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The Old Jail Museum

Hayesville, North Carolina

When visiting the mountains of western North Carolina, you won’t want to miss the small, charming town of Hayesville. Sitting on the edge of the walkable downtown area with its quaint locally owned shops, is the Old Jail Museum.


History of the Building

This two-story building, built with concrete and cement bricks in 1912, sits perched on a hill overlooking the street below. At the time of its construction, it did not have electricity, and may not have had plumbing either. The building served as a jail and housing for Sheriff J.B. White and his family, with three bedrooms, a parlor, a kitchen, and a dining room.

The Sheriff’s Office moved the jail into a newly constructed building in 1972. Two years later, the Clay County Board of Commissioners gave permission for the old building to be turned over to the Clay County Historical & Arts Council.


Today, the council has turned the former rooms and jail cells into various exhibits covering the history of Clay County. This small building packs a lot of information from the time of the Paleo-Indians until today.


Cherokee Room & Artifacts

The first room we entered off the foyer was the Cherokee room. Display cases show excavated artifacts from Clay County that date back several thousand years and include arrowheads and other stone tools.


Masks from the seven bands of Cherokee Indians that lived in what is now the north Georgia/North Carolina region - the Wolf Clan, the Long Hair Clan, the Deer Clan, the Blue Clan, the Wild Potato Clan, and the Paint Clan - line the wall of this room. Local Cherokee artisans made these masks for the museum, and each one has information about the clan beside it.


In a corner of the room, there’s a display case with items found from Spikebuck Town mound, believed to be built by native peoples around 800 A.D. We missed seeing this mound when we walked along the nature trail and the museum’s docent explained that because of human interference and natural factors, like erosion, it’s more difficult to see the mound than it was in the past. It’s also possible we just didn’t walk far enough down the trail.


1900s Kitchen

To the left of the Cherokee exhibit is a dining room and kitchen area with items that the building’s original occupants used in the early to mid-1900s. Old pots, cooking utensils, and a wooden dining table set with blue and white formal dishes give the feel of being in a kitchen/dining room a hundred years ago.


Doctor’s Office

If you look around the outside of the building before you enter, you’ll notice a wood-framed addition that doesn’t match the rest of the jail’s brick exterior. This was the office of Dr. Paul B. Gillian. The Clay County Historical & Arts Council added the office to the side of the building and restored it to look just like it did during the decades the doctor used it.

Dr. Killian was born 1872 and he served the people of Clay County for fifty-two years. His old office still houses many of his personal items, including surgical tools, books, a desk, a chair for patients, medicine bottles, and the bag he used to make house calls.


Fabric/Quilting Room

The fabric room had a variety of textiles and quilts from the 1900s, with information about their fabrication and production. The museum docent explained that, in the early to middle part of the century, it was common for people in rural areas, like this one, to turn old feed sacks into undergarments. This made our family grateful for the variety of comfortable options we have available to us today.


African-American History Exhibit: Slavery, Public Education, and Religion

After the U.S. government removed the Cherokee from their lands in the early 1800s, those lands became available for sale to white settlers. One prominent settler to the area now known as Clay County was Dr. Samuel Caldwell Tate, who purchased 1,304 acres near the Hiawassee River in 1838.


Dr. Tate and his family brought their slaves to the property and had them clear the land, build structures, and labor on the property. Though the museum has little information about the slaves on the property (as the census only recorded their age, sex, and color, according to the museum’s display), they do have information about one notable former slave from the Tate Farm.


Henry Windsor Tate was born into slavery on the Tate Farm in 1855. He achieved his freedom through the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, at the age of eight. Mr. Henry Tate and his mother, Albertine, moved to Ohio, where she died when Henry was only thirteen-years-old. Despite his difficult beginnings, Henry graduated from National Normal University and became a teacher. He later received training in theology and became a Methodist Episcopal pastor, serving in ministry for fifty years. In addition to his contributions to his community through the church, Mr. Tate was also a respected lecturer, who discussed African-American life.


For anyone looking to learn more about the slave history in Clay County, you can visit the Freedom Cemetery site. According to the museum, this site is “located in Hayesville Township at the eastern terminus of Slave Drive.” It is here where Dr. Tate had slaves from his farm buried in unmarked graves between 1838 and 1857. Click here to read an article about Freedom Cemetery from Smoky Mountain News.


Old Jail Exhibit

The jail exhibit is upstairs in the old cells. You can enter the cells and see the bed bunks that were available to the inmates, the toilet and sink (which were probably added after the original construction), a large metal basin that the inmates would have used for bathing, and a display case with some of the restraining items that would been used by the sheriff.


An old moonshine still confiscated by law enforcement in the 1980s sits next to the jail cells and shows how a craft among the local people became illegal after large distilleries moved into the region.

Next time you find yourself in western North Carolina, I highly recommend visiting this great little museum. Looking for other things to do in the area? Check out 5 Fun Things to Do in Hayesville!


Know Before You Go

Location: 21 Davis Loop Road, Hayesville, NC 28904

Hours:   Memorial Day to Labor Day

                      Tues-Sat 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.


            September – October

                     Fri – Sat 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

            Closed November – May


Admission: FREE


Accessibility: The first floor of the building is wheelchair accessible. Visitors can only access the second floor via the staircase. The museum created a video tour that’s available in the downstairs office for those unable to use the stairs.


Visit the Clay County Historical & Arts Council website for more information.


Have you visited western North Carolina? Would you like to? What’s your favorite thing to do there? Leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!


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