed. Inside, the ceiling was repaired and texture sprayed, walls were replastered, and new windows and a door were installed.

Hedges were also planted that ran parallel with the south and east sides of the building. A picnic shelter was built on the north side of the jail.

Not long after those repairs and additions, a young man named John Bruns was attempting to become an Eagle Scout. He had always been fascinated with the jail. As his Eagle service project in 1993, Bruns, the grandson of Mavis Anderson, decided to complete the restoration of the jailhouse.

Porter was once called “Lone Tree” because of a landmark cottonwood tree. Photos by Scott Thoma

“I grew up outside of Porter and had seen the jail many times when I was in town,” said Bruns, who is now a surveyor for Bohler Engineering in Manassas, Va. “So I decided to restore it for my project.”

The restoration project was inexpensive due to the ability of Bruns to recruit volunteers and entice donations. Several of the Boy Scouts in his troop helped paint the inside walls white, while also giving the two cells a new coat of black paint. Peterson Construction poured a concrete sidewalk in front of the jail at no cost.

“I got to talk to the former Porter constable (a peace officer with limited policing authority, typically in a small town) when I was working on my project,” said Bruns. “His name was Frank Gosslar, and he has since passed. But he donated his police hat and billy club for the jail.”

Also currently inside the jail is an original wood stove, a chemical toilet, and dishes and silverware that were donated to Bruns. A glass showcase anchored to the outside of one of the cells includes a brief story about the jail, witness summons, and police tickets that were used in the 1940s.

A sign sits outside the jail that reads: Porter Jail, Built in 1898 (it was actually proposed in 1898 and built in 1903), Restored in 1993. It is the oldest existing jail in Yellow Medicine County.

There is no police force in Porter anymore. Instead, it relies on the Yellow Medicine County Sheriff’s Department to enforce the law.

“Porter is a nice little town,” said Anderson. “We don’t have much trouble here anymore.”

But just in case, the jail still stands.

#hoosegow #Minnesota #Porter

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