Vernon County, formerly Bad Axe County (for 3 years), was organized as a separate county from Crawford County on March 1, 1851. The Wisconsin State Legislature had to approve the separation. The Hamlet of Springville was the temporary seat of local government; however, Viroqua was selected as the county seat after much discussion and debate. Land was donated by Moses Decker for the building of a courthouse. Moses Decker is a now-famous Viroqua settler and homesteader. The Sheriff was provided an office in the courthouse.
Before Vernon County had a jail, major criminal offenders were escorted by the Sheriff on horseback to Prairie du Chien for incarceration while awaiting trial. Minor offenders were kept under supervision in a room at the Buckeye House, a hotel owned by Moses Decker near the courthouse.
The citizens of Vernon County expressed the desire for a county jail. The cost of the first jail would be approximately $1,000. It was already costing $1,000 per year to house prisoners at the Crawford County Jail in Prairie du Chien. It was also expressed that the presence of a jail would deter rogue people from locating in the county if there was quick punishment available. The first jail was an unpretentious, but substantial building approximately 34 by 16 feet in size and two stories high. It housed a fireproof safe to preserve the county records. It was completed in 1858.
The second Vernon County Jail was built in 1880 along with living quarters for the Sheriff just southwest of the new courthouse, which was also built that same year. The buildings were erected on land purchased from Edward Minshall and his wife on the west portion of the Village of Viroqua. The jail was built of stone, and the Sheriff’s residence was faced in brick. The current courthouse and Banta Building are located on this same campus at 400 Courthouse Square along Decker Street in the center of Viroqua.
In the early 1900s, an Undersheriff was added to act in the Sheriff’s absence. Throughout early history, there were significant elected term limits for the Sheriffs in Wisconsin to either a single two-year term and eventually to two consecutive terms only. It wasn’t until 1970 that the Sheriff could run for office every two years without term limits. In 2002, the Sheriff terms went from two to four years.
The third Vernon County Jail was discussed after assessing the need for more space in 1909. After considering the remodeling of the second jail, the County Board of Supervisors voted to build a new jail for between $20,000 and $23,000. The third jail would be located on the same courthouse campus along Decker Street in Viroqua. Architect Alvin E. Small of Madison designed the building. It was constructed in 1910 by the Appleton Construction Company and the Pauly Jail Construction Company of St. Louis. This jail included a heating plant sufficient for the jail and the courthouse. The old jail was sold for demolition at auction to the highest bidder for $200 on April 19, 1911. The new jail was faced in flinty red paving brick with trimming of dressed stone. In the Sheriff’s living quarters, a winding stairway connected the four rooms on the top floor with the three on the first floor. The jail proper had the capacity for twelve prisoners, including four cells for men, one for women, one for juveniles, and one for a hospital cell. There was an unfinished portion on the second floor, suitable for four more cells. The jail was grated, barred, and built to withstand all the ravages of time, escape, earthquake, fire, and it was well lighted. Funnel peepholes gave a perfect view of the incarcerated prisoners. The Sheriff’s wife would prepare meals for the prisoners from the residence kitchen. For many years, the Undersheriff and radio operators doubled as jailers.
Until 1933, the Sheriff’s Office consisted of a Sheriff and Undersheriff. Often the Sheriff received very little in salary but sustained the office on fees from the public such as serving legal process papers, transporting prisoners, and meal preparation by his wife. In 1933, the County Board of Supervisors authorized Sheriff Ray Jacobson to purchase a police motorcycle and hire one deputy sheriff to also work as a traffic officer, due to the increase in motorized travel. In his first week, that officer went to the Hamlet of Valley in the Town of Forest near Hillsboro and stopped so many vehicles that there was a public outcry following his issuing of so many summonses into court. The County Board convened a special session in the outcry, fired the traffic officer, and sold the motorcycle shortly after his first week.
In 1937, Sheriff C.W. Fowell was authorized to hire two deputy sheriffs and purchase two additional automobiles for patrol cars. Those deputies hired were Ed Hammer of Hillsboro and Milton Guell of Viroqua. Undersheriff John Hassler of Hillsboro often served as a jailer in Viroqua and handled eastern Vernon County from his home after hours. These deputies would drive to and from pre-designated points and call the Sheriff or Undersheriff by telephone every hour to see if they were needed anywhere. In 1946, one additional patrol deputy was hired. It wasn’t until 1951 that wireless radios were purchased for the five police cars. Thereafter, Undersheriff Robert Small held regular office hours at the office, performed daily jailer duties, answered the telephone, and operated the radio base station from the Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Morris Moon defined the county-wide need for more reliable ambulance service in the early 1950s. As more deputies and police cars were needed, Sheriff Moon saw to it that some patrol cars on the road doubled as ambulances. Station wagons were purchased for many years and some deputies served as both a rescue resource and law enforcer well into the mid-1970s when Wisconsin law increased requirements for emergency ambulances, essentially terminating police ambulances.
The third Vernon County Jail was afforded two additions under Sheriff Geoffrey Banta in the 96 years it served the public. The first addition was in 1974 when the addition of office space was added to the east. In 1990, the institution section of the jail was remodeled to house more prisoners to capacity and updating was also done including electric locks on the security doors. The second addition was in 1993 also to the east. This addition provided more office space a second time and a better training area for deputies. Meals were no longer prepared in the jail and were outsourced to private vendors.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Undersheriff Jerry Fredrickson focused on the more complex investigations of the department, rather than office hours and radio operating. In the 1990s, additional deputies were acquired for patrol, investigation, jail, and dispatch. Veteran deputies Blair Spears and Donald Jefson became the first professional criminal investigators. A clearer defined division between jail and dispatch was achieved. The 1990s would define a modern approach to police and jail administration. Sergeant Errett Wally Cox would become the first jail administrator. The third jail and Sheriff’s Office with its two additions and jail revisions would extend usage until the jail capacity could no longer be mitigated. Vernon County began transporting and housing inmates in other county jails at record taxpayer expense.
In 2000, a committee of public officials and citizens was formed to investigate what should be done with the jail housing dilemma. Over four years of input, study, investigation, and testimony from corrections experts, the County Board of Supervisors voted 28-1 to approve the fourth jail in Vernon County and relocate it on the county farm property in northern Viroqua. Housing and transportation in outside counties began to exceed $500,000 annually.
The new facility was built to accommodate Vernon County jail needs over the next 20 to 30 years. The facility was completed four months ahead of schedule and over $650,000 under the $10.3 million dollar budget. Sheriff Gene Cary and Undersheriff James Hanson were the first administration to occupy the facility in December of 2006. The modern detention center is managed by Captain Michael Davig, the jail administrator. The office additions of the third jail continue to serve county citizens today through occupancy by other agencies. The jail portion is only occupied for storage. The property was appropriately named the Banta Building by the County Board of Supervisors in 2007.