If it isn’t the ugliest jail structure west of the Mississippi, it probably ranks among the top ten. Its walls are poured concrete; its lower door is metal; and its boxy shape is (as one writer politely put it) “devoid of architectural detail or ornamentation.” Inside, the jail saved space by giving prisoners the penitential equivalent of Murphy beds: fold-down bed frames made of steel.
Douglas County shelled out just $25 for Louis Springmeyer to draw up the plans in 1910 (and some might argue that was too generous.) But believe it or not, the Gardnerville Branch Jail holds a coveted position on the National Register of Historic Places. And there’s a perfectly fabulous story filled with politics, positioning and power behind how this tiny small-town jail came to be built!
Segue back in time to the year 1910, when Genoa was the official county seat and boasted the only county jail. Roads were primitive and automobiles were few, but crime was an equal opportunity occupation. So although Gardnerville had its own share of criminals, it had no convenient hoosegow in which to house them.
L.S. Ezell, East Fork Justice Court judge since 1884, had come up with a makeshift solution: he allowed constables to use his Gardnerville granary building to lock up offenders when needed. This may have been convenient but it wasn’t such a grand idea from the prisoners’ point of view; the local newspaper called the granary a “vile hole” and “no fit place for a human being.”
Opportunity for a better solution knocked when Judge Ezell finally retired in 1909 after some 25 years on the bench, and thoughtfully donated the granary property to the county. Local citizens petitioned the commissioners to build a new and improved branch jail in its stead. It seemed like a grand plan. But politics is a tricky thing.
Eager for the new town of Minden not to be left in the dust, H.F. Dangberg, Jr. launched a counter-petition to protest against building the jail in its competitor, Gardnerville. And when the County commissioners formally took up the issue in April, 1910, local heavyweights William Dressler and H. Park joined Dangberg in the protest.
As government officials so often do, the beleaguered commissioners listened politely — and went right ahead with their original plans. Approval was given to build a one-story jail. And as government officials also frequently do, they quickly expanded the project to make it two stories, adding a courtroom on the top floor.
Now that there was to be a new branch jail, an official branch jailer would also be required. Albert Daudel was hired for the post, at $2 per day — upped to $4 on more arduous days when he’d oversee a chain gang fixing county roads.
Although Genoa wasn’t eager to relinquish its time-honored post as the County seat, Fate had other ideas. On June 28, 1910, much of that town was destroyed by fire — a loss that included the County’s main jail and courthouse. Luckily only one prisoner was being housed in Genoa’s jail at the time. It is said he was “chained to a post” until he could be moved to the still-under-construction branch jail in Gardnerville.
Within just a few more years, Minden succeeded in wresting away the crown of County seat. And by 1916, a brand new County courthouse was erected there which included jail cells in the basement. Officially, all county prisoners were now supposed to be incarcerated at Minden and, officially, the Gardnerville branch jail was discontinued. But for reasons of economy, convenience, habit, or perhaps lingering tensions between the two towns, Gardnerville’s old branch jail continued to be used for prisoners well into the 1950s.
As the National Register listing description put it in 2003, the old Gardnerville jail remains “an excellent example of turn-of-the-century jail architecture,” with its steel cages, large hasps and padlocks, bull pen and woodstove still intact.
Those poured-concrete, steel-reinforced walls may be plenty ugly. But they certainly were practical; they successfully kept Gardnerville’s prisoners “from digging through the barriers as they had in Genoa’s brick jail.”
It’s not a museum — yet. But you can check out the exterior of the Gardnerville Branch Jail at 1440 Courthouse Street, Gardnerville, Nevada.