The old county jail in the West Texas hometown of prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry of Lonesome Dove fame is on the market for a minimum of $5,000. No, those aren’t typos — you can conceivably buy a historic former jail for a steal.
The former Archer County Jail in the county seat of Archer City (population 1,744) dates back to 1910. The county used the three-story sandstone structure as a jail until 1974, when it relocated inmates to a bigger facility. Its latest incarnation was a history museum that shuttered about three years ago.
Archer City is about 25 miles southwest of Wichita Falls, roughly 270 miles north of Austin.
The first floor of the now 110-year-old building served as living quarters for the sheriff and his family, while cells on the second and third floors housed inmates. The jail’s hanging gallows — designed for executions — went unused. The first person to occupy a jail cell there was accused of stealing a horse. The jail housed more than 8,000 inmates until the county’s new, larger jail opened in 1974.
Local historian Jack Loftin eventually transformed the former jail into museum showcasing Archer County history. After Loftin died in February 2015, county officials decided to close the museum and sell the property.
Bethann Oswald, a Realtor with Bishop Realtor Group in nearby Wichita Falls, listed the county-owned property for sale on December 27. Since then, she’s fielded more than 1,200 inquiries about the property, she says.
“This is not a time for nostalgic browsing or curious exploration, however,” Oswald says. “We hope to give our serious prospective buyers the time and space they need to dream up something really great for our county.”
Relics and history
Aside from the building itself, the buyer will become the owner of Archer County relics dating back to the 1800s, Oswald says. Those relics include furniture, an old-fashioned sewing machine, period clothing, a shelf full of glass beverage bottles, and numerous framed photos of former county officials.
The jail shut down three years before the 1971 release of The Last Picture Show, a classic film based on McMurtry’s 1966 semi-autobiographic novel of the same name that put Archer City on the map. The Last Picture Show is a coming-of-age story set in the 1950s in a dying West Texas town.
Much of The Last Picture Show — directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Cybill Shepherd, Jeff Bridges, and Randy Quaid — was filmed in Archer City. The film went on to garner eight Academy Award nominations, with Cloris Leachman collecting the Oscar for best supporting actress and Ben Johnson receiving the Oscar for best supporting actor.
Aside from The Last Picture Show, McMurtry gained acclaim for Lonesome Dove, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 novel about 19th-century cattle drives. Lonesome Dove was adapted as a four-part TV miniseries that debuted in 1989, earning critical praise. Almost two decades later, McMurtry won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for the 2005 movie Brokeback Mountain, featuring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead roles.
Serious buyers only
Every serious prospective buyer must complete a “survey of intent” outlining their plans for the site before the deadline of 5 pm January 28. After that, county commissioners will winnow the buyer pool. The remaining potential buyers then must fill out a more detailed survey laying out their vision for the property. Next, county commissioners likely will pick a group of finalists to present their vision in person.
Ultimately, Archer County commissioners want “to find an individual or entity that will restore the museum and return honor to this historic building and its contents,” Oswald says. The property carries a “state antiquities” designation from the Texas Historical Commission.
Oswald says that while the rock-bottom sale price is $5,000, money isn’t the most important consideration for county officials. Rather, they simply want to ensure the property ends up in the right hands.
Randy Jackson, Archer County’s top county commissioner, told Wichita Falls TV stations KFDX and KJTL that he and his colleagues have “the right to refuse any and all bids, so we don’t want someone that’s gonna come in here and try to scrape the goods out of here and leave a shell. We hope that we have a buyer that comes in that has the intent to restore it and for everything to remain right here.”