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A brief history of a very small jail

CAMP VERDE - When Mac Rodgers and Clinton Wingfield were murdered in 1899, half the neighborhood went in search of the man responsible.

The chase ranged as far as New Mexico and lasted over a month. But in the end they came up empty. Had they got their man, however, it is worth noting there would have been no jail, at least in Camp Verde, to lock him up.

Ten years earlier, the citizens of lower Verde lost their jail privileges when the military packed up and left Fort Verde. Up until 1889, they had freely availed themselves of the fort's guardhouse.

The guardhouse, like so many of the abandoned buildings at the post, was eventually appropriated by the locals and given a new life. It became a hay and grain storage building for the Wingfield General Store.

For the next 44 years, peace officers were forced to take their prisoners to other communities, mostly Jerome, if they wanted them kept behind bars.

Then in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, federal money started making its way to Yavapai County. One of the first projects to receive funding from Roosevelt's first major relief effort, the Civil Works Administration, was a new jail for Camp Verde.

From late December 1933 to early February 1934, a crew of 10 men, under the direction of Prescott stonemason Elmer Brennen, constructed a 20-by-28 foot stone and concrete building adjacent to the old fort.

The building had poured concrete walls and a fascia of river rock. It was a Spartan structure with two cells and a small room in the front that was used for court sessions.

By all accounts it served the community well.

The list of those who held the keys includes Bill Goswick, Claude McCracken, Shorty Rice, Aubrey Tompkins, Jack Reeves and Gail Back.

Tap Parsons, who served as a deputy sheriff from 1958 to 1966, was the last law enforcement officer to utilize the old jail.

"It wasn't a very busy place when I first started," Parsons says. "For the most part we locked up the drunks -- not for being drunk, but for disturbing the peace."

According to Parsons, in those days there was a little different attitude about police work than what exist today.

"Our job was to keep the peace. The objective was to prevent things from happening, not to lock people up," he says. "To do that you sometimes had to be a little creative."

Nevertheless, Parsons says, plenty of folks spent a night or two in the jail. For the most part they stayed just long enough to sober up and go before the judge.

"If they were sentenced to any amount of time they went to Prescott. The most time they might have spent in the jail was five days," Parsons says.

And, according to Parsons, it wasn't just town folks who were locked up.

"One time I had a guy who raised pigs just down the road from the jail. He wasn't doing a very good job of keeping them locked up so I went to pay him a visit one day.

"While I was there explaining to him about his responsibility to keep them in their pens, one of them got loose. I grabbed the pig by the leg and hauled him off to jail."

The lock-up worked, says Parsons. He never had a problem with loose pigs again. As for the pig, it made a mess of the jail. Two unlucky prisoners who shared their night in jail with the pig were made to clean up the mess the next day, before they were released.

"I don't think I ever had to lock them up again either," Parsons says.

As a deputy sheriff, Parsons covered an area running from Camp Verde to halfway to Sedona and Cottonwood, and included Fossil Creek and Cherry. He supplied his own car, received 10 cents a mile in compensation and $300 a month pay.

His prisoners enjoyed the same benefits of thriftiness consistently displayed by the county supervisors. They shared a lone toilet, slept on a metal bunk and were fed one meal a day -- a hamburger and a Coke.

In the early 1960s business at the two-cell jail outgrew capacity. Parsons and a committee that including Bill Tissaw, Bill Gray, Wid Fuller and Kenny Wingfield drew up a plan for a new facility.

However, their efforts to convince the frugal Yavapai County Board of Supervisors of the need didn't go according to plan, until they enlisted the help of a sympathetic county supervisor in Coconino County.

The Coconino County supervisor threatened to hold up funding for a road-building project between the two counties until the Yavapai County supervisors agreed to build a new jail in Camp Verde.

Once the old stone jail was abandoned, the citizens of Camp Verde, always resourceful when presented with a leftover building, gave it a new life. It became the Camp Verde library.

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