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Texas Courthouses

Whether a county preserves its vintage courthouse or opts for the convenience of newer construction, the courthouse walls contain the story of its people. There, folks record births and deaths, property transactions, and other dramas of human experience. Within those stately halls, we go about the difficult task of sorting out the myriad conflicts that arise between citizens. Every courthouse has a story to tell–or, more likely, an entire book's worth. And when it comes to courthouse stories, some of the tallest tales are the ones that ring true.

Even the partition of Texas territory into a county in which to place a courthouse can make for a good yarn. In 1891, for instance, pioneers in present Castro County, then part of Oldham County, needed a petition with 150 signatures to establish a new government. After the area's settlers, cowboys, and passing strangers had signed, organizers still lacked a few John Hancocks. According to Castro County lore, rancher James W. Carter suddenly came up with the signatures of Joe Carter, Jim Carter, Sam and Bob Carter, etc.–names given to his horses–and the petition was approved.

Once folks had staked out their county lines, the issue of where to place the county seat stirred passions. One J.H. McKinley learned as much shortly after he "landed in Texas" in 1910, the year Atascosa County voted to move its county seat from Pleasanton to Jourdanton. "All you could hear was courthouse-moving talk," recalled McKinley 50 years later. "One hot summer day, a gang of us loafers were sitting under the big oak tree in the courthouse yard at Pleasanton, whittling and lacing up Bull Durham cigarettes.... I made the remark that the state should put wheels under the courthouses and roll them around until they got them in the right place.... Three men pulled their guns...and I had to...apologize with tears in my eyes to keep from getting shot. I have learned a few things.... Among them is–never discuss politics, religion, or courthouse moving with a native Texan."

Cowboys on the XIT Ranch wouldn't have taken such offense at McKinley's suggestion. When a 1903 election moved the Hartley County seat from Hartley to Channing, XIT wranglers did indeed put the old frame courthouse on wheels and then towed it behind their horses to the new county seat.

Sometimes, the public debate turned deadly, as in the 1890 events chronicled as the "Blanco County Seat War." After several elections failed to move the county seat from Blanco, which had built a fine stone courthouse in 1885, Johnson City finally wrested the honor in 1890. It appears that a Blanco merchant sparked a burst of gunfire that left a Johnson City-for-county-seat booster dying. The wounded man, reported the Austin Statesman, "had himself conveyed on a litter to the polls and cast a vote for Johnson City."

Emotions also ran high in Shelby County, when an 1866 vote moved the county seat from Shelbyville to the coming town of Center. Shelbyville leaders refused to surrender county records, so county clerk R.L. Parker "stole" the archives under cover of night. After driving them in a wagon pulled by oxen the seven miles to Center, he stood guard over them at his home. Sadly, the smuggled archives burned in 1882, when fire consumed the frame courthouse that had replaced Parker's log cabin.

In their early days, counties often conducted business outdoors. Between the time of the first Grayson County courthouse of 1847 and the second of 1859, a pecan tree provided shade for local government during the summer of 1848. The pockets of an old coat, hung from a limb, served as a post office.

Log cabin courthouses, while increasing judicial and archival security, presented new problems. In 1840s Clarksville, seat of Red River County, Judge John Hansford liked to rest his hand on a chink in the wall of his log courtroom. In time, the practice wore a hole through the wall, so that the judge's hand actually rested on the outside of the courthouse. One day, the town drunk staggered by. Angry about a recent jail sentence imposed by Hansford, the tipsy citizen recognized the judge's signet ring and bit down hard on the hand. Courtroom observers had never seen his honor so excited.

Early courts also convened in tents, schoolrooms, houses, livery stables, and saloons. Before the erection of Hockley County's first courthouse, local officials set out in 1921 for the planned Hockley City (now Levelland), to hold their first meeting at the site of the future courthouse. Cattle had knocked over the surveyor's markers, however, and the county commissioners wandered lost until a cowboy came along and steered them to the official spot, where they held the meeting in a Cadillac.

