Prison history in the Forest Trail Region isn’t just about putting away the bad guy. The region’s Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville was, in fact, the first of its kind for the state, opening in 1849. Up until the early 1840’s, Texas communities maintained their own jailhouses, caught, tried, and convicted their own criminals, and carried out their own executions, probably not an altogether good idea considering the unreliability of evidence and witnesses in a rowdy, pre-statehood environment. The Huntsville pen housed its first prisoner as soon as opening (and clanging shut!) its doors, a horse thief who was joined by only two more convicts for most of the year. But the next few consecutive years the Huntsville prison population increased considerably.
By 1860, one hundred and eighty two prisoners called Huntsville their “home-away-from-home,” enough hands to operate a cotton and wood mill at the prison, providing the state with a money-making enterprise (and free labor). The idea of free labor caught on quickly across the region, institutionalized by a convict lease system in which prison labor was leased to private companies including the railroad, plantations, and mines. The region also added another prison during the period, the Rusk Penitentiary, where the production of pig iron employed resident prison labor, a fact that inspires visions of Dickensian extremes. Convict leasing ended in 1910, a consequence of changing attitudes, and by the 1930s an entirely new approach to extracurricular prisoner activities made its debut. The Texas Prison Rodeo, brainstorm of the state’s general prison manager, offered prisoners some “recreation” and a way to earn cash by riding bulls, roping calves, playing a form of horse-mounted basketball, and “enjoying” mid-air flights from the saddle of a bucking bronc. Considered one of the wildest public displays of arena entertainment in the state, the Texas Prison Rodeo outgrew east Texas venues, moving to Dallas where it survived into the 1980s. Today, heritage travelers have an opportunity to explore prison history (without having to spend any time behind bars) at The Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville.