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Avery County Jail first opened in 1913.
Photo courtesy Michael Hardy



Originally published: 2012-08-16 14:09:40
Last modified: 2012-08-16 14:09:40

Our Avery County: Avery County’s first jailbreak

Michael Hardy / (news@averyjournal.com)

Since Avery County Historical Museum is housed in the old Avery County Jail, the volunteer museum staff members are always looking for stories about the jail, the people who lived there and the people who were incarcerated within its walls. 

Avery County deputy J.K. Waycaster always claimed to have put the first prisoners into the new facility, completed in 1913. According to an interview published in 1971 in Avery Journal, Waycaster believed that being a deputy was the worst job he ever had. He received $1 for each person he incarcerated. There were three that first time: two men arrested for drunkenness, and the third, a woman (his own aunt), arrested for adultery. 

Will Banner was the first jailer at the new facility. On taking the job, he moved his wife and children into the jail with him, as did many of the other jailers, with their wives generally taking the job of cooking the prisoners’ meals.

An online search of Charlotte Observer recently turned up this article, dated March 30, 1913. It is unclear if those malefactors who “broke off the farm” that evening actually included the same ones that Waycaster arrested: neither article uses the names of those incarcerated. Maybe someone has more information on the incident. 

The article in the Observer was entitled: “Not of the Kingdom: Avery County’s First Prisoners are Devoid of Honor.” 

Newland, March 29: Showing an utter lack of appreciation of the honor of being the first guests at a new hostelry – without being charged a cent – and no county spirit whatever, three prisoners, who had been relied upon to furnish the criminal docket of the first term of Avery Superior Court, left their supper almost untouched and went to the woods Wednesday night, leaving disappointed hopes of the citizens of fair, new Newland devastated. 

Jailer Banner had just set the evening meal before his ungracious guests, turning them into the corridor for this purpose, and the moment his back was turned these sons of Belial tied two blankets together and let themselves out a window in the unfathomed shades of a night in the mountains. 

No indignation meeting was held – feelings went too deep for verbal expression in a mixed crowd. It may have been that some were able to fittingly describe the personal habits and makeup of a man that would treat a brand-new jail of a young county that had never held a court, but everybody who publically tried has failed yet.

And snow followed close on their heels and covered up their footprints. Still, they may yet be found in time for court, April 21. 

Those first “ungracious guests” have not been the only ones to take the initiative to escape from the Avery County jail. Such episodes in history are not necessarily evidence that previous members of our local enforcement were lax: it is just that those law enforcement officers were generally dealing with a group of people who had time on their hands, time to plan and plot ways to escape. 

On a couple of occasions, the young children of the deputy who was the jailer served as unwitting accomplices to jailbreaks. Sometimes the well-meaning children gave the key to the prisoners, who then descended the stairs and headed out the front door. At other times, prisoners procured files and cut through the iron bars or locks, headed down the fire escape, or tied blankets together and let themselves out one of the upper story windows. 

Most days, the old Avery County jail sits silent, an important piece of our past. But on the weekends, people visit, looking for pieces of their own pasts, their families or some artifact that makes up one of the many in-depth displays in the museum. In addition, there is sometimes the thunk of school children’s feet on the wooden steps, those fortunate enough to be brought to the museum by their teachers or Scout leaders. Many of these visitors are thrilled at the prospect of getting behind the bars on the second floor, excited about the possibility of being locked up for a few minutes. Though all of these visitors are only temporary visitors, they are usually not in nearly as much of a hurry to leave as were those first “guests.”