Behind the bars
The story of a few local lawyers and the jail cells in their basement
Deep in the basement of the Verhaeghe Law Office, you’ll find two pieces of Athabasca’s old town office facilities.
At approximately 80 inches tall, two sets of heavy iron doors and barred windows comprise the old jail cells, still standing strong with a few names scratched on walls from former temporary guests.
“When people see them, they are amazed at how solid they are,” said Tim Verhaeghe, partner in the firm. “They also comment on how cool it is in the basement and how dark they are. They probably think that it would not have been very enjoyable to be housed there, even if only for a night or two.”
According to a news clipping from the Athabasca Echo provided by the Athabasca Archives, the jail cells would have been built along with the town office in 1953, with construction taking place in the fall of 1952. There was no record describing the cells themselves.
Athabasca’s old town office operated just the same as today, as the headquarters for the town’s bureaucracy and local law enforcement.
“There was a constable or something like that – town cop, I think,” said Marylin Mol former archivist. “Now they are peace officers, but same difference.”
Frank Brown Jr., 74, had spent a few nights within the cells himself 55 years ago during his teenage years. Luckily, he was always on the right side of the iron, helping out his father and former town police officer Frank Brown Sr.
Brown said his family moved to Athabasca from High Prairie in June 1958 after his father was hired to be the town’s police officer, a position he held until he retired in 1972.
Brown said his father made the most of his rounds on Saturday nights around Athabasca’s local bars, keeping an eye out for any public disturbances.
“You know, dad took more people home then he ever took to jail,” Brown said. “He’d say that if he’d ever see them downtown again, ‘Tonight, you know where you’re going.’”
In cases where a person was not compliant, Brown would have to take them in a trip in his 1948 Dodge to the town office’s basement to sleep it off behind bars.
Brown said that his father was the only town policeman, not including the RCMP, so when he had to bring someone in they would hire a “babysitter,” to watch over the prisoner.
“They called it ‘babysitting’ and there were certain people that it was their job,” he said. “When they needed someone to look after the cells, they’d hire them and have them on call when they needed them.”
Brown did his fair share of “babysitting” over the years, getting calls in the wee hours of the morning. However, with most of his dad’s guests being intoxicated, it was usually a pretty quiet night.
“There was times when I was sixteen or so, if he locked someone up at three in the morning, he didn’t want to go get a babysitter – he’d get one of us kids to come,” he said. “We’d sit there until eight in the morning, until some other people came in. All you did was sit there. Every once in a while, we did that. We didn’t think it was that big a deal.
“Usually you’d be dealing with people who were drunk and they just slept,” he added. “Sometimes I slept, too.”
Most of the time the cell’s occupant only ever had to stay there for the one night to sober up before being released the next morning.
“If it was more serious – say they had to haul them into Edmonton and put them in jail there – and that happened sometimes, too,” Brown said.
Today, the cells are still involved with the justice system, acting as storage units for legal files used by Verhaeghe Law employees. Tim Verhaeghe said that his brother Richard bought the old town office in the early 2000s, with both of them electing to leave the jail cells the way they were.
“There was really no particular (reason) to keep them just as there would be no particular reason to remove them,” Tim said in an email. “They were there and are a neat historical feature. Athabasca has a lot of history and this is just another example of that. After all, how many people can say that they have jail cells in their buildings?”