Wyoming History: Kirby Jail Is The Remaining Link To Town’s Rowdy Past

The historic Western jail in Kirby, Wyoming, is listed on the National Historic Registry and links the little community to its storied, and sometimes rowdy, past with coal miners, gamblers and prostitutes.

DK
Dale Killingbeck

June 08, 20247 min read

The Kirby Jail and Town Hall building in Kirby, Wyoming, is the sole link to the community’s beginnings.
The Kirby Jail and Town Hall building in Kirby, Wyoming, is the sole link to the community’s beginnings. (Photo Courtesy Dean King, Hot Springs County Museum)

If the gypsum walls could talk, the 480-square-foot Kirby Jail and Town Hall would have plenty of stories to tell.

The white-block 20-by-24-foot building at 120 E. Fourth St. in this tiny dot on maps of Hot Springs County, Wyoming, is listed on the National Historic Registry. At one time there was a brothel nearby. In the early 1900s, the town was known as a place where hard-working miners would come to squander their paychecks through some less-than-righteous living.

Mayor Jessica Slagle, who has led the town for the past eight years, told Cowboy State Daily that back in the day, Kirby “was considered the party town because we had brothels and bars,” while nearby Gebo was the upstanding “working town.”

Beginning in 1907 as a coal mining community along with nearby Gebo to the west and Crosby to the southwest, Kirby was officially incorporated by a vote of locals in 1915. Kirby is on U.S. Highway 20 about halfway between Worland and Thermopolis.

“Kirby and the country tributary to it have grown to a point where the people believe they are justified in asking to be allowed to manage their home affairs, there the town of Kirby will soon become a corporate organization,” The Thermopolis Record reported July 15, 1915.

Shortly after declaring themselves to be an official town by a vote of 61-1, the residents decided they needed a jail. On Oct. 4, 1921, after another of official vote, contractor Pete Enders was given 20 days to build the exterior. He earned $275. Carpenter I. Hainsworth was awarded a contract for $328.50, and the two jail cells were bought for $164.81. That’s a total price tag at the time of $768.31 for a two-cell jail, or $14,088 in today’s dollars — a bargain.

Rowdy Crew

The jail, which sits on the north side of the 74-member community, is the only structure that links it to its storied past. Gebo and Crosby have become ghost towns.

As with many early frontier towns, Kirby suffered a devastating fire in 1909 that started in a hotel and led to all the other businesses in town being destroyed. The town rebuilt, but the fire was likely on the minds of residents when they chose to make their jail out of gypsum blocks.

While Wyoming has its share of famous and infamous characters who spent time behind bars, Slagle said she is not aware of any notorious figures who were held there.

“In all the discussions we had with some of the older folks, I don’t think there was anybody famous put in there,” she said. “Most of the time it was the rowdy crew from the coal mines that came down.”

But the two jail cells likely held some brothel workers in 1919. And a former town marshal in those early years was accused of a crime himself.

According to the jail’s National Register of Historic Places application, town minutes from May 1919 report that Kirby’s mayor wanted the proprietor of the local brothel, Gertie Harris, to pay $100 a month to the town, regardless of the number of women working there. That fee would be the equivalent of $1,751 today.

“When Harris refused, 10 of the women were arrested and presumably incarcerated in the jail,” the document states.

  • The Kirby Jail and Town Hall from the front facing north.
    The Kirby Jail and Town Hall from the front facing north. (Photo Courtesy Robert Collier, National Register of Historic Places)
  • The Kirby Jail and Town Hall building from the rear facing south.
    The Kirby Jail and Town Hall building from the rear facing south. (Photo Courtesy Robert Collier, National Register of Historic Places)
  • The Kirby Jail and Town Hall building in Kirby, Wyoming, is the sole link to the community’s beginnings.
    The Kirby Jail and Town Hall building in Kirby, Wyoming, is the sole link to the community’s beginnings. (Photo Courtesy Dean King, Hot Springs County Museum)

Marshal Charged

The next year, on April 22, 1920, the Thermopolis Record published a story about one of the town’s marshals.