Once a courthouse stood proudly in a county seat, its architecture made a personal connection with the community. Folks often looked to the local capitol for everything from dance hall to wedding chapel to funeral parlor. Before an early Castro County courthouse burned in 1906, cowboys played poker in its cupola, judging its breeze the best in town.

Celebrations galore have graced the stately structures, their lawns, and surrounding squares. To dedicate their new courthouse in 1929, Hunt County citizens gathered by the thousands on the square in Greenville. Orators gave praise, and children sang "Texas, Our Texas," the state song. Then the crowd hushed for a performance of living statuary on the narrow outer ledge of the courthouse's third floor. Five costumed figures stood in dramatic tableau, depicting "Justice," "Pioneer Woman," "Pioneer Man," "Texas Ranger," and "Cowboy."

The 1929 performers got a rave review in 1996, when Hunt County applied for Texas Historic Landmark status. "We'd sent the State Historical Commission photos of the courthouse both with and without the living statuary," explains county historian Carol Taylor. "The commission thought we'd altered the building by removing the statues and almost denied our request for a marker. They thought the people were real statues!"

Residents reenacted the event in 1996 for Hunt County's sesquicentennial. "We tried to duplicate the original ceremony as closely as possible," says Carol. "Judge Joe Bobbitt gave the same exact speech as the county judge had in 1929." None of the original performers were still alive, but Pud Kearns portrayed the pioneer woman, as her grandmother Gertrude Horton had in 1929. Co-owner of the well-known Mary of Puddin' Hill Bakery, Pud made a white chocolate replica cake of the courthouse. "They have it at the store," says Carol. "No one will ever eat that cake."

Texans have strong feelings for their courthouses, all right. A number of citizens have so loved the county capitols that they have driven to all 254 and photographed each one. Sunnyvale artist Bill Morgan, who publishes calendars featuring his drawings of courthouses, says that at least 98 of his customers have done so.

Mr. and Mrs. Urlin Streu, owners of a Hereford hardware store, made their first image-making trek in 1949 and their last in 1960. "When I took that first picture in Knox County," Urlin told an Associated Press reporter in 1960, "getting slides of every courthouse in Texas was the furthest thought from my mind. I would have doubted my sanity if I'd even considered such an idea."

At a courthouse slide show in Hereford, Mrs. Streu suggested they return to counties that had recently built new courthouses and photograph them. Observed the AP reporter, "[Mr.] Streu appeared visibly shaken by the suggestion and too shocked to speak." In addition to the slides, the family still treasures the large map of Texas displayed at lectures. "It's color-coded to show when they traveled to various parts of the state," explains son Oliver Streu, who had it framed for his Amarillo financial planning office. "It's almost a work of art, somewhat abstract."

Bill and Willadean Brock of Sweetwater put the pedal to the metal to shoot all of Texas' courthouses in 1996. "Roads nowadays circle around the town," explains Bill. "You have to go downtown, meet people, and take some pictures to get the history of the town."

Several other long-haul shutterbugs have made the approximately 15,000-mile trek to every Texas courthouse to take photos for books. Austin attorney David B. Brooks, author of a 1989 book on county government legal issues, still needs about 100 photos for his planned courthouse tome.

As photographers continue flocking to courthouse lawns, they find many of the vintage structures undergoing restoration. A disastrous fire that struck the Hill County courthouse on January 1, 1993, underscored the need for aggressive preservation. Built in 1890, Hill County's elaborate temple of justice is well on the way to full restoration, thanks to community efforts and a diverse mix of funding. Hill County native Willie Nelson helped out with a benefit concert on the courthouse square.

Restoration of the 1885 Romanesque Revival courthouse in Shelby County has been ongoing since 1984. "The architect, J.J.E. Gibson, designed the courthouse from memory to resemble the castles in his homeland of County Ballymore, Ireland," says Shelby County judge Floyd A. "Dock" Watson.

