Highway 6: Historic steel bars of old Pender Co. Jail hold decades of slammer stories

Published: Jun. 14, 2019 at 7:28 PM EDT
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BURGAW, N.C. (WECT) - At first glance, the building under the Burgaw water tower looks like any other.

But look again. Steel bars cover the top floor windows, evidence this isn’t just an ordinary structure.

“The building has been used for tourism, the Blueberry Festival, and also for the Town of Burgaw,” said Burgaw Town Manager James Gantt.

The modern downstairs office space was damaged during Florence, giving way to the building’s past.

“After Florence, there was some water damage done from the rain we received. There was no physical flooding here, it was all rainwater that damaged this building. It’s an old building so there’s cracks and leaks here and water got between the walls so we’ve had to remove walls to get to where the water damage was and remediate that,” Gantt said.

The upstairs though, has essentially remained untouched since 1979.

“This is completely how it was left. There really hasn’t been a lot of cleaning or upkeep up here,” said Gantt.

Above the office space, the Old Pender County Jail holds the history of murderers, thieves, and the family that once lived below them.

“1923 was when the previous Pender County Jail was condemned. In May of 1924, the new jail had begun being built, which is the building we are currently standing in. And it opened in 1925 in February and cost about $35,000 to build,” Gantt said.

The jail housed up to 21 prisoners. There was a large cell that held 14 beds, one with two beds, and one isolated room. Female inmates had their own corridor.

“The downstairs was the location where the jailer, the one who was assigned to manage and keep the prisoners upstairs, them and their family lived downstairs. They would cook and do laundry for the prisoners who were housed upstairs,” he said.

Growing up below a jail inevitably leads to lots of stories. Many of them now ingrained in the town’s history.

“From some of the stories, I’ve heard even the kids would get to know the prisoners and back in those days some days they would not even lock the doors to the cells. A little bit different than it is now,” Gantt said.

There were even a few attempted jail breaks over the years. In 1975, three inmates stole a sheriff’s deputy’s gun, firing shots at another deputy through a steel door. Those bullet holes, still very much untouched, just like everything else. After a brief standoff, the inmates quietly returned to their cells.

In 1979, the jail was closed due to overcrowding and Pender County put it up for auction with the intention of demolishing it if they did not receive any bids.

They did not, but the town of Burgaw eventually obtained ownership of the building.

The public is locked out of the building that kept prisoners locked up, but Gantt hopes that will change someday.

“I would love to see us do something up here but the cost it would take to renovate up here is not something we can do at this point,” he said.

For now, the historic heavy steel bars will remain untouched, holding in decades of slammer stories and big house history.

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