A 2021 photo shows the former site of the first jail in Urbana, located at the NW corner of E. Market and S. Locust streets. This Looking Forward is from the perspective of Simon Kenton, who was the jailer and prisoner here at the same time. We know that the original jail was built as a single-story building sometime before 1808 because the Champaign County Commissioners’ meeting minutes of July 22, 1808, include a proposal to enlarge and add a second story to the existing jail building. The second story provided quarters for the jailer.
In 1811-12 Simon Kenton was the jailer. Under the law at that time, imprisonment for debt was permitted. Kenton, having been “arrested” on an execution issued by Kentucky creditors, thus became his own jailer.
At this time, persons imprisoned for debt were allowed to be in an area designated as the “prison bounds.” The “prison bounds” were probably High St. to the west, Ward St. to the north, Reynolds St. to the south and perhaps to the east edge of town, basically the city limits. During the year or so of his confinement Simon Kenton frequently walked this area with a long walking staff. It is said that even when his daughter Elizabeth died, he had to observe her burial in the Old Graveyard just north of Ward St. without crossing the street.
Some years later the Kentucky Legislature remitted the charges against Kenton. The original jail served until 1832 when a new jail was built near the current courthouse. On April 14, 1832, the original jail building was auctioned off to Matthew Magrew and John Owen for $390.
Submitted by the Champaign County Historical Museum, a not-for-profit organization that depends upon donations and dues to preserve, protect, archive and display the artifacts that tell the Champaign County story. The free public museum located at 809 E. Lawn Ave., Urbana, is open to the public Tues. - Fri. 10-4 and Sat. 10-2.