A trap door near the judge's bench offered a handy escape from irate defendants. As far as Judge Watson knows, it was never urgently needed. "It was closed up at some point, but we reopened it five years ago," he says. "It's quite an attraction when I lead schoolkids through on tours."

Today, Shelby County conducts business in a defunct savings and loan near the square; after restoration of the Irish castle, trials will resume in the second-floor courtroom, and the ground floor will serve as a tourist attraction. Descendants of a master carpenter who helped build the castle look forward to the removal of a certain wall, behind which their ancestor lost a small planing tool.

A restoration of the 1912 Atascosa County courthouse in Jourdanton will soon make the Mission Revival-style building even more attractive to passing photographers. Designed by San Antonio architect Henry T. Phelps, the Atascosa County capitol is the only elaborate example among Texas courthouses of this once-popular architectural fashion.

The missions of California inspired the style in the 1890s. Over the next few decades, Texas architects made widespread use of the curvilinear parapets, arcaded loggias, and other Mission Revival hallmarks. (The style graced numerous railroad depots, including the now-demolished depot at nearby Pleasanton. Jourdanton, by virtue of attracting the Artesian Belt Railroad shortly after its founding in 1909, replaced Pleasanton as the county seat.)

County historian Kay Hindes found that unexpected interpretations can complicate a restoration. "We have an old postcard that shows green roof tiles," says Kay. "But people thought it had always been red. We found that the postcard company didn't like the red roof and had simply colored it green."

From her office window, county judge Deborah Herber watches travelers stop and photograph the building. "A woman who recently moved here went back to her doctor [Mavis Kelsey] in Houston," says the judge. "He takes pictures of county courthouses as a hobby and displays his 20 favorites on his office walls. She was thrilled to see the Atascosa County courthouse included." (See When...Where...How.)

Judge Herber's uncle, W.O. "Dub" Wells of Pleasanton, got the contract to tear down the county's older courthouse in his town some years ago. "I asked him what became of the materials," says the judge. "He said the bricks were thrown in a creek, and much of the wrought-iron fencing and the cornerstones went to an area ranch. But he found parts of the banister in his barn, so I'm going to make legs out of them for tables at the current courthouse."

Restoration is also ongoing at the 1885 Blanco County courthouse in Blanco. Even though court has convened in Johnson City since 1890, the old stone courthouse in Blanco has remained an integral part of the community. Classes were held in the upstairs courtroom for several years after the schoolhouse burned in 1893.

"Parts of the building had offices for farm loans, dentists, and the newspaper," says Roy Byars, 81, who grew up on Blanco's town square, "but it was always open–you just went right through when crossing the square." In silent-film days, Roy's aunt and uncle owned a movie theater in the courthouse. "When I didn't have the dime admission, I rewound film or played the player piano to see the movie."

From 1936 to the 1970s, the temple of justice housed a hospital, the birthplace of Roy's three daughters and two of his sons-in-law. In the '70s, a Wild West museum inhabited the building.

In the late 1980s, when a rancher who'd bought the courthouse planned to move it, Blanco folks raised \$250,000 to buy it. Restored, it will serve as a community center. Governor Bush joined about 1,000 local folks–and two great-granddaughters of the architect, F.E. Ruffini–this past May to rededicate the building. In his speech, the governor announced his intention to ask the next legislature for \$200 million for restoration of antique courthouses statewide. Stan Graves of the Texas Historical Commission calls the plan "the largest and most far-reaching historic preservation initiative ever conceived by a state government in this country." The THC's Texas Courthouse Alliance Project has already studied the needs of 216 vintage Texas courthouses, with special focus on the 74 built in the 19th Century.

The governor's idea won't get any argument from Texans like Blanco's Roy Byars. "I spent my childhood playing in that courthouse," he says wistfully. "We hope it will last another hundred years."

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From the September 1998 issue.

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