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HOMECOMING: Former sheriff’s daughters return as tour guide at Moore County Jail Museum

Yolanda Clark and Leah Skelton
Yolanda Clark (left) and Leah Skelton (right) – two of former Moore County Sheriff Ron Cunningham’s daughters – now serve as tour guides in their former home, the Moore County Jail Museum. (A Lynchburg Times Photo)

By Tabitha Evans Moore | EDITOR & PUBLISHER

When Leah Cunningham Skelton was a small child living inside the Moore County Jail under the watchful eye of her father, Sheriff Ron Cunningham, all prisoners received the same greeting.

“I was the mischievous child,” she laughs. “When I would hear them bringing prisoners through, I would crawl under my bunk bed and shoot at them with my water gun through that hole in the floor,” she says as she points to a half inch hole in the second story wood floor. “I’d always get in trouble for it later.”

It’s memories like these that Leah – and sometimes her sister, Yolanda – now share with visitors as tour guides at the Moore County Jail Museum. Their older sister, Shannon, now lives in Ohio, and doesn’t visit Lynchburg as often.

Built in 1893, the Moore County Jail served as both a sheriff’s office, jail, and home to many of the 25 sheriffs who reigned in Moore County from 1893 to 1990. Constructed of heavy timber oak and brick with thick concrete walls, the two story structure offered dispatch and jail cells for both men and women on the left side and living quarters on the right.

Ron Cunningham served as Moore County Sheriff from 1976 to 1982 and the Cunninghams were the last family to live at the jail. During those days, Cunningham worked as Moore County’s main law enforcement both patrolling the roads, investigating crimes, serving papers, and running the jail. In 1990, local officials built a new jail less than a mile from the Lynchburg Square on Elm Street and the old jail transitioned into a museum. It’s now operated by the Moore County Historical Society.

One part Mayberry, one part Dukes of Hazzard

Leah and Yolanda say living inside the Moore County Jail felt completely normal to them as small children but they recognize now how unique their experiences were.

“Nothing was off limits to us,” Leah says. “And we were allowed to just wander around the Lynchburg Square, and visit with people. Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around the older men whittling down by the Moore County Co-Op and the way the horses smelled during the Frontier Days parade.”

Straight out of a scene from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, the Cunningham Sisters – as they were called back then – would often be called up the the main stage to sing for the crowd as a local musician strummed a guitar behind them.

“We also clogged, or pretended to. We didn’t know what we were doing,” Leah jokes.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Leah also remembers being shot at while riding in the back seat of a local patrol car on her way home from school.

“I remember Dad picking me up from school in the police car, and us getting shot at on the way home. Definitely a little Duke of Hazzard riding around the back roads of Moore County dodging bullets. I just remember him yelling at me to get on the floorboard.”

One of Yolanda’s favorite memories is getting to ride on the back of one of the Hells Angels bikers, who’d occasionally visit Lynchburg.

“I always thought that was weird, that they were outlaws but Dad would let us ride with them,” Yolanda says.

That’s when Leah informs Yolanda that the supposed Hells Angel their dad entrusted their safety to was actually an undercover FBI agent in the area to break up an interstate theft ring.

“Well that makes more sense,” Yolanda jokes.

Cunningham helped document the interstate theft ring he discovered while acting as Moore County Sheriff and the subsequent attempt on his life in a based-on-a-true-story novel entitled, Conspiracy in the Town Time Forgot. Stan St. Clair wrote the book with Cunningham’s help.

Sheriff Ron Cunningham (far left) stands in front of the Moore County Jail. He served from 1976 to 1982. (Historic Photo Provided)

A mix between Andy Griffith and Buford Pusser

Over the years, the two Cunningham sisters say they developed pretty unique relationships with the prisoners who came in and out of the Moore County Jail.

Ron’s wife, Linda Cunningham, cooked not only for her family but also for the prisoners while living at the jail. Leah says that she and her sisters often delivered food from the kitchen downstairs to the prisoners upstairs. Yolanda says that the prisoners taught her how to play poker and played Barbies with her.

“It was just a different time,” says Leah. “Most of them were minor offenses or the town drunks. We rarely hosted a real criminal. Maybe once in a while one would stay here overnight on a transfer, but dad kept us far away from them.”

Leah says a prisoner once saved her life, or at least that’s how it felt to her four-year-old self.

“We owned a large chest with a bookshelf up top and it wasn’t screwed to the wall. I would pull the drawers out and use them as steps to get to the top. One day, it toppled over on me with a big thud and knocked me unconscious. A prisoner heard it and came running. I woke up and he was rocking me.”

Leah and Yoland say they both viewed their father as one part Andy Griffith and one part Buford Pusser.

“He was the kindest, sweetest, most gentle man but he was very black and white when it came to the law.”

That idea becomes evident as Leah and Yolanda recall a camping trip with their father and Willie Nelson in Lynchburg near the spot where Barbecue Hill now sits.

“Dad pursued a lot of marijuana growers around Moore County, so I get questioned a lot about how he could bust pot growers on one hand and hang out with someone like Willie Nelson on the other. I always explain that dad loved Willie Nelson. He did not like marijuana,” Leah says. “To me, he was the perfect blend between Andy Griffith and Buford Pusser. The person you got depended on which side of the law you were walking on.”

Leah and Yolanda also say their dad always enforced the law with an eye towards rehabilitation and not punishment.

“I remember a car littering right in front of us one day. Dad pulled them over and gave them a choice: they could go back and clean it up or get a ticket. He wanted a lesson learned. That was always the most important thing to him.”

Leah and Yolanda both say returning to Lynchburg and to their former home feels a bit bittersweet.

Cunningham did not win re-election in 1984 and moved on to the Tullahoma Police Department, where he eventually became a detective. Cunningham retired from the THP as the captain of detectives. After that, he volunteered to do security at Harton Hospital. Ron Cunningham passed away in 2015 at the age of 69.

“For years after dad’s death, it felt just too hard to come back here because it brought back so many memories,” Leah says. “But when Moore County Historical Society President Mike Northcutt reached out and asked if I’d be interested, I decided it wouldn’t be fair to not share the history we experienced here. I’ve always loved this town.”

The Moore County Jail Museum is located at 231 Main Street just off the historic Lynchburg Square. Admission is free but they do accept donations for the continued upkeep of the historic structure. The Moore County Historical Society also plans their annual fundraising Cake & Pie Auction for the Saturday of the Jack Daniel’s Barbecue. •

{The Lynchburg Times is a nonpartisan community newspaper serving Lynchburg, Tennessee and the surrounding counties. We also provide news and information for the 350,000 folks who come to Lynchburg to visit The Jack Daniel’s Distillery each year. We are dedicated to public service journalism for the greater good of our community. You can support us, by clicking here.}

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