Group Raises Cash for Virginia Jail

A group is trying to raise money for the Old Pauley Jail in Bowling Green, Va., where Wilt Chamberlain ?spent the worst night of [his] life."

Credit: Carolyn Roth

In Bowling Green, Va., people are fighting to get into the local jail, not out of it. On Saturday a local preservation group held its first fundraiser to benefit the Old Pauley Jail Project. Proceeds will go toward restoring the structure, vacant for seven years, so that it can open to the public.

"Strange as it sounds, I think there's a real fondness for the jail in town," says Carolyn Roth, vice president of the 25-member group Citizens for Caroline Historic Preservation. "When it is open for the public to see, there are lines and lines of people. The building is just too important to lose."

Bowling Green bought its prefabricated jail in 1900 from the Pauley Jail Building and Manufacturing Company. Based in St. Louis, the factory was famous for supplying towns across America with a do-it-yourself kit. Factory workers in Missouri would fabricate and partially assemble steel boxes, then ship them to their destinations, where buyers would finish assembly and add an exterior. Bowling Green built a red-brick facade on its two-story building to mirror its nearby 1835 Jeffersonian courthouse.

The small town's jail made history several times. In 1958, Mildred Dolores Jeter, a woman of African and Native-American descent, and Richard Loving, a white man, were married in Washington D.C. When they returned home to Virginia, which banned interracial marriages, local Sheriff Garnet Brooks arrested the couple in the middle of the night. They were eventually tried in the Old Courthouse and charged under Section 20-58 of the Virginia Code, which prohibited interracial couples who had been married out of state from returning to Virginia. The couple pleaded guilty and were exiled from the state. When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling in 1967, Loving v. Virginia became a landmark case in the Civil Rights Movement. But perhaps the Old Pauley Jail's most famous inmate was Wilt Chamberlain, who was arrested for speeding and held overnight. Later, the legendary basketball player allegedly recalled, "I spent the worst night of my life in the rat-infested jail in Bowling Green." Rumor has it that the cell walls still show Chamberlain's inscription, "This jail is a helluva place."

After the jail closed in 1968, Caroline County turned it over to the Caroline Historical Society, which stored and displayed its collection of artifacts there until moving into a new library in 2002.

Citizens for Caroline Historic Preservation recently began leasing the building from the county for $10 a month. At the Apr. 4 fundraiser, it raised $1,000, which will go toward a study of the structure's condition. Much of the exterior mortar and brick are crumbling, and while the interior is sound, it is covered with plywood.

At the "Antiques Roadshow"-type fundraiser, people were invited to bring their antiques to be appraised by local experts. The next fundraiser, an art and garden walk, is scheduled for May.


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