Persistence and Tenacity Preserves Blanco Landmark
by Terry Jeanson
The 1885 former Blanco County courthouse
story of JoNell Haas begins in the very building that she helped to
save in the 1980s. She was born in the historic 1885 courthouse in
in 1958 when it was still being used as a hospital. Her family had
been longtime residents in the area, but when JoNell came of age,
she moved to Pennsylvania. Upon her return to Texas,
she married her husband, Joe (also born in the old courthouse in Blanco,)
and they moved back to the Blanco
area in 1982.
photo of the 1885 former Blanco County courthouse in Blanco
Photo courtesy Texas State Library and Archives
my conversation with JoNell in October of 2007, she relayed to me
the story of how the old courthouse nearly vanished. In mid-1986,
businessman John W. “Mike” O’Boyle, who lived in nearby Stonewall,
bought the land on which the courthouse stood and it was his intention
to disassemble the building, stone by stone, and move it to one of
his ranches for use as a private residence. The community immediately
reacted. JoNell’s mother, Rosa, heard of a meeting that was being
held in the back room of a local Blanco barbecue joint to discuss
saving the courthouse and she convinced JoNell to go with her. Unaware
of what was going on at the time, JoNell walked out of the meeting
in disbelief. How could this happen? How could this person just take
their courthouse away from them? JoNell was also surprised at the
apathy shown by some of the members of the community, not only towards
the saving of the old courthouse, but other historic buildings on
the square as well. Knowing of JoNell’s tenacity, her mother encouraged
her to get involved.
“Most of the time, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” JoNell
admits as she was helping to put together fundraisers to raise the
money needed to purchase the land back from Mr. O’Boyle.
JoNell was elected to the board of a non-profit organization that
became incorporated in order to apply for various grants. Their first
fundraiser was a bake sale.
Blanco County courthouse before restoration
Photo courtesy the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation
taken by JoNell's father before the restoration.
Photo courtesy of JoNell Haas
“We made $750.00.
People laughed at our effort. Because we were a grass roots organization,
they didn’t take us seriously. Many people who knew me still saw
me as that little girl who used to run around in pigtails.”
As word spread
locally about the efforts to keep the old courthouse from being
dismantled, the press from around the state picked up on it.
“It was everywhere. Everything you read had a mention about the
A majority of the press coverage vilified Mr. O’Boyle who had no
intention of making the courthouse a gift to the county, thus losing
his considerable investment. In actuality, Mr. O’Boyle also did
not want the town to lose their courthouse and had given the preservationists
time to raise the money to buy it back from him and also offered
to assist in accruing state and federal monies. The news of the
fight to save the courthouse even spread as far as California where
descendants of the building’s architect, F. E. Ruffini, had been
living at the time.
I received from the Ruffini family meant so much to me.”
County officials from Johnson
City who wanted to get involved ruffled the feathers of many
residents in Blanco. Apparently, almost a century later, there was
still bad blood between the two cities after Blanco
lost its status as county seat to Johnson
The fundraising efforts continued for the next three and a half
years and culminated at a dance hall in Johnson
City in May of 1990. A popular country & western dance band
from Austin performed
with tickets selling for $100 per person. Another performer was
considered for the fundraiser, but it was determined that he would
not be a big enough draw.
“At the time, the name Garth Brooks didn’t mean much to anyone.
It was not long afterwards that he became a household name.”
Along with the ticket sales, many high dollar items were auctioned
off, including a limited edition book put together and signed by
Lady Bird Johnson, one of the courthouse’s biggest supporters, and
a signed football and jersey from Houston Oilers running back Earl
Campbell. The fundraiser brought in an unexpected $50,000.00. The
following day in Blanco, another fundraising event brought in $10,000.00.
started to fall in place after that. We started to receive grants
from private foundations and getting donations from businesses all
around the state. They must have been inspired after seeing how
the community was backing our efforts.”
Indeed, Mr. O’Boyle seemed impressed at their efforts as well. Although
they had not raised enough money to even meet Mr. O’Boyle’s purchase
price, a settlement was made through Mr. O’Boyle’s representatives
to sell the land back to the preservationists. It was JoNell whose
name was put on the title.
“It was an important moment for me that I wanted to capture on film,(see
picture) but it was done in secret. The public didn’t know about
it until about a month later.”
Haas signing the papers giving her the title to the land on which
the old courthouse sits. Photo courtesy JoNell Haas
in 1990, JoNell helped start a tradition which continues to this day.
With the help of her husband, a skilled electrician, they decided
to light the old courthouse for Christmas, using the lights to accentuate
the architectural details of the building. The one thing that JoNell
insisted on was that there be a large, red, lighted bow over the front
doors to the courthouse as a symbol to the efforts of the community
to save the building. At the lighting ceremony, JoNell presented the
title to the land, not to the county or the city, but to the community.
Present at the ceremony was Ernst Ruffini, the architect’s grandson,
and Kay Ruffini, the architect’s great-granddaughter. Ms. Ruffini,
an accomplished artist, presented JoNell with a limited print of a
watercolor painting of the courthouse that she had painted.
“It is something that I will always treasure.”
of a watercolor painting done by Kay Ruffini, great-granddaughter
of architect F.E. Ruffini. Because the old Blanco County courthouse
had not yet been restored, Ms. Ruffini used the nearly identical Concho
County courthouse as her reference, thus the red colored mansard roof
in the painting versus Blanco's dark gray roof. - Photos by Terry
Jeanson, Courtesy of JoNell Haas, October, 2007
| A notation
on the back of the watercolor painting identifies this limited print
as number 2 of 200. Photo by Terry Jeanson, Courtesy of JoNell Haas,
Haas today at her home west of Blanco, TX, posing with the print of
the watercolor painting done by Kay Ruffini, the great-granddaughter
of the architect of the old Blanco County courthouse, F.E. Ruffini.
- Photo by Terry Jeanson, October, 2007
| The courthouse
was now safe, fulfilling the goal of preserving it for the future.
JoNell wanted to stress that the saving of the courthouse was very
much a group effort. Her organization received so much support from
state Senators, state representatives and even local business owners
who donated things such as the use of their Xerox machines. Even so,
many of the people involved often looked to JoNell for hope because
she was the “local girl” whose family had lived in the area for generations
and because they knew that her desire to save the courthouse was genuine
and motivated by her love for the historic building.
After the initial saving of the courthouse, county and state officials
began to take control of its future and JoNell gracefully bowed out,
focusing more on a growing family that needed her attention. Although
the exterior restoration of the courthouse was completed in 1998,
much more work needs to be done.
former Blanco County courthouse after restoration
Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, March 2007
| “I still keep
my eye on things,” JoNell says from her home west of Blanco. “They
haven’t heard the last from me.”
One thing that was never completed was a walkway to be made from bricks
with the names of the people who donated money to saving the courthouse.
One thing is for sure, JoNell won’t let the current leaders of Blanco
forget. Still interested in preservation, her current project is the
restoration of an old dance hall in Twin
Sisters, a community just south of Blanco.
When I asked JoNell what she remembers most of her time spent raising
money to save the courthouse, she said that it was a combination of
“fun, family and the people of the community. People who had nothing
would come up to me and say “Here, JoNell. Here’s a dollar for the
courthouse.” Even the small contributions. That just meant so much.”
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