EDINBURG — The 1910 county jail was once a place where individuals would not want to find themselves. Today, the historic building is a source of interest and understanding of the individuals who helped shape South Texas many decades ago.
The jail, which operated from 1910 to 1922, sits on the corner of North Closner Boulevard and East McIntyre Street across from the Hidalgo County Courthouse, and is now part of the Museum of South Texas History.
Its historic doors closed to the public in 2012, but following years of archiving and renovations, the old jail is ready to open its doors once again.
According to the museum’s Chief Executive Officer Francisco Guajardo, there was an awareness by the museum’s leadership that the jail needed significant investments for its restoration. In order to secure the necessary resources, Guajardo said the museum needed to engage in a capital campaign.
“The museum went through this process of identifying the right kind of design company that would help the museum,” Guajardo said. “The museum did identify Pony Allen Studios out of Austin.”
Guajardo said museum staff became content producers in order to research and acquire as much information about the 1910 jail. They probed the archives of the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and many other places in order to find as much granular information for the new exhibits.
It wasn’t until 2019 that work on the old jail was expedited with an anticipated opening in 2020; however the pandemic forced the museum to postpone the jail’s reopening.
Overall, the jail’s restoration cost $3,053,317. Guajardo said the museum had to follow specific guidelines during the restoration due to the jail’s status as a Texas Historical Landmark, which made the restoration more expensive.
“We were ready to open it really in December, but we didn’t until the first Sunday in January,” Guajardo explained. “Because of pandemic public health issues, we needed to have this be very measured, so we opened it up only to friends of the museum on Sundays.”
That was until Thursday, when the museum finally opened again to the general public.
The jail features exhibits that showcase the early days of Hidalgo County’s courthouse and the people who helped establish it. Other exhibits include information about the jail’s first jailer and his wife who served as the jail’s cook, information about the first and only person to be executed at the jail, and a temporary exhibit titled “Faces de la Frontera, 1910-1920,” which showcases the stories of four people who grew up in the area, as well as some pictures donated anonymously of the jail’s time period.
“The jail reflects the time period in which it existed, so the 1910s and the 1920s,” Guajardo said. “We tried our best with the exhibits to reflect the milieu of the time. What were the people like? What were the artifacts?”
Visitors can step into the old jail cells and the hanging gallows and hear sounds depicting what may have been heard during the jail’s heyday. Guajardo said that the jail serves as its own artifact.
Among the jail’s first visitors Thursday were Mayra Muñoz and her uncle Francisco Muñoz. Both are Edinburg natives who are now living in Houston. They said they were unaware of the jail’s reopening and just happened to be visiting the museum, but they both praised the new exhibits.
“There’s so much history in this museum that you don’t see even in school,” Mayra said. “I prefer this museum because it’s less artwork and more about history. It just makes me proud to be from the Valley.”
“I’m retired now, so I have time to look at everything and enjoy it,” Francisco said.
Mayra said she encouraged her uncle to bring his grandchildren to the museum and share his stories about growing up in Edinburg after walking through the exhibits at the 1910 jail.
“I just appreciate all the time and effort that the museum took to make such great exhibits,” she said. “They’re very well thought out.”
“The museum is a beautiful kind of opportunity, a laboratory if you will, for self-understanding,” Guajardo said. “I think the jail is yet another example of how we can see ourselves. It’s a beautiful exhibit installation, but so is the rest of the museum. Most people drive through here and don’t even know that the museum is here. It’s a beautiful building, but it’s also easy to overlook. I would encourage everybody out there, especially if you have children. You want your children to know who they are and where they come from and what their stories are. I think that the museum is a great place through which to do that kind of self-discovery.”