|The beloved 1888
(former) Austin County Courthouse in Bellville
Courtesy Bellville Historical Society
County has had a total of six courthouses according to the Bellville
Times. Courthouses of Texas by Mavis P. Kelsey, Sr. and Donald H.
Dyal list only four. Both sources agree on the final two - (1888 and
1960) which are the ones discussed in this article.
Our article here contains some mention of the old, some mention of
the new, some mention of the fire, and some mention of people's reaction.
But the one subject that outweighs all the others combined is the
widespread remembrance of the former courthouse. Reminders
are found all over town.
1888: The "Majestic"
1939 Photo courtesy TXDoT
1888 Courthouse designed by Eugene T. Heiner was built for a total
cost of $45,000. Heiner's commission was $955.50. (Architects usually
received a percentage of the total cost.) A prolific designer based
in Houston, Heiner had
designed scores of buildings, including many courthouses (See The
Courthouses of Eugene Heiner.) Today only Lavaca
County (Wharton) have unaltered
|Eugene T. Heiner's
name on the salvaged cornerstone
TE Photo 11-04
Tale of Two Time Capsules
After the 1960 fire, the cornerstone of the 1888 courthouse
took several taps from the wrecking ball to dislodge it. Once loosened,
a crowd searched the stone for the articles that had been placed in
it when it was set. Unfortunately most of the contents had been ruined
by dampness and rot. A few Czech language newspapers (printed in Texas)
crumbled into dust before they could read. It also contained a A Bible
that was recognizable only by its covers. The frugality of a previous
generation of Bellvillains was shown when only two coins were found
(both dated 1876). There was also Civil War paper script for 50 cents.
The town druggist had left a small box of pills and a square-headed
nail from the previous courthouse was also included.
To avoid a similar disappointment for those who will eventually open
the last capsule, special precautions were taken. The new "capsule"
is actually a bronze box which was soldered shut to repel dampness.
But since the public had been invited to contribute things, a tardy
donor caused the box to be pried open to accept the late item.
The present building doesn't have a cornerstone due to the slab-type
style of construction. Instead, the box was hidden behind a corner
slab. The 1876 coins were replaced along with five more coins; a quarter
(said to represent the county judge) and four nickels to represent
the county commissioners. Probably inspired by the old druggist's
offering, a Bellville doctor placed a box of Anacin in the new capsule.
A Humble Credit Card was contributed - and not to be outdone, the
local Texaco dealer contributed "a Texas Company" credit card.
Courtesy Bellville Times
The reason for building the new courthouse was a fire
of undetermined origin. About 2:30 a.m. on April 5, 1960, Bellville's
night watchman heard breaking glass. It is thought that the heat from
the already-burning fire was shattering the windows. After phoning
for help, he returned to see flames already approaching the tower.
Within five minutes, fire departments from Sealy,
New Ulm, Industry
were responding. (Brenham
was not mentioned.) One fireman reported that he had traveled 42 miles
in 28 minutes (which works out to be 90 miles per hour). Before long
the bell crashed through the building's roof and went all the way
to the basement. It was estimated that 450,000 gallons of water were
sprayed onto the building and others on the square that were in danger
of being ignited by cinders. When it was all over, the cracked bell
in the basement was under four feet of water. Casper Balke, a resident
(11 air miles from Bellville) reported
seeing the flames from that distance.
An ugly gutted shell was left standing and the county now had to face
the expense of demolition. The courthouse pigeons attempted to return
to their roosts in the brick eaves. After the ruins cooled sufficiently,
the pigeons did return - until the walls were demolished.
50,000 to 60,000 bricks were cleaned and sold. The old
bell now sits atop the former
cornerstone in front of the new building. A short length of surviving
banister is housed nearby at the old Austin
County jail museum and a few scorched pieces of furniture survived.
Images in paint, wood and china
in oil. A painting by artist Frank C. Dill hangs in the Bellville
TE Photo 11-04
|A framed photo
of the Old Courthouse hangs in the New
TE Photo 11-04
image is included in a mural...
TE Photo 7-03
|...on the Historical
TE Photo 5-02
|and even on a
plate that hangs in the
TE Photo 11-04
story of the courthouse fire is available at the Bellville Library.
The Bellville Times and the Bellville Library
of Main Street from the railroad tracks. Courthouse in distance.
Photo courtesy Bellville Library