On April 4, 1881, Macomb County appropriated $10,000 for a new jail and sheriff’s residence to be constructed in Mount Clemens. The prior jail, built in 1852, was constructed out of stones from the Clinton and Kalamazoo Canal. Nicknamed “the Bastille,” it was located on Market Street directly across the street from today’s St. Mary’s Catholic School. State inspections reported it to be “low, damp, dark and unhealthy,” and replacement was essential.
The new jail site was on South Front Street (now North Gratiot) at the end of Cass Avenue. Northrop J. Gibbs was chosen as the architect. The cost of the facility came close to $11,000 upon completion.
It was customary at the time for the sheriff and his family to reside in the jail; Sheriff Harley Ensign was the first sheriff to later break this tradition. The sheriff’s dwelling faced Front Street with a frontage of 42 feet. It consisted of two stories and a basement. The main floor was the sheriff’s office, sitting room, bedroom and parlor, while the second floor consisted of four chambers, a closet and a restroom. The basement had two cellars, one bedroom, a kitchen and dining room, while the jail section on the river slope was comprised of three stories with 18 cells and dimensions of 30 feet by 32 feet.
Sheriff Louis Groesbeck and family were the first to occupy the new living quarters in 1882. It was there that his son, Alex Groesbeck, was inspired to follow a profession in law and later became the only governor from Macomb County.
By 1910, the facility had deteriorated to the point that the Secretary of State Board of Health instructed the county to designate another jail for detention of prisoners until a suitable jail could be provided by the county.
The County Building Committee took out a newspaper ad on Feb. 24, 1911, pleading to voters to secure a new jail. Sanitary conditions were stressed, along with the inability to separate young and old offenders, which state law required. It afforded no adequate facilities for women prisoners, the mentally ill or for witness accommodation, and escapes were not an uncommon occurrence.
On April 3, 1911, the citizens voted against borrowing $40,000 for a new jail. Instead, in October 1912, the Champion Iron Co. of Kenton, Ohio was given a contract for a new jail addition for $6,000.
The building that was condemned in 1910 continued to house the Sheriff Department for four more decades. Sheriff Harley Ensign was the main force behind the drive for a new building. The voters approved $950,000 for a new jail on April 7, 1952 to be located on the grounds of the old County Poor Farm near Elizabeth and Groesbeck. As Michigan law requires the county jail to be located within the city limits of the county seat, it was necessary to annex the property from Clinton Township to Mount Clemens by a vote of the people.
The county moved to the new jail in 1954, leaving the dilapidated old building to the Mount Clemens Police Department. The city used the building as a police lockup and a surplus commodities distributing center until December 1959.
By then, the old jail had become a community hazard and was tagged for oblivion in order to provide ground for the new Cass-Crocker Bridge across the Clinton River. The 77-year-old jail was demolished in December 1959.
Cynthia S. Donahue is a historian for Macomb County Facilities and Operations. This article was featured in Macomb Matters in June 2014.