December 20, 1871 Honey, I Sold the Jail

It’s hard to know who first used the term, ‘insensate obstinacy’.  Churchill once described Stalin thus. Seems like the description could be applied to certain characters in this tale, as well.

The tracks reached Harvard Nebraska on December 20, 1871, the next town after Grafton and one of a series named in alphabetical order, connected by the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad.

There’s a lot of history in Harvard Nebraska. Nine months after the American entry into WW2, the town became home to a satellite Army Airfield, just outside of town. Twenty-six bombardment squadrons trained up at Harvard AAF, complete with five hangars performing air frame and engine repairs for B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers. There were 6,000 officers and men there, at it’s peak.

In August 1943, the town was scene to a tragic midair collision between three B-17 bombers, killing fourteen and raining debris across Nebraska farms.

220px-Victory-gardenOn a lighter note, town government sold the jail once. To a sixteen-year-old kid. For a buck and a half and he sold it to a dummy, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.

“War gardens” or “food gardens for defense” were a staple part of the home front for combatants on both sides, of two world wars. Fruits and vegetables were planted on private properties and public parks as a way to boost civic morale, while supplementing wartime ration cards and taking pressure off public food supplies. George Washington Carver called them “Victory Gardens”.

In 1943, Robert Pinckney was the sixteen-year-old son of a local physician. The boy was looking for lots he could use for victory gardens, when he noticed that someone at Town Hall, had goofed. The two-cell jail was listed among properties for sale. They laughed at him at the office, when he showed them their mistake.   So he bought it.  For $1.50.

It’s hard to know who first used the term, ‘insensate obstinacy’.  Winston Churchill once described Stalin thus. Seems like the description could be applied to certain characters in this tale, as well.

Edgar_Bergen_Charlie_McCarthy_1947
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, 1947

Even after Pinckney received the deed, town officials continued to house their criminals, in his jail house. The boy retained an attorney and attempted to sue for rent owed, only to be met with petty and vindictive measures by town employees who even now, refused to admit their mistake. He could get rent, but he had to pull up the sidewalk, first. Pinckney offered to sell the property back to the town but he couldn’t enter into a contract, because he was too young.  He couldn’t deed the place over, until he turned 21.

Town government tried to keep the embarrassment under wraps, until Time magazine got hold of it and the story became national news.

A wounded sailor recovering in Los Angeles, suggested the boy put the property up for a war bonds auction. That he did, and Charlie McCarthy, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s famous wooden dummy, bought the jail for $10,000, in war bonds.

After a while, the publicity died down.  Bergen’s dummy quietly deeded the jail back, to the town.  You can still find it there, at 151-185 West Oak Street, Harvard, Clay County, Nebraska.  It’s a small place.  Just take the main road, you can’t miss it.  A glittering monument to teenage enterprise.  And the insensate obstinacy, of government.

Feature image, top of page:  Harvard Nebraska jailhouse, once sold for $1.50, to a sixteen year old kid.

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Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I began writing "Today in History" nearly six years ago, as sort of a self-guided history course.  I told myself I’d write 365, the leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I believe there are over 600. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

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