Now that building stabilization, archeological work and restoration of the masonry have wrapped up at the Brentsville Jail, it’s time to start pulling together exhibits to present a historic interpretation of all that happened in the jail during the Antebellum Period and later.
When the final work of installing heating, cooling, electricity, plaster, fireplaces, and doors for the jail cells is completed by the scheduled opening at the end of 2014, visitors will be able to learn of the conditions under which prisoners, mainly slaves, were imprisoned. They’ll be able to see some of the archeological pieces that were found inside the building dating back years preceding the Civil War.
“It will be a museum basically focusing on crime and punishment in the Antebellum Period, which is between1822 and 1861,” said Brendon Hanafin, the County’s Historic Preservation Division Chief. “For us, and the state, that’s an under-interpreted time period. The reason being is that the justice system was primarily slave-based. The slaves were being captured and held in the jail. It was slaves being tried with no representation. Twelve out of the 13 folks hanged there were slaves. We really want to educate people about that period of our history.”
Hanafin said replications of the jail cells, complete with rough timbers and iron, will help with the interpretive mission of the museum. “We’re going to make these rooms so they’re like what they looked like then. They were dark. There was no ventilation. There was no heating, no cooling, little windows, bars on the doors. So you’re going to walk into these things, and you’re going to be immersed in how horrible it would have been to have been in there.”
Artifacts that include everything from children’s toys to soldiers’ boots will be on display at the jail, which was also used as a girls’ boarding school and later as a private residence. “We’re going to talk about what they ate, what they wore. We have coins from way back. We have a Spanish real. We have pottery,” Hanafin said. “There will be a lot of different things for people, but we’ll primarily focus on what we consider to be an untold story in the state, or in the country for that matter.”
Hanafin said the division consulted Carl Lounsbury, the Senior Architectural Historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and researched other jails in the state to determine how an antebellum jail might have looked.
“We know what was there,” Hanafin said. “We also have Dr. Carl Lounsbury, who is the number one expert for jails and courthouses in Virginia. We had him come up and visit us and look at everything.”
The exhibits will span time and represent how the jail was used over the years. “Three of the rooms will have modern exhibits in them. Three of them will be jail cells, and the other two will be post jail time,” Hanafin said.
The project was budgeted at $814,000, which will suffice to complete the restoration work, but will leave the building empty. The Historic Preservation Division is working in cooperation with the Prince William Historic Preservation Foundation to match a $15,000 grant from Bill Olson, who has promised to match donations up to $15,000 to help to finish the project, which started in 2010. The deadline for contributing to the matching fund is Nov. 30, 2013.
Olson said he thought finishing the project was worth the investment. “I think it’s a very significant site. The whole area out there is very significant to Prince William County. This will add to the complex and will increase the significance of the whole Brentsville experience.”
If you are interested in being a part of history and would like to support the restoration work at the jail, please visit the Historic Preservation Foundation’s website at http://www.pwhpf.org.