Vienna, MO

Exploring Maries County's historic jail and sheriff's residence: built in the 1850s and now a museum

CJ Coombs

Correction: spelling of two names needed to be corrected.
Maries Jail and Sheriff's House in Vienna, Missouri.Photo byTheCatalyst31, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Maries County Jail and Sheriff’s House located in Vienna, Missouri (Maries County) represents a structure that wasn’t uncommon during the mid to late 1800s.

This historic building was constructed between 1856 and 1858. It’s also referred to as the Old Jail Museum. It’s a two-story rectangular building that was made out of native limestone ashlar blocks. 

In 1959, the building was relocated to where it sits today and was converted into a museum. On March 1, 2002, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). 

The building is located at the intersection of Missouri Highway 42 and Mill Street in Vienna. In 1942, the jail was replaced with another facility built under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The building had served as the only law enforcement and detention facility for Maries County.

Due to a fire that occurred in 1868 destroying the Maries County Courthouse, information associated with the organization of government in Maries County or any information relating to the construction of the building isn’t available. 

The Maries County Jail and Sheriff’s Residence is the only remaining physical history of Maries County from when it was established in 1868. Supposedly, the building was constructed by a man named Barnhart. The architect is unknown. Barnhart was paid around $2,500 for his work.

When a county jail had a residence for the sheriff, it was convenient for the sheriff to provide law enforcement in that one location for a county’s rural population. 

This was a relatively simple stone rectangular building that didn’t need any architectural elements. It presented itself as it was — a detention facility. At the time this building was nominated for the NRHP, there were 12 other combination jails with residences on the NRHP in Missouri.

Maries County was part of St. Louis County from 1812 to 1818. Maries County was created on March 2, 1855, and Vienna was named the county seat. The county was named after the Big and Little Maries Rivers that flow through the county. 

The Maries County Jail and Sheriff’s Residence is possibly the earliest combination of jail and residence built between 1856 and 1858. It’s also the only known one that was made of stone. Most of these facilities were constructed after the Civil War from the 1870s to the early 1900s. 

Since the jail/residence was converted into a museum, it has seen visitors from all over. Having the combination building also took away the need for paid jailers which saved the county money. The sheriff and his family lived on the first floor and inmates were on the second floor in cells. 

It wasn’t uncommon for the sheriff’s wife to take care of feeding the prisoners and washing the bedding. Prisoners had to wash their clothing. Back then, most of the inmates were petty criminals. A lot of the inmates had their meals with the sheriff and his family. The family wouldn’t have been exposed to a more dangerous criminal otherwise. 

The inmates performed chores around the jail like cutting grass or chopping wood. Sometimes as odd as it may seem, they would babysit. There was a local inmate named Tade Nelson who, for example, had been locked up for stealing chickens. When Sheriff Bayard Parker’s wife, Oma, had chores to do and her baby was being fussy, she would pass her bundled-up baby into the pass-through for Nelson to babysit while she finished her chores.

At the time the building was being nominated for the NRHP, Marylea Parker Davis, who was the baby referenced above was a resident of the Westphalia Nursing Home. 

During the 1930s, an inmate chiseled out the mortar of a stone and pulled the stone into the cell having it land on his mattress so no one would hear it. The noise from his chiseling was covered up by another inmate playing the violin. He stole a truck from a store proprietor and escaped.

After the inmate was recaptured, the stone block was replaced with cement. 

In 1908, a 17-year-old boy, John Adam King, committed suicide in jail. He was accused of murder, but said he was innocent. He knew there was a lot of evidence against him and he could bear facing the charges. While locked up, he wrote letters to someone he cared for in Vienna. “On the back of one note he left this message to his jailers ‘Boys my razor is pretty sharp.’” (Source.) The boy was found in his cell later with his throat cut. 

Preservation of this property began in 1955. The local residents didn’t want to lose a historic structure, so some managed to pool their funds together to purchase the building so it wouldn’t be destroyed. 

Visit here to see the Maries County Historical Society website on the Old Jail Museum along with some photos. It also includes a link for information if you ever want to schedule a tour. 

Thanks for reading.

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Multi-genre writer and indie author with a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. My working career has been in law firms, and I retired early so I could be a writer all day. You could say I'm from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri because I was born into the Air Force life. I love family, art, reading, history, true crime, travel, and research.

Kansas City, MO

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