HANCOCK COUNTY — Few people who have stayed a night in a county jail have a desire to return and reminisce on their experiences. But for Phyllis Anderson, the old brick building at 27 American Legion Place conjures up fond family memories.
After all, she spent much of her childhood in the Hancock County Jail.
Back when Anderson and her sister, Janet Lenhart, lived in Spring Lake in the late 1940s, they’d tag along with their mother, a sheriff’s deputy, when she was assigned to cover overnight shifts in the jail, keeping watch over the inmates. Their father had recently moved to Washington, D.C., for a job, which left the mother, Edna Macmillan, no choice when those calls came but to bring her four kids along with her.
Though the family ended up moving to Virginia in 1948, leaving behind their friends and community, many of the memories stuck with them — especially those spent alongside the colorful cast of characters that made their way through the jail’s doors all those years ago.
In hopes of reconnecting with their past, the sisters decided to stop by Hancock County Sheriff Mike Shepherd’s office on a whim when they came back through town this week after attending a family reunion in nearby Spring Lake.
Though surprised by the request — it’s not every day someone asks to come back to the jail — the sheriff agreed to lead them on a tour of the historic red-brick building that now houses the county prosecutor’s office.
Anderson, 77, remembers the nights she spent running around the jailhouse as a teenager.
“That place was like a home,” Anderson said. “I remember sliding down the same banister that’s in there today,” she recalled. “When I walked up those steps … they leaned the same way I remember they did when I was a kid.”
The old jail bears little resemblance to the structure just northeast of it that houses 200-plus inmates today.
Back then, the county jail consisted of just a few cells on the first floor, and four bedrooms on the second floor. Those bedrooms have since been re-purposed as law offices, but the layout is much the same as Anderson remembers, she said.
Lenhart, 67, was just an infant when she stayed at the jail, but she’s heard stories from Anderson and her two brothers for years.
She said she couldn’t remember the building, but it came to life in her mind as she heard her family members share their memories. This week, as she made her way through the halls, she began to put the pieces together.
“All my life, I’ve enjoyed listening to the stories that my mom and dad would tell me about it,” Lenhart said. “I’ve always felt like I was a part of it, even though I didn’t have those memories.”
The number of nights they’d stay in the jailhouse depended on how long the sheriff, who usually manned the office, was out of town. It ranged from a night at a time to several days on end, Anderson said.
“I really got comfortable there,” she said. “It was fun, because it was in town, and we lived way out in the country.”
Though the siblings rarely crossed paths with inmates, Anderson said, she was never intimidated by their presence.
“They were all polite, for the most part,” she said. “My parents always taught us to respect anybody that came in, especially the prisoners. Even though they may have made a bad decision, that didn’t mean they were a bad person, so we weren’t allowed to show them anything but respect.”
That didn’t always mean that all prisoners paid them the same respect, though, Anderson said. She remembered one particular instance when a drunken prisoner was rattling a tin cup up and down the rails of his cell.
Her mother had just gotten the baby to sleep and was so furious, she threatened to turn the fire hose on the unruly inmate if he didn’t quiet down.
When he didn’t, she made good on her threat.
“He complained when the sheriff came through the next day, but he said he’d have done the same thing,” Anderson said.
Shepherd said leading the ladies around the building conjured up some old memories for him, too. When he first joined the department in 1982, the sheriff’s office was still located in that building; it moved to the current office in 1988.
“It brought back a bunch of memories,” he said. “(Anderson) was able to tell me a bunch of stuff I never knew about where stuff used to be in there. It was real neat being able to show them around and reminisce and share stories about the place.”
Anderson said, though the visit was unplanned, it was incredibly fulfilling.
“I can’t describe how much it meant to us to see that place again and be treated so well,” she said. “I never expected we’d get the chance to go back inside, and it was just wonderful.”