“Dave Yokum of Kirby was up for a preliminary hearing before Judge Thompson this morning on the charge of committing a statutory offense against a girl named Ellen Bown," the newspaper reported. "The hearing was held behind closed locked doors and at its close Yokum was held to the district court on bonds, which he furnished and was released."

Yokum denied the charges. While the official outcome in district court is not available, it's clear he was found not guilty because in 1927 the Wyoming State Business Directory listed him as a deputy sheriff for Hot Springs County in Kirby and as the town marshal.

A year after Yokum's brush with the court, his brother Robert E. Lee "Bob" Yokum was accused of shooting Jack Goode on Nov. 14, 1921, after a mysterious man tried to hold up a gambling parlor full of men in Kirby.

“The robber then backed out the door and a few seconds later, Bob Yokum, one of the bystanders, rushed to the door and fired a shot into the darkness,” the Thermopolis Record reported March 23, 1922. “Red Burke, who lived in a boxcar cabin near the tracks, testified that a couple of hours after the shooting he awakened and heard a man groaning outside. He went out and found Goode lying on the ground and brought him into the cabin but did not summon help.”

Goode died before a doctor could get there. Robert Yokum was charged with the killing.

In the end, a jury acquitted him.

Gambling Operator

However, the gambling game operator, Norman Stevens, who pleaded guilty to running the illegal operation, found no mercy from the judge. The judge assessed him $800 and costs and sentenced him to nine months in the Hot Springs County jail, not the Kirby jail.

“Steven’s attorney asked for leniency on the ground that his client had arranged to take the Kirby hotel and that the jail sentence would disarrange his plans,” the newspaper reported. “Whereupon Judge Metz came back with the remark that he had heard many reports about the Kirby hotel and wound up by directing the county attorney to begin abatement proceedings against the house.”

Robert Yokum was back court in May of that year, charged with assault and battery of a Mrs. Stevens of Kirby. Judge John Thompson found him guilty and sentenced him to 30 days in jail and a fine of $30. Yokum appealed and was set free. Mrs. Stevens was later charged with threatening to shoot Robert Yokum, found guilty and given 10 days in jail. Whether any of that was served in Kirby is not clear.

Though the block building was the town’s jail, in the early years it also served as the town hall, possibly the post office, and for many years was the official place for casting ballots in national and local elections.

Through the years of the Depression and coal mines closing, World War II, and the boom-and-bust times of Wyoming’s economic cycle, the jail continued to operate. Then in 1975, after 60 years of service, the jail closed and any prisoners would be held in Thermopolis. The last deputy/town marshal to serve was John Klos, Slagle said.

  • The Thermopolis Record published a story July 15, 1915, about the soon incorporation of the town of Kirby.
    The Thermopolis Record published a story July 15, 1915, about the soon incorporation of the town of Kirby. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • The Thermopolis Record published a story on the acquittal of Robert E. Lee Yokum on March 23, 1922. Yokum had been charged with killing a man outside a gambling game operation.
    The Thermopolis Record published a story on the acquittal of Robert E. Lee Yokum on March 23, 1922. Yokum had been charged with killing a man outside a gambling game operation. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • Town Marshal David Yokum served the community in the early years of the Kirby Jail.
    Town Marshal David Yokum served the community in the early years of the Kirby Jail. (Photo Courtesy Find A Grave)

Preservation Efforts

The jail was restored in 2004 after much fundraising, Slagle said. The building officially made the National Register of Historic Places after a local campaign in 2011.

“The people who submitted that information (for the registry) were part of a self-gathered jail committee,” Slagle said. Those who want a peek inside can request a key.

“There is not much that is there, just the building and the two cells,” Slagle said. “We are eventually going to try and make it more of a museum where we can have pictures and more stories that you can read. We just haven’t gotten that far.”

Slagle said preserving it remains important because it is the only original structure with direct ties to the town’s birth.

“The town jail is really the first and the last that we have out there,” she said. “I think when it did become vacated as a jail, the group of women that got together to do that restoration, a lot of them had family that were in the jail or had worked for the jail. They were born and raised in Kirby. (They) could remember a time when it was an active piece of our history.”

Dale Killingbeck can be reached at dale@cowboystatedaily.com.

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