Milam County Historical Commission - Milam County, TX
Statue of Ben Milam at Milam County, TX Courthouse
Old Junior High School Building, Rockdale, TX
Milam County Courthouse - Cameron, TX
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Milam County Historical Commission
Milam County, Texas
                       A tale of two calabooses, or is it calabi?
                             Editor's Corner by Mike Brown
                            Rockdale Reporter - 2016-05-19

As was reported in this newspaper last week, Rockdale is getting a new calaboose.

Make that an old calaboose. A calaboose, for those of you who have never seen Gunsmoke,
Bonanza or The Virginian—and by the way, shame on you — is a tiny little jail, more a
place to sleep it off than for longterm incarceration.

There are people who are passionate about preserving them and can tell you just how
many calabooses there are in any given geographical or political area.

In Milam County there are four. They are in Cameron, Gause, Thorndale and Burlington.
We are about to get Burlington’s.

Volunteer historian Jack Brooks arranged with the calaboose’s owners, Billy and Frances
Prescott, to move the 8-by-10-foot, 7-foot high, structure to Rockdale.

Burlington was still a wild-and-wooly town through the first three decades or so of the
20th Century, with a line of saloons that would rival Rockdale’s old “rat row” (Main
between Cameron and Milam Streets).

Billy Prescott told Brooks it was not unusual on Friday and Saturday nights to have the
calaboose overflowing with rowdy drunks from the saloons.

The calaboose was conveniently located right across the street from them.

“He said once the calaboose was full, the sheriff would simply handcuff the ‘overflow’
to a nearby tree until the next morning when they sobered up,” Brooks said.

“Due process” was not a concept which received a great deal of attention in those long-
ago days, apparently.

Rockdale had its own calaboose at 123 West Bell near what is the Noack offices today.

The late Cliff Sims was once quoted as saying he remembered seeing the Rockdale
calaboose as a child in the 1930s.

“It had small windows and you would occasionally see passers-by stop and visit with the
prisoners through those windows,” he said.

“But, really, it was rarely used,” he said.

I never saw the Rockdale calaboose but I have seen the one that still exists in one of
my favorite places, Animas Forks, Colorado. Animas Forks is 11,200 feet up in the
gorgeous San Juan Mountains.

It’s dear to my heart for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it once
housed the highest newspaper in the United States.

In 1882 journalistic entrepreneurs somehow dragged a printing press 20 miles from the
railhead at Silverton and established the Animas Forks Pioneer.

It lasted four years.

Animas Forks finally played out when the gold and silver lodes, which were its reason
to exist, were exhausted. But before it did, that tiny calaboose had one very famous

Jack Dempsey was known as the Manassa Mauler because he was from lofty Manassa,

Until Muhammad Ali, Dempsey was probably the most famous heavyweight fighter who ever
lived. That’s partly because he may have been the hardest puncher ever and partly
because of his style.

Which was, uh, basic.

Dempsey would often go into a saloon and bellow “I can’t sing and I can’t dance but I
can lick any (&*^^&%* in the house.”

And he could, too.

The story goes that Dempsey was in Animas Forks one night, well before he became
heavyweight champ, when he had a little too much to drink.

You can imagine how much damage “the world’s hardest puncher” could have done in one
little mountain town. He got arrested.

And spent the night in the Animas Forks Calaboose.

I’ve also heard that he carved his initials, or his name, into the wall. I’ve been
there but I’ve never seen it.

Now, I want to know two things.

• What lawman arrested a drunk Jack Dempsey and put him in jail!

• Shouldn’t the plural of “calaboose” be “calabi?”


All credit for this article goes to
Mike Brown
and the
Rockdale Reporter