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  Texas : Trips : Courthouses : The Great American Legends Tour, Texas Style

County Seat - Stephenville, Texas

by Swoops

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Chandelia in courthouse

The magnificent chandelier presents a focal point in the atrium of the Erath County courthouse. The ceiling above hides the bell tower.
Photo by Taylor Lang

If the folks in Dublin, Texas, had had their way, the Erath County Courthouse would be the center of attraction of their city. But the Dr. Pepper plant there is almost as inviting as the impressive Romanesque Revival courthouse in Stephenville.

My wolf friend Dakota and I celebrated our fourth birthday the day we drove through Erath County. Since she's a big Dr. Pepper fiend and since she gets cranky if she doesn't get her way, a stop at Old Doc's Soda Shop in Dublin was a must. It's right next to the oldest Dr. Pepper bottling company in the world. Dr. Pepper there is made with real Imperial cane sugar straight from Sugar Land, Texas, instead of corn syrup or other sweeteners. Zing!

A short drive from Dublin is the county seat in Stephenville. With a name like that, you figure it's named after someone. In fact, John M. Stephen bought the land known as Erath County from the heirs of an Alamo defender, John Blair, Jim Bowie's compatriot. Stephen donated the land that the first courthouse would stand on and, since the land was his, he dubbed the city "Stephenville".

The county was named for George B. Erath, who was a busy fellow. He fought in the Texas Revolution, including the decisive Battle of San Jacinto. Because of his surveying capabilities, many folks settled in Central Texas. When he wasn't busy surveying land or fighting for a cause, he was busy in politics. In 1845 when Texas became a state, he was voted into office as Texas senator.

Another interesting fellow from Erath County was Charlie Bird. When he was young, he and his siblings went to school only three months out of the year. That must have been too long because he ran away from home. Eventually, he wound up at the Matador Ranch in Motley County where he helped drive 2,000 three-year-old steers through Indian Territory into Kansas. Once his only pay was a broomtail pony and a worn-out saddle, and to top it off, he had to sleep in a dugout with a horse, a rooster, a speckled hen, and her chicks.

Erath County Courthouse
The 1892 Erath County courthouse in Stephenville,
designed by J. Reily Gordon.
Note how the two intermediate bays are brought forward and how they are topped with triangular pediments.
Photo by Taylor Lang

The existing courthouse is the third courthouse that has been the seat of justice for Erath County. In 1866, the county's first courthouse, a wooden structure, went the way of many earlier courthouses. The blaze could be seen for miles away. When the county decided to build another structure, they didn't take their chances: they built it of stone. However, by 1887, that one needed serious help.

At that time, the city of Dublin had the idea of building the courthouse. It took the county four years to decide what to do, but the vote in 1891 kept the county seat in Stephenville. The old block-style courthouse was razed, and plans were made for the new county courthouse.

stairs in the Erath County courthouse
The cast and wrought iron staircase,
topped with Dakota Wolf, special correspondent.
Bison Bill and Swoops take second billing at the bottom.
Photo by Taylor Lang.

A man with a flare for design, J. Reily Gordon of San Antonio, competed with about twenty other architects for the chance to build the edifice. He had previously designed other structures near the Courthouse Square, including the 1889 First National Bank. He put in the winning bid of $65,000, which was $10,000 less than the county wanted to spend. The cornerstone was laid on December 3, 1891, and construction soon began.

This three-story tall structure is made of native limestone from the Leon River and red sandstone from the Pecos River. This courthouse is different from many other Texas courthouses in that the tower is in the center as opposed to being off to one side. Instead of having a corner entrance, Gordon brought the two intermediate bays forward and topped them with triangular pediments, which he did later with the Fayette County and Victoria County courthouses.

Syrian columns support the north entrance arch, and in the central tower, a Howard clock was installed many years after the courthouse's completion.

East Texas pine was the wood of choice for the interior, while imported marble covered the floors. Cast and wrought iron were used for the stairway. One could walk into the atrium and gawk up at the bell tower many feet up.

In 1988, the courthouse was restored. In this restoration, the opening in the atrium leading up to the tower was sealed off. Fortunately, this will be reopened soon through a grant the county received through the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program.

kids in front of Erath Co Courthouse
Note the balustrade treatment above the doorway.
Kids from the Stephenville library storytime group join Taylor Lang, Bison Bill, Swoops, and Dakota
in front of the Erath County Courthouse.
Photo by Lou Ann Herda
August 2001, Copyright Lou Ann Herda, Ed. D
Thanks to Sharon Fox of the Erath County Chamber of Commerce for getting together the materials for me and for rounding up the kids from the library. And thanks to the "soda jerk" at Old Doc's Soda Shop for filling us in on Dr. Pepper history.

"History of Erath County Courthouse" booklet, by Mr. Robert Scott, publication date unknown.
References and Additional Reading

See also
Erath County Courthouse
by Sam Fenstermacher

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