Jail for sale: Bledsoe County seeks buyer for 172-year-old jail

Staff Photo by Ben Benton / The 1851 Bledsoe County Jail on Frazier Street in Pikeville, Tennessee, is up for sale. The jail, the oldest operating jail in the state when it was closed in 2007, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

PIKEVILLE, Tenn. — If you've been looking but just haven't been able to find the right jail to buy, a cool $300,000 could get you into an 1851-era little fixer-upper in Pikeville, Tennessee.

The Bledsoe County Commission voted in July to sell the county's historic, 172-year-old lockup on Frazier Street — at one time Tennessee's oldest operating jail — and the county is taking bids on the old, house-like facility that was shuttered 16 years ago following a state fire marshal inspection. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

"The veterans have been using it for several years but no longer have a need for it," Bledsoe County Mayor Gregg Ridley said Wednesday in an email.

Interested parties can send sealed offers to Ridley's office by Aug. 21 with a minimum bid requirement of at least $300,000, he said. The county mayor's office is at 3150 Main St., and the mailing address is P.O Box 149, Pikeville, Tennessee, 37367.

The old jail fell short of most standards for decades, and it had never been state-certified, according to historical documents.

"The facility was built to house nine prisoners and two more in the drunk tank, but until 2007, it was not uncommon to have 20 inmates on the first floor and 20 inmates on the second floor," Ridley said. "Forty prisoners were sharing two showers and four toilets; there was no kitchen. The state closed the facility in 2007, forcing the sheriff to transport all prisoners to other countries."

Bledsoe's current jail opened in 2011 as the first in the county to meet the minimum standards of the Tennessee Corrections Institute, newspaper archives show. The institute is the state agency that sets minimum standards for jails, conducts inspections and provides recommendations.

The old jail, meanwhile, continues to age.

"In the early years, the sheriff and his family were provided living quarters on the second floor," Ridley said. "There is an engraved rock showing the remodel in 1937. Then in the 1980s, Bledsoe County was under a federal lawsuit to remodel the jail, which included removing the old bars and placing concrete beds and showers in the jail."


Prisoners barred

'The old jail was closed down in May 2007 following a visit by state fire inspectors. That day, 22 inmates were loaded into vans to go to their new quarters in neighboring Sequatchie County, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press archives.

Once the old jail was closed, all of Bledsoe's inmates housed in other counties had to be transported back and forth for court appearances, adding fuel and labor costs to the $17-$18 a day other jails were charging to hold each Bledsoe inmate

About $6,500 worth of work was done in 2012 so the county's Veterans Service Office could move in and maintain the building, according to archives. In 2010, the county got a $17,000 Historic Preservation Fund grant to restore much of the downstairs back to its original brick walls and wood floors.

Long history

The jail was built 44 years after the county was founded in 1807 at a cost of $1,500, and National Register documents are peppered with the misdeeds of murderers, thieves, moonshiners and a bloody feud that spanned decades.

According to early records of the Bledsoe County Court — what today would be called the County Commission — debt, assault and battery, public drunkenness and various property disputes were among the most common offenses, National Register documents state. Murder was a rare charge in Bledsoe County, and most major offenders found guilty in Bledsoe County were sent to jails in Dayton, Athens, Crossville or Cookeville.

From the 1890s until the 1930s, members of the Swafford and Tollett families often frequented local courts and the Bledsoe County Jail stemming from a family feud that was said to have had its roots in divided loyalties during the Civil War, documents state. The feud escalated in the presidential election of November 1892 when Bill Tollett reportedly fired a shot at Aaron Swafford outside of the Old Hall in the community of Melvine, and a shootout erupted leaving Aaron Swafford's son dead and several wounded on both sides. Bill Tollett was later found not guilty of the killing.

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After more than 10 years of dormancy, the feud blazed again in 1904 and lasted throughout the 1920s, documents state. The Swafford brothers, Charley, Sam and Ease, avenged the death of Aaron, shooting Bill Tollett to death in 1905. The three brothers were sent to the Bledsoe County Jail briefly before being sent to the larger jail in Dayton. Charley Swafford was later convicted and sentenced to life in state prison but was released after 15 years. Afterward, the feud continued throughout the 1910s and 1920s, mostly in the courtroom with family land disputes.

In the 1920s, local resident Major Swafford, also known as the "King Bee," was arrested several times and served time in the Bledsoe County Jail for producing moonshine, according to documents. Officers in a raid on his moonshine operation in February 1922 found a 90-gallon still and 1,500 gallons of beer. In the early 1930s, Swafford was arrested again with a 40-gallon still and 1,000 gallons of beer.

Improvements through the years

The jail needed major improvements as it neared its 90th birthday.

In 1937, a rear addition was constructed to accommodate more inmate cells and office space for jailers, documents state. With a 50% funding match of $3,000 from the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Bledsoe County Court members approved $3,000 in local money to finish the project.

When it was completed, a commemorative engraved stone was centrally installed on the building's front parapet wall when natural stone was added, documents state. The jail again underwent interior updates in the 1970s, and a federal lawsuit in 1992 forced major renovations in 1994 with a price tag of about $400,000. The last $42,000 payment on that update was made in 2016, five years after the county's new jail opened.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569.