The Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County recorded another preservation milestone in 2016 with the completion of a $2.3 million restoration of the “Old, Old Jail” this past May to serve as the organization’s first permanent home.
But the building on 112 Bridge Street in downtown Franklin that served as the Williamson County Jail from 1941-1970 had a series of milestones, including an incident that became the inspiration for a country song.
In 2012 the Heritage Foundation bought the jail, which fell into disuse and repair and by 2008 was about to be sold by the city and demolished. The building now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But while buildings and places are parts of history, people make it.
Willie York at one time was one of the jail’s prisoners. Some true country-music historians might remember a song from 1970, by Johnny Seay, called “Willie’s Drunk and Nellie’s Dyin’.”
Seay wrote it about his older neighbor in the hills of Williamson County, and it was a big enough hit that LIFE magazine sent a writer to do a profile of the man who inspired the lyrics, convicted murderer Willie York.
The LIFE story starts:”Willie is a convicted murderer who served 11 1/2 years in prison for killing a Franklin constable. He is a hard case alcoholic, a sometime moonshiner, a habitual motor vehicle scofflaw, a welfare pensioner, an illiterate who can barely scrawl his own name. He is a 59-year-old man knotted and gimped by a lifetime of malnutrition, bad whisky and the accumulated miseries of sleeping off his drunks out in the wet and cold …”
Seay, looking for a quieter, calmer place to live than Nashville, had moved to a ranch by Big East Fork creek west of the Natchez Trace Parkway in northwest Williamson County in 1967. His neighbor turned out to be York, living “with his terminally ill wife in squalor with a passel of dependent grandchildren back in the hills near Franklin, Tenn.”
York, the song goes, and his brother served 11 1/2 years in a “Nashville prison cell for killing a Deputy Sheriff in the Williamson County Jail.”
This is just one of so many stories that were huge news that everyone heard and talked about. But now they are all but lost, or forgotten. The Big House for Historic Preservation is all about honoring the past and remembering things that before too long no one alive will have memories of.
“It is amazing that each little building in our town embodies so many local stories,” said Mary Pearce, executive director for the Heritage Foundation. “And this one is no exception.”