The old Harvard jail

Published: Sep. 2, 2020 at 5:18 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - The former Harvard jail may be small, but it’s significant for many reasons.

“Its age (makes it significant) for one thing,” Harvard native and history expert Dr. Don Gerlach said. “It’s also the fact that we had to refurbish it because people were pulling the bricks out of the south wall. It needed a new roof, it needed a new front door, so I raised money to do that.”

Dr. Don Gerlach is very invested in the history of Harvard, and he not only helped to restore the old jail, but arranged to have a historical marker put up to tell the jail’s story. And, it is quite a story. It revolves around a teenager named Robert Pinckney.

“Pinckney is an interesting character, because he was out during World War II, pushing victory gardens,” Gerlach said. “He wanted to have a victory garden established here, and in the process he found out that the city council had mistakenly put (the jail property) up for sale. Although he tried to tell them that, they wouldn’t believe him.”

According to the historical marker that is on the property where the old jail stands, the jail was sold to Pinckney in a delinquent tax sale in 1943. The city then refused to buy back the building.

“That caused a legal battle that was reported in newspapers and magazines from coast to coast, and Pinckney was contacted by a wounded sailor in Los Angeles about this. Pinckney was persuaded to go out to California, and he put the jail up for auction,” Gerlach said.

The auction was a west coast war bond drive. Turns out, Charlie McCarthy-- who was well known in the golden age of Hollywood as the puppet of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen-- bought the jail for $10,000 in war bonds.

“So he thought it was a cute thing to do, to buy a jail out here in Nebraska,” Gerlach said. “That’s how Harvard helped support the war effort. That $10,000 went toward the building a new ship.”

Finally, Bergen and McCarthy deeded the property back to Harvard. “So it came home and it’s been with us ever since,” Gerlach said.

The old Harvard jail is estimated to be more than 130 years old, and Dr. Gerlach played a big role in getting it refurbished between 2008 and 2010. Gerlach says Pinckney’s initial effort to buy the jail didn’t go over well with town leaders at the time. “Pinckney’s father was a doctor here, and in fact, he was the city surgeon,” Gerlach said. “And when he had trouble with his son, the city council fired him, trying to put the pressure on him. Pinckney fought back and got a lawyer to get him a title to this property.”

Gerlach says refurbishing the town’s jail-- and any historical location-- is important. “It’s a part of historical preservation,” Gerlach said. “You tear town old buildings, and you get rid of a lot of the stories of the past. I think this is one of the delightful stories of the past that needs to be preserved.”

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