Llano, Texas is a small western town on the Llano River. As with most small towns in the Wild West, its history is filled with tales of brave men and women, great tragedies, unsolved mysteries, and a few wandering spirits. According to a local paranormal research group, some of the towns original residents decided to stick around for a century, or two.
The history of the towns Red Top Jail is equally rich and exciting. It was not the first jailhouse in the City of Llano, but it is the most famous. It was named by its temporary residents referring to the red paint used on the roof. The men and women who were required to spend the night in jail often explained their absence by saying, “I was spending time at the Red Top!”
Four Jails for Llano
The Red Top Jail was not the first jail in Llano County, nor was it the first jail in the City of Llano. In fact, according to Sheri Zoch, President of the Friends of the Red Top Jail, there were four previous jails during the early years of the City of Llano, but the locations of only two of these facilities have been identified. One of the early jails was in the basement of the Bourland building, built by G.W. Miller and J.B. Bourland north of the town square, sometime between 1875 and 1880.
The basement facility served as a temporary solution to a serious problem. The basement jailhouse had guards positioned at the double doors, but not the windows where neighborhood children often gathered to chat with the prisoners and at one time, a few of the prisoners even performed a play they wrote for the children sitting outside.
In the mid-1800s, though, Llano was a rough and rowdy Old West town complete with saloons, houses of ill-repute, shootouts and bandits. According to Pamela Fowlers “The Red Top,” in 1873, the Llano County Commissioners Court levied a tax to cover the expenses of building a more secure, official jailhouse, but they only received one contractor bid. There is evidence that a jail was constructed, but for some reason, that building only lasted six years.
Building The Red Top Jail
The Red Top Jail was constructed in December of 1895 on Haynie Street, east of Courthouse Square on the southeast bank of the Llano River. It is a Romanesque Revival structure. The exterior is made of granite quarried in Llano. The walls are two feet thick. The prison itself was created using ready-made cells sent to Llano on rail cars. The cells were constructed by Pauly Jail Building and Manufacturing Company in Missouri. The Paulys were a family of blacksmiths who saw a niche created by the many outlaws in the Wild West and filled that niche with portable jail cells.
When the Red Tops jail cells arrived in Llano, Texas, they were pieced together by F.B. and W.S. Hull. The granite used on the outside of the building came from local quarries. The total cost, paid by bonds, was $11,500.00.
Living Quarters for the Jailer and Family
The Llano County Red Top Jail is affectionately referred to on the Llano County website as the “oldest B & B in Llano County.” The Red Top Jail has five floors to accommodate the jailer, his family, and the prisoners. The jailer and his family lived on the first floor of the jailhouse. The jailers wife cooked the meals for the family and the prisoners and slid prisoner meals through a slot in the wall where they were carried upstairs to the cells, preventing any contact between the prisoners and the sheriffs family. There were three large rooms for the familys living quarters.
Cell Rooms and Living Conditions for Prisoners
Llano is in Central Texas and the summertime temperatures often reach well past the 100 mark, cooling down to the 90s at night. The Red Top Jail has one cell room with a window, and of course, that was the most popular of the cell rooms. Family members often stood below the window and sent food, personal items, and sometimes tools for escape to the prisoners using ropes and baskets.
The second floor of the Red Top Jail has four cell blocks, one drunk tank on the east side of the building and a second one on the west. The south and north cells have increased security reinforcements.
The gallows is on the top floor. The third floor is referred to as the “drop floor,” for obvious reasons. There are exactly thirteen steps leading from the drop floor to the gallows.
Red Top Jailers
According to Pamela Fowlers Llano County Jailhouse: The Red Top, Ben Ligon was sheriff of Llano County from 1888 to 1894. His great nephew, Gale Ligon, was Llano County Sheriff from 1965 to 1992. Although they served in this capacity of sheriff nearly one hundred years apart, they did have something in common–they both endured a tremendous amount of frustration trying to keep their prisoners in jail.
Fowler states that “periodic entries in the minutes of Commissioners Court from the time the jail was open and forward indicate a marked lack of penitenence done by the prisoners. Repairs or replacements of doors and locks and frequent repair of bars “weakened by prisoners cutting them” indicate heavy use by persons who were less than cowed or “larnt” by having been placed behind bars.”
The jailer was not always a man, though. In fact, one of the most popular jailers in Llano County was Betty Graham, who served at the Red Top until 1980 when it closed. According to Pamela Fowlers “The Red Top,” the most accurate description of Ms. Grahams demeanor would be to say, Do not mess with Betty!”
Local Ghost Hunter Meets Betty the Jailer
Kenny Hare, Founder and President of the Llano Historical Ghost Society and Texas Paranormal Science, has lived in Llano, Texas most of his life, excluding his twelve years of service in the U.S. Army. Like most paranormal investigators, Hare became interested in paranormal science through personal experiences, and his first experience was at the Llano County Red Top Jail.
“I had just turned 18, tried my first six-pack of beer, and spent the night at the Red Top for disturbing the peace,” Hare explained. “Betty Graham was the jailer at the time. She seemed rough and tough at the beginning, but I think she was a nice person,” he continued.
“The night I spent at the Red Top was very noisy,” Hare said. “The toilet was flushing all night long. The next morning, when Betty came upstairs, she seemed very angry with me. She accused me of flushing the toilet all night, which I could not have done as the toilet was not in my cell, or anywhere near it. There was one other person in the Red Top that night, but he was nowhere near the toilet either. I suspect that might have been my first paranormal experience,” Hare said. “Someone was clearly trying to attract our attention.”
Hares organization investigated the Red Top Jail in 2010, 2011, and has a third investigation scheduled for 2012.. “We had many strange, unusual experiences during our investigations,” Hare said. “Mostly unusual photographs. We have more evidence from our investigations at the Red Top Jail than any other building we have investigated in Llano, County.” One of the photographs Hares organization took at the Red Top Jail clearly shows a face in one of the rooms.
Hare has also investigated the room where he stayed as a young man. “We caught many interesting EVPs in my old cell,” he said. “I think the spirits are kind to me.”
Hare also uses a digital audio recorder during his investigations, which he believes is most effective for capturing EVPs, or electronic voice phenomenon. “I like to try to uncover mysteries of Llano County from the past, so I ask questions about these mysteries during EVP sessions,” Hare explained. “During one of these sessions, we found the names of two young girls that posed for a photograph on the steps of the Red Top Jail. It is a popular photograph shown during tours. I asked for the names of the girls and a womans voice clearly said Pearl and Megan.”
Efforts to Restore the Red Top Jail
The Llano County Red Top Jail is more than a tourist attraction to the people of Llano, it is an important part of their history. In 2010, Preserve America, a subsidiary of the National Parks and Wildlife, awarded the City of Llano a grant to help restore the building and create a permanent museum at the Llano Red Top Jail. The restoration will be supervised by the Friends of the Llano County Red Top Jail, whose president, Sheri Zoch, wrote the grant.