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Hilltop warden, employees work to restore facility’s former glory

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Hilltop warden, employees work to restore facility’s former glory

One day not long ago, Hilltop Unit Senior Warden Dawn Grounds got a history lesson from an older man who showed up unannounced at the front gate and asked if he could go in and look around, telling the picket officer that he once lived there. Curious that a man would want to visit a prison unit that had not housed men in years, Grounds went out to talk to him and learned that he had indeed spent 14 years at Hilltop, not as a man but as a boy.

scenic photo at the entrance of the HIlltop Unit.
A star of stone stands outside the historic Hilltop Unit in Gatesville.
Photos by David Nunnelee
Grounds tells the story of her encounter with the man when talking about the 116-year history of Hilltop, a history that she and her staff are working to preserve piece by piece.

“I see so much history here and so many things that are about who we are and where we came from,” said Grounds. “Look at the architecture here. They just don’t make buildings like this anymore. I’d really like to bring Hilltop back to its former glory.”

A TDCJ facility since June1981 that now houses more than 600 female offenders, Hilltop is among the oldest state prisons still in use in Texas. Only the Huntsville “Walls” Unit and the Jester I Unit near Richmond predate Hilltop.

Hilltop actually started out as a reformatory for incorrigible boys under the age of 16 back in 1889. Then called the House of Correction and Reformatory, it was the first juvenile training and rehabilitation institution in the southern United States and initially housed 68 boys who had formerly been imprisoned with adult felons at the Huntsville Unit. The name of the state school changed a number of times over the years and it was eventually placed under the direction of the Texas Youth Commission. By the early 1970s, the state school housed approximately 1,500 boys and employed more than 250 people.

In 1979, what was then the Gatesville School for Boys closed its doors and the 900-acre property was transferred to the Texas prison system. Two years later, the facility reopened under the Hilltop name to house minimum custody male offenders. Female offenders replaced the men in February 1993.

Leaving their mark
Grounds arrived at Hilltop from the modern Gurney Unit in Tennessee Colony two years ago and almost immediately became drawn to the history and makeup of the place. Her office is on the first floor of what was originally Lanham Hall. An inmate dormitory occupies the entire second floor of the present-day administration building.

To the east sits what was formerly called Ferguson Hall but is now known as the Texas Building because of the large colorful concrete letters spelling out the name of the Lone Star State on its south side. Classrooms and a library occupy the first floor of the building that recently got a new roof and is having its outside drainage system replaced. Upstairs is an auditorium with a handsome hardwood stage framed by green velvet curtains. Behind the auditorium seats is a projection room that was walled in long ago. Inside the room accessible through a hatch not unlike those found inside perimeter pickets are dozens of discarded seat cushions and rusted film reels. Some boys who may have worked as projectionists in the room wrote their names on the walls and ceiling as a way of leaving their leaving their mark.

Photo of the yard beside a building with the word, Texas, spelled out in painted concrete letters.
Colorful concrete letters spelling out the name of the Lone Star State identify the Texas Building at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville.
The exteriors of the main buildings at Hilltop are painted bright white, making them sparkle like white diamonds when the light is right. Ornate ceiling tiles and moldings dating back to the 1890s still decorate the interiors of some of the buildings. Some staircases are also topped by the ornate pressed tin ceilings of yesteryear.

Hilltop is a hub
Hilltop is the hub of the six prison units clustered in Gatesville. It’s a true prison farm and fittingly serves as the headquarters for the area’s agricultural operations. Swine are fattened on four feeder slabs there and the unit also stables some 60 horses ridden by field officers from the surrounding units. Further, Hilltop is home to the regional operations and maintenance department and hosts the in-service and pre-service training facilities for the area. The unit is also responsible for all vehicle maintenance and repair work and serves as an area fuel depot.

Hilltop employs more than 190 correctional officers and 140 support personnel.

No place else to go
In the early days of Hilltop, not all the boys sent there were bad. Some simply had no family and no other place to go.

“A lot of times if there was no place to put a kid, they would drop him off here and this ended up being the only place where kids could go,” Grounds said.

Sadly, some never left. Across Highway 36 from the main compound, a small cemetery enclosed by a stone wall and arched entryway contains 16 graves of boys who died while in custody. Four boys buried side by side are all thought to have succumbed to the smallpox virus that spread through the area in 1918. Their headstones read that each died within days of each other in October of that year. The youngest boy buried in the well-kept cemetery died at age 10.

But there are those at Hilltop who suspect that the boys from the cemetery are still around, if only in spirit. When things go bump in the night or something happens that can’t be immediately explained, the “little boys” get the blame. Even Grounds has felt their presence.

“Supposedly, it’s haunted and the little boys play,” Grounds said about the unit. “They don’t do anything bad. They’re not evil, they’re mischievous. They’re little boys being little boys.”

Photo of details of ceiling tile
Ornate ceiling tiles dating from the 1890s are common fixtures within the Hilltop Unit.

Good solid bones
Maintaining buildings that have stood for more than 100 years is no small chore. Roofs leak, walls crumble, paint fades, and plumbing can be problematic. But improvements are being made as the agency and unit maintenance budgets permit. The unit count room was recently painted, for example, and the front lobby was remodeled.

“Maintenance issues are a huge part of each day because a lot of the things here they don’t make anymore,” Grounds said. “They don’t make window panes like this anymore. It takes a lot of work. It’s inch by inch that we continue to work on these buildings.”

Still, Grounds said she and her staff are determined to give Hilltop a facelift even if its beautification is bit by bit. She feels she owes it not only to the generations that have worked there over the years and to those that will follow, but also to the occasional unexpected visitor who once called the place home.

“I want them to know the history of it and how much Hilltop has shaped the area,” she said. “It can be a pain, but sometimes the best things take work and a little sweat, a little determination to get. The bones are good here. The outer shell needs work but it has good solid bones. I want to fix the outside, and I think when we get this unit back to where it needs to be, people will appreciate it for the history it holds.”

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