Leora Goff and the Guthrie County Jail

From Leora (Goff) Wilson’s memoirs:

When we lived in Guthrie Center, the year of 1900, one of our neighbor girls, who was a little older than I, told us about two men who were in the jail. They had been in the penitentiary previously and had learned some art. The neighbor girl must have heard some grownups talking about it.

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We were curious, so one Sunday afternoon, she (Gertrude Moty) and Dot Ferry, my brother Merl, and I (8, 9, and 10-year-olds) went to the jail and, Gertrude being the oldest, did the talking to these men. They told us to get them some pasteboard boxes and glue and they would make us something.

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Leora, right before they moved into Guthrie Center for a year.

So on Monday we went to a store and got the material and took it to the jail. The men put a broom through the bars for us to put the material on. They put the broom out several times, as we had material for each of us. There was a space between the outside windows and the jail cell. The prisoners told us when they would be ready–it was several days, as I remember. They made one girl a doll cradle, one a church, Merl a merry-go-round with cut-out animals riding, and mine was a schoolhouse, just like the one we attended. 

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The old Guthrie County Jail

When we told our mother about what and where we had been, she told us we should never, never go near a jail. I had a feeling we shouldn’t all along, but the excitement of getting those articles made was worth the risk, we thought. 

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Guthrie County Courthouse, Guthrie Center, Iowa

When we found out our “art” was ready, Mother told us to go to the courthouse and ask about getting the things from the jail, so we saw the deputy sheriff. Our parents knew him and just Merl and I went with the deputy over to the jail. He told Merl he would have to carry out some ashes first before getting his prize, so Merl did carry some ashes out to dump outside.

I remember the deputy just unlocking the door wide enough for the men to put the little schoolhouse out–it was about 10″ X 12″–and Men’s merry-go-round. We thanked them and headed for home, relieved and so happy with our prizes. We never bothered a jail again. We kept the items for a long time, and I guess they just got lost in moving, then forgotten. I see Dot Ferry often–she and I are good friends still. (1973) 


  1. Oh that was so such an amazing interesting diary posting – just imagining this happening is something to write about ~ great post 🙂

  2. Great story. some of the guys we had in jail were just plain incredible in the arts. One sketched, and since he was harmless, we let him have his sketchpad and pencils. he turned out stuff that could rival what’s found in the best graphic novels. Another did murals, and since he was going stir crazy, and we’d just finished the day room, we got him some paints and he painted an incredible mural featuring the southwest and it’s Spanish/native american heritage. Others played guitar (JR used to bring his guitar down and have jam sessions with some).

    I don’t recall anyone having taken pictures of the mural, and since the jail no longer exists, the work is lost to the past.

    • The weekend before this posted, another man, Carroll McKibbin, who grew up in Guthrie Center used the same photo for a story in their newspaper. I sure did a double-take as I haven’t had the photo of the jail very long. His story was that the kids got caught selling pop and cigarettes to the men in the jail! Just sent him a copy of “Leora’s Letters.” Bet he’ll remember my grandmother. I have a copy of his tongue in cheek memoir, “Apron Strings.”

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