First Sheriff and Office

Washington County was one of nine original counties created when the Minnesota Territory was organized in 1849. The first sheriff was appointed by Governor Ramsey with the office located at Chestnut and 4th Street in Stillwater.

There was no jail at the Chestnut and 4th Street location. By 1866, the push was on to build a new courthouse and sheriff’s office complete with jail. To help convince residents that a new building was needed, the Stillwater Messenger printed an article detailing “the expenses by Washington County by reason of not having a county jail and offices”.


The article was printed on Wednesday July 25, 1866. It listed Sheriff’s Office expenses beginning June 1, 1865, and ending June 1, 1866. The expenses were listed as follows:
  • Amount paid for office rent: $275
  • For guarding prisoners during the two terms of District Court: $425
  • For boarding guards of prisoners: $183
  • For conveying prisoners to and from St. Paul: $87
  • The amount paid for boarding prisoners at the hotels in this city during the two terms of court at $2 per day: $450
  • Assuming that expenses of boarding inmates in jail would be the same as in Ramsey County, per week $4, there would be an extra expense in the item of board of $321.84

New Courthouse and Jail

In the fall election of 1866, the citizens of Washington County voted 546 to 398 to build a new courthouse and sheriff’s office. Construction began in 1867 and the courthouse, with jail included, opened in 1870.

The courthouse overlooks the City of Stillwater from atop Zion’s Hill at West Pine Street and South 3rd Street. It remained in operation until 1975 when the county offices were moved to the new Washington County Government Center.

The original courthouse is now known as the Washington County Historic Courthouse and is one of the oldest standing courthouses in Minnesota. The attached jail is still intact and looks as it did on its final day of operation. In 1971 the Historic Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jail Records

The earliest jail records found date back to 1877. The records were hand written. Information on the jail registers included: name, age, height, color of eyes, color of hair, nativity, occupation, reads, write, married or single, by whom sent, what for, term of sentence.

The information recorded on the jail records then was quite different from what is recorded today. For color of hair there were entries like: dark, light, sandy, and darkly. Under nativity there was no mention of an individual’s race. Recorded instead were Swede, Scotland, Ohio, Norway, Indiana, Iowa and Mass.


Sheriffs arrested and jailed people for committing everything from murder to being drunk. Drunks were given anywhere from six to 10 days in jail. Two of the most infamous inmates to spend time in the Washington County Jail were Cole and James Younger.

James / Younger Gang

The Territorial Prison in Stillwater became the first state prison when Minnesota achieved statehood in 1858. Cole, James, and Bob Younger were serving time at the state prison in Stillwater for their part in the 1876 James / Younger Gang raid on the First National Bank in Northfield, MN. During January of 1884 there were two fires at the state prison. The second fire required inmates to be housed at various county jails in Minnesota until repairs could be completed. Sheriff Holcombe housed Cole and James Younger at the Washington County Jail until they could be returned to the prison.

Offices Moved to Washington County Government Center

In 1975 the county offices moved to the Washington County Government Center located at 14949 62nd Street North in Stillwater, MN. This building also contained a new Sheriff’s Office and Jail.

The new jail was a 60-bed facility built in the linear style most people would imagine a jail to look like. It was constructed to meet the Department of Corrections standards in place at the time.

Population Growth

Census figures for 1970 show the population of Washington County to have been 83,003 people. By 1990, census figures show a population of 145,896. This rapidly increasing population resulted in the need for a proportional increase in law enforcement presence.

An unfortunate consequence of this growth was a rapid rise in arrests and resulting jail detentions. In little more than 10 years, the jail began to have overpopulation issues. In turn, the need to build a new jail capable of meeting the demand for jail beds became evident.

New Law Enforcement Center

This resulted in the building of the current Law Enforcement Center located at 15015 62nd Street North in Stillwater, MN. Contained within the Law Enforcement Center is a 227 bed jail designed to meet the Department of Corrections direct supervision standards now in place. The Sheriff’s Office and Jail began operating out of the Law Enforcement Center in June of 1993.

This move meant the end of Sheriff’s Office and jail operations in the Government Center facility after only eighteen years. Extensive remodeling of the Government Center has completely dismantled and rebuilt the area which used to contain the Sheriff’s Office and Jail. As a result, the only remnants of that jail are the memories of those who worked or resided there.

Jail Bed Leasing Program

From the beginning of operations in the current jail, the Sheriff’s Office has had the ability to meet the jailing needs of Washington County. The Sheriff’s Office has also had the ability to maintain a jail bed leasing program. This program has resulted in Washington County leasing jail beds to various counties in Minnesota as well as the Minnesota Department of Corrections and the United States Marshal Service.

While leasing jail beds does not actually generate a profit, it does help offset the cost of jail operations. In turn, lease revenue reduces the amount of Washington County tax dollars the Sheriff’s Office needs to appropriate in order to pay the expenses involved in running a jail.

What the future holds for Washington County cannot be predicted with any absolute certainty. Regardless of what that future may be, the Washington County Jail is poised to meet the law enforcement, judicial and correctional needs of the county into the foreseeable future. It is even conceivable the present jail could have a service life beyond the 105 years of the original jail.