The following Back in the Day column originally appeared in the Fairfield Daily Republic on May 10, 2013 By Tony Wade
A show of hands please: How many knew that in the 1950s and 1960s a room in the Solano County jail had wallpaper with ballerinas in pink, blue and yellow tutus? This will require some explaining. Judy Emerson Gosselin’s family lived in the jail, which used to be next to the old courthouse on Texas Street, because her father, Stanley Emerson, was appointed undersheriff of Solano County. The Emersons had resided on Taylor Street until she, her sister Susan, her parents and pet Cocker Spaniel Penny moved to the jail around 1955 when Gosselin was approximately 11 years old. “My dad’s position required that he reside on the jail premises and also that my mom, Lillian, serve as chief matron,” Gosselin said. “The chief matron was a sworn-in female officer who took care of the women’s ward. They needed someone on-site who could book female prisoners at night if needed. They were on call 24 hours a day/five days a week.” “We had a private entrance from the side alley between the courthouse and the jail. The residence was on the second floor and had a kitchen, living room, bathroom and two bedrooms,” Gosselin said. “Our windows were not barred like the others and my bedroom faced the old Armijo (now the courthouse). It was over the drunk tank.” The residence entrance is on the left. The first Solano County jail was constructed in 1859, and was replaced in 1908 by a larger one that resembled a medieval fortress. In 1919, the 50-foot-tall octagonal water tower was added with architecture mirroring the jail’s. After World War II, the jail was remodeled and finally was demolished in 1991. As a child, Gosselin found the rich shrubbery on the jail grounds ideal for playing hide-and-seek. Later her father taught her how to fly-fish out on the jail’s big front lawn. While she was a tomboy, she also took dance lessons – hence the aforementioned ballerina wallpaper. In her time living at the jail, Gosselin befriended staff members. One deputy taught her how to take fingerprints and how to take and develop photographs. One of her favorite people was the jail’s cook, Thelma “Tom” Tonnesen. “She was (longtime Fairfielder) Bud Tonnesen’s mother,” Gosselin said. “She let me hang out in the kitchen and watch her cook. Tom was a great cook and made wonderful cookies. My dad and I still make Tom’s jailhouse beans.” Gosselin also befriended inmates. The family’s subsequent dog named Jody would wander into cells and the inmates built him a doghouse on the exercise yard. “I got to know some of the trustees. They were there for minor offenses like being drunk in public,” Gosselin said. “They would be sober in jail and just be wonderful people.” Once, Gosselin’s father and a deputy tried to figure out how prisoners were getting contraband into the jail. They set up a stakeout in her bedroom with the lights out and the blinds pulled. A string came out of the prisoner’s side and someone on the sidewalk tied something on it and it was retracted. Busted. Gosselin had slumber and birthday parties and other normal teenage gatherings in her family’s jail home. Her last party there was for her 1964 engagement. During high school, Gosselin was very social, well-known and was homecoming queen. “When I was in school there were three distinct groups; the town kids, base kids and valley kids. I had friends in all three groups and they visited me in the jail. It was also fun to bring a new boyfriend home to meet my parents,” Gosselin said .
She found there were pros and cons – no pun intended – to being known as one of the girls who lived in jail. “I had a group of girls in my car and was sitting at the signal when a carload of boys pulled up and challenged me to a drag. We took off and I was inching ahead when the lights came on behind us,” Gosselin said. “The boys went right and I went straight. The police officer chose the boys because he knew where to find me. The next day he pulled me over and said, ‘Either you tell your dad, or I will.’ I lost my driving privileges for a while.”