|City/Town: • El Reno
|Location Class: • Jail
|Built: • 1907 | Abandoned: • 1986
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places (November 14, 1985)
|Status: • Abandoned • Endangered
|Photojournalist: • Michael Schwarz • Emily Cowan
In March 1905, the Commercial Club submitted a petition to the County Commissioners requesting a new county jail. A month later a resolution was passed to erect a brand new jail but the location was not solidified yet. Architectural drawings submitted by Solomon Andrew Layton, in partnership with W. J. Riley, were accepted. Contractor A.C. Kreipke was hired to construct the $18,000 stone structure. Taking on a Doric design the front of the building seems to be something you would see in Washington rather than Oklahoma making it a structure to boast about throughout the county.
The two-story, T-shaped floor plan allowed for plenty of space for inmates and a sheriff’s office. The building had such a magnificent look to it that Fort Worth officials visited the building and vowed to build a similar design for their jail. A single brick chimney penetrates the composition shingled roof but needs to be repaired. On the first floor, there are two detention rooms one for men and one for women, the walls still depicting the graffiti from both. Originally the holdover had six cells for the prisoners with doors that open and close using switch bars in the hallways. Cages from the previous jail were moved and able to be reused in the building. The cell bars and outer windows are made of three layers of chilled steel and three layers of iron to ensure no escapes. The second-story jailer’s office offered a perfect view of the cells and prisoners. Even during the night, bright lights lit the facility to allow for 24/7 watch.
It was very early on that the jail started suffering from overcrowding. Just two years after its opening, a newspaper article reported 27 prisoners in the jail when it was only fit to hold 24. New cells were ordered at once to bring the capacity up to 48. Built during the times of segregation, it was originally intended to have separate quarters for African Americans and Caucasians. Due to the overcrowding, it became apparent very early on that the cells could not be segregated and were integrated to allow for full use of all wards. Even then it seemed like over the next half a century the median inmate population stayed steady at 40-50. Although former sheriffs and jailers remember quite a few times when there would be upwards of 70 inmates in the jail at once. It was definitely less than roomy in the confined spaces.
Inmate Elwin F. Allen
One of the most infamous stories of an inmate to come from this jail is that of Elwin F. Allen. Now the reason he ended up in this Canadian County Jail was for a charge of second-degree burglary after stealing clothing. This charge is nothing to do with why his story made news nationwide.
On Sept. 14, 1922, Rev. Edward Wheeler Hall and Mrs. Eleanor Mills were murdered near Brunswick New Jersey. The murder was plastered in newspaper headlines all across the county with detectives frantic for answers. Three persons were charged and would go to trial for the murders leaving the confession that would come on April 18, 1928, by Allen stumping investigators.
Elwin F. Allen was serving his sentence at the Canadian County Jail when he underwent a conversion to Christianity through a religious meeting in the jail. This conversion is what allegedly prompted him to confess his sins from years prior. With pen and paper in hand, he began writing the details of the murder claiming to have been paid $7,000 by an Elizabeth, New Jersey dentist, allegedly a relative of the female victim, to carry out the crime. He continued, implicating his wife in the crime as well, detailing that she held Mrs. Mills while Elwin shot her. He also gave Sheriff Morrison the name of his other accomplice but it was not immediately made public. Authorities while double-checking his confession to corroborate his story found a handful of discrepancies. He said the dentists’ reasoning for wanting them dead was they had tarnished the family name with their love affair.
It was only a few days later after further questioning that Elwin Allen admitted his hoax. His entire confession was made up. The reason he gave for doing such a thing was that his current theft charge left him worried he would end up at the Mcalester Oklahoma Prison again which he deeply feared. With his confession, he hoped he would be transferred back to New Jersey to serve his sentence there.
Also constructed just behind the jail was a brick stable building to allow the Sheriff to keep his horses safe and secure. The rise of automobiles throughout the 1920s made the need for an entire stable for horses unnecessary. The building underwent a renovation in 1923 to become more of a garage and allow for the parking of vehicles. During the 1970s an addition was added that connected the jail to the stables.
In 1925 the jail underwent a thorough cleaning and repainting of the interior. All of the labor was done by the prisoners of course. The cleaning would assist in the jail being ranked 2nd in the entire state. The jail was oftentimes used, when the space allowed for it, as an overflow for the Oklahoma City Jail. During the 1950s another exterior addition was constructed to provide more office space. This space held the county offices and the Sheriff’s office up until its closing.
The jail carried on as most jails do with regulars in and out of its doors. Some escaping, some never coming back, the usual jail process. Due to changing federal regulations, the second floor was ordered to be shut down by state health officials in October 1982 due to its lack of fire escape access. It wasn’t long after the new county jail was opened and all inmates were transferred and kept there. The building continued to house county offices until October 1986 when they left the premises leaving the building’s fate undecided. One last thing to occur before its vacancy was the Canadian County Jail was listed on the NRHP on November 14, 1985. This makes the building eligible for historic tax credits if it were to be renovated.
Restoration Efforts of the El Reno Jail
After its official closure when the property was entirely vacated the building was used here and there for storage. Mostly contraband that had been confiscated by county officials until proper disposal could be carried out for each of the items. It was only a few years later that use of the building ceased and the structure was left fully abandoned.
In 1991 the community and preservation societies started to call attention to the blighted structure. Many wanted to see it saved and repurposed because of its architectural significance and local historical value. This started with removing the addition to the building that connected it to the stables to bring it back to its original blueprint. And almost as if to bring the story semi-full circle most of the demo work was done by prisoners and people given community service as their punishment.
Back then the renovation was estimated at around $550,000, it has been allowed to deteriorate much more now and that figure has probably doubled. But it is structures like these that make our country what it is. Preservation El Reno Inc. has worked hard to fight for the preservation of this building and as of 2022 is exploring bids for the building to get a new roof to prevent further deterioration.
Gallery Below of Canadian County Jail
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