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

County Seat - Hallettsville, Texas

by Swoops and Bison Bill

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LaVaca County Courthouse
LaVaca County Courthouse
Photo by John Troesser, 2002
Lavaca County Courthouse 1897

1897 LaVaca County Courthouse detail
Photo by John Troesser, 2001

Situated near Sublime and Seclusion in southeast Central Texas is the county seat of Lavaca County, Hallettsville. If you're from Pennsylvania, you might think you've returned because the courthouse here looks a lot like the Allegheny County courthouse in Pittsburgh. Famous architect Henry Hobson Richardson built that particular courthouse.

Lavaca County Courthouse 1897
1897 LaVaca County Courthouse today
Photo by John Troesser, 2002

Now, to prove my architectural capabilities, I'm going to let Bison Bill explain the description of the courthouse.

"The one hundred seventy-feet tall Lavaca County courthouse is made of brown sandstone and grey stone shipped in by rail as huge boulders from Mill County. These stones were measured and cut on site by local farmers and other laborers.

"It has a hipped roof and heavy towers with pyramidal roofs which look a whole lot like those pyramids in Egypt (not the city in Texas). The windows are tall and narrow and have what are called lintels, which I thought always tasted best with a bit of curry powder and cayenne pepper, except these lintels are made of stone. You won't find me eating them.

"There are some incredible Romanesque arches all around the courthouse. And the clock tower can be seen from miles away, especially if you're Swoops. That tower has windows that are two-stories tall, as tall as our house, and that tower is why this courthouse looks so much like the one in Pittsburgh.

"Eugene Heiner was the designer of this, his final courthouse, since he died shortly thereafter at age 42."

That was fairly painless.

Lavaca County courthouse tower
The two-story Lavaca County courthouse tower,
containing the seven foot Seth Thomas clock.
Photo by John Troesser

While we were there, we went inside the courtroom. Bison Bill commented on its pressed tin ceiling and the curly pine wainscoting. I found out that the first case here was on June 5, 1899, after Chas. McMurry shot Chas. Ledbetter right out on the courthouse square. Killed him dead. Back then, the old jury room was located on the third floor where the jury slept, ate, and relieved themselves in their "handsomely equipped bathrooms."*

This particular courthouse wasn't always the seat of justice for Lavaca County. In fact, from 1846 to 1852, the seat changed several times between Petersburg and Hallettsville. Initially, court was held in a log house in Petersburg. That didn't last long, so from 1847 until 1851, court was held in Josiah Dowling's house. I guess that way Mrs. Dowling had plenty of help around the house.

A courthouse was built in 1851, using all the money in the county treasury. This was all fine and good (enough) until 1852 when it came time to select the permanent county seat. That was when Hallettsville got into the mess.

The Hallett settlement was initially in Colorado County. A road was built between Columbus to Hidesville, the name given to this settlement because of the buffalo hide used as the cabin door. (I think Bison Bill just fainted.) This settlement had its own post office, and Mrs. Hallett ran a store out of her house. Then the settlement became part of La Baca County, a new county created in 1842. Hidesville became Hallettsville.

In 1897, it was time for another courthouse. The old building was demolished, and the new Heiner courthouse was slowly erected. The crowning jewel, the seven feet tall Seth Thomas clock in the tower, complete with arches, was put in one year late. The courthouse was well furnished, including every room having its own hat rack and spittoon.

In 1913, some folks who had a little too much time on their hands figured out that Hallettsville had thirteen letters in its name, had a population of 1300, had 13 newspapers, and to balance things out, had an equal amount of churches and saloons, at thirteen each. Ripley's Believe It Or Not cleverly called it the "13" city. I always heard that "thirteen" was an unlucky number. But with a city that's known for its kolaches and two Texas halls of fame, it's far from unlucky.

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See "Lone Star Diary" Column:
"The Grand Old Lady On The Square."
Lavaca County Courthouse,
Fourth of July, 1899

by Murray Montgomery

"Thanks to an old newspaper from July of 1899, we can turn back the hands of time and get a glimpse of how the citizens of Lavaca County celebrated their brand new courthouse..."

Lavaca County Courthouse Forum

I enjoyed the story on the Lavaca County courthouse! Just an additional note to its history: When the movie version of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" was filmed in south Texas, the production company used the Lavaca County courthouse as a 'stand-in' for the Fayette County courthouse (seems the folks in La Grange were still a bit miffed about the Chicken Ranch being shut down and they didn't want the added publicity about it!). Much of the movie was filmed in Hallettsville, Victoria and surrounding areas. The movie starred Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, Dom Deluise and Jim Nabors. Again, I enjoy your weekly newsletter very much and forward it on to all my friends both in and out of the great state of Texas! - R. C. Hurst - August 02, 2001
July 2001, Copyright Lou Ann Herda, Ed. D

The Lavaca County Seats and Their Courthouses, p. 7.
Many thanks to Pat Carr, executive director of the Hallettsville Chamber of Commerce, for assembling materials, and to Brenda Lincke-Fisseler, town librarian, for assembling kids.

2001 Texas State Travel Guide (Texas Department of Transportation)
The Lavaca County Courthouse leaflet (publication date and author unknown)
Lavaca County Seats and Their Courthouses, 1897-1997, by Paul C. Boethel (1997)
References and Additional Reading

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