The Houston Museum of Natural Science recently opened a new satellite museum in Sugar Land, Texas in a historic prison called Two Camp which was a part of the Central State Prison Farm. Denise, one of our wonderful volunteers compiled a history of our new (but really old) building and describes what it was like for those who lived there.
The building that now houses the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land was formerly the dormitory of the Central State Prison Farm, Camp Two. The Central State Prison Farm was the first industrialized prison farm in the state, providing goods and supplies for the prison system and other state agencies. This building and the adjacent Camp One unit north of US-90 marked a shift in Texas prison construction from wood to brick structures.
The construction of the facility lasted from February 1938 until August 1939 and was funded by the Texas Legislature for $73,000. (The 2003-09 renovation of the building has cost over 100 times this amount.) Prisoners fired the red bricks for Two Camp at the nearby Jester Unit (formerly the Harlem State Prison Farm) brick plant. All construction, including flourishes and the rounded edges of the brick is the work of prison inmates.
Over the years the interior of the building has been altered with many of the original features of the prison removed. The recent renovation has carefully retained the building’s unique architectural elements where they remained. Evidence of the bars and tank layout are still visible in areas.
In Texas during the 19th and early 20th centuries, public sentiment largely supported a self-sufficient prison system to avoid creating a financial burden for the citizens. From 1871 until 1910 convicts were leased by the state to private individuals and businesses. Prisoners worked in railroad construction, lumber, mining, but most often in agriculture.
Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly) was incarcerated in the wooden structures at the Imperial Prison Farm, until his pardon in 1925. The train from Houston to San Antonio would arrive in Sugar Land at about midnight with its light shining brightly. Lead Belly’s words to “Midnight Special” reflected on his experience in Sugar Land.
After a series of prison reforms aimed at industrializing operations and improving convict living conditions, the farm was renamed to the Central State Prison Farm in 1930. Construction of the first modern brick structures in the Texas prison system began shortly after. When Camp Two opened for operation in 1939, the facility was nicknamed “Two Camp” by residents and staff.
Between 1939 and 1968 Two Camp housed African-American inmates. After the desegregation of the Central State Farm in 1968, the Main Unit of Two Camp was converted into a warehouse and operated as such until 1999.
In 2008 Sugar Land entered into a 50-year lease agreement with Houston Museum of Natural Science and HMNS at Sugar Land opened on October 3, 2009.
The Main Unit of Two Camp was an operational prison containing various security features, administrative offices, lodging for guards, food service, and laundry facilities for both officers and inmates. The Main Unit also included a small infirmary, a schoolroom, and a multi-purpose recreational area with an auditorium and stage.
Visitors to the Main Unit entered through the front porch of the South Tower into the central hallway of the administrative area. This area housed the offices of the warden and staff, the mail room, the officer’s lounge and the non-contact visitation room. Prisoners entered and exited the facility from the east side of the building through the Turn-out Gate and Assembly Hall close to what is now the Museum’s Main entrance.
Two Camp’s dormitories for convicts and officers alike were called “tanks.” Each tank contained bunks, sinks, toilets, urinals, and a single barber’s chair. Tanks 1-4 were on the first floor and Tanks 5-7 on the second floor. These tanks are now the Museum’s main exhibition galleries. The guards’ quarters were on the second and third floors of the South Tower and were called Tanks 8 and 9. The inmates slept in double bunks with a maximum of 80 people to a tank. The interior tank wall was a low wall of lockers with bars above, extending to the ceiling. This arrangement permitted inmates of one tank to see the neighboring tank and any inmate being punished in solitary confinement in the third level of the interior picket.
The interior picket was a three story square structure that stood in the atrium where Stan, the T-Rex, now reigns. This structure controlled the movement within the prison and contained a caged observation platform situated at a height that that allowed the guards to view Tanks 1-7, the Assembly Room, Dining Hall and Recreation Hall.
The second floor contained the Recreation Hall which was a long, narrow auditorium with a sloping open seating area leading to a stage. The open seating area contained a projection booth for showing films and a large retractable projection screen was above the stage. A series of mesh screens in the Recreation Hall subdivided the space for the schoolhouse and the officers’ laundry.
Life at Two Camp
Life at the camp was not easy; inmates worked everyday of the week, often outdoots. An inmate recalled that upon arriving at Two Camp in 1960 he was immediately ushered out into the fields to pick cotton – the main field crop on the farm at the time. Convicts were generally organized into work parties called “squads” that consisted of no more than 20 convicts. Squads were taken to the fields by “gypsy” wagons pulled by mules (or tractors after WWII). Armed guards mounted on horseback watched over the convicts while they worked the fields.
Prison guards worked the same type of schedule as the prisoners. Interior picket guards only got a day off during bad weather when field guards could relieve them. Normally guards worked six days a week and on alternate Sundays to help with visitation.
Saturdays at Two Camp included school in the School Room, movies and talent shows in the Recreation Hall, and outside activities such as boxing training and baseball. Sundays were visitation days and the work was reduced. Visitors met with inmates in the visitation room near the front entrance. Sunday church services were also commonly held in the auditorium.
Now that you know more about the museum’s new historic home you should come in to experience it for what it has become as well as see if you can find remnants of its past in the forms of hand made bricks and iron bars. Check out what is on display and what special events are upcoming online.