Historic Lee County Jail to open for regular tours

The historic Lee County Jail in the 700 block of Avenue F in Fort Madison will be open starting May 28 from Thursday through Sunday weekly for tours. Fort Madison Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Chris Sorrentino has been working this week to get the jail ready for tours. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

City’s preservation commission chair pushes to open facility starting May 28


FORT MADISON – With the state continuing to open up businesses and the state’s economy, local historians are jumping on board reopening the historical jail in Fort Madison.

The jail located on the property west of the North Lee County Courthouse, will be open on Thursdays starting May 28 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Chris Sorrentino, the chairman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission was at the site on Wednesday morning getting the entry prepared for visitors.

Sorrentino said he, along with North Lee County Historical Society president Loren “Andy” Andrews, had talked about getting the 152-year-old facility back open for tours.

“Andy and I sat down and discussed it. And things like the Old Lee County Jail quite frankly are just falling by the way side and being left closed up,” Sorrentino said.

“More people want to see it and over the past couple of weeks we’ve talked about what’s the best course of action to get it up and running again.”

With Gov. Kim Reynolds opening up most businesses in the state under reduced capacities to gauge the impact on the COVID-19 illness, Sorrentino said this would be a good time for people to get out and see some of Fort Madison’s historical structures and facilities.

Groups will be limited to five touring the facility. The upstairs cells and dining area will be open for viewing with functional jail cells doors. Visitors can see how criminals were housed in the late 1800’s.

Sorrentino said it’s a nice supplement to Iowa’s Historic State Prison in Fort Madison. He said Fort Madison really has a nice history in place of incarceration when you consider the state has the oldest prison in the country west of the Mississippi, a new state-of-the-art prison, the old Lee County Jail and the contemporary functional Lee County Jail and in Montrose.

He said he hopes at some point that prison tours would include the historic jail as part of their tours. He also said the area would be a good day trip for area colleges with criminal justice programs.

Were gonna have it open four days a week from Thursday to Sunday all summer long. Halloween of course we’ll still do the haunted house inside.

We’re trying to get some additional donations coming in because we are still shy on a few things.

Right now there is caution tape on the the sides of the entryway to provide a makeshift railing, but Sorrentino said he hopes to generate enough in donations to take care of repairs like that.

He said tours will be staffed by one or two volunteers who will have basic information on the jail and its history.

“I couldn’t be happier that we’re getting this opened again for the public,” Sorrentino said.

“If one kid tells other students or a class that they got to tour the old Lee County Jail, that makes it worth everything right there.”

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