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Dignity, Decorum and Justice
Mark Texas' Courthouse Histories,
Except for the Fights, Arsons, Thefts, etc
by Bill Morgan
Page 4
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Anybody Got a Match?
But arson was hard to beat for reliable courthousetrashing. When the courthouse wars heated up, so did a lot of courthouses. I counted 106 Texas courthouses destroyed or badly damaged by fire from the first in 1848 to the latest in 2001. Ironically, those courthouses were in Jasper and Newton Counties, respectively, Southeast Texas neighbors that are almost geographically identical and are named for Revolutionary War heroes and friends John Newton and William Jasper. The two Yankee soldiers enjoyed such celebrity that 60 counties and cities around the country are named for them - usually a town being named for one and its county for the other.

If 106 courthouse fires in 254 counties sounds excessive, it's worse than it sounds. Texas had as few as 24 counties and not more than 150 during most of those fires. Too, it had frame buildings, open fireplaces, volunteer fire departments with horse-driven wagons and, eventually, uncertain electric wiring. All played parts in the holocausts visited on those 106 courthouses, along with arsonists.

The time line on the fires indicates the intricate stone buildings weren't just for looks. After 78 courthouses suffered varying degrees of fire damage in the last 52 years of the Nineteenth Century, only 27 had fires in the Twentieth. Trace the improvement directly to the granite, limestone, sandstone and marble that came into fashion in the late 1800s - the era that architectural historians refer to by the jaw-breaking title of "The Golden Age of Texas Courthouse Architecture." So while stone structures beat the blazes around town squares, at least six courthouse fires were definitely arson. My guess is that six is a conservative number.

Not all of the intentional fires were political in nature, 'though moving the county seat was an appealing option in several cases. Which brings us to one of my favorite Texas historical figures, Gus Hooks. Maybe you never heard of Gus Hooks. That doesn't necessarily indicate that you're weak on your Texas history, but it does prove that you weren't a Hardin County lawman in the 1870s. In addition to his attention-getting antics around the sheriff's office, Gus was the acknowledged fastest runner in Hardin County. The courthouse at Hardin burned one night after Gus was spotted in the neighborhood. Like everybody else in town, the sheriff immediately thought of Gus. He saddled up and galloped the five miles to the Hooks' place in the Big Thicket, where he found Gus already in bed and asleep. Fast asleep. That discovery led the folks in Hardin to a couple of conclusions - a few figured that maybe Gus didn't do it after all, a larger consensus was that the sheriff needed a faster horse. Whatever the cause of the fire in Hardin, Kountze became the county seat and has held onto it ever since.

I don't know about you, but I get a warm feeling when I picture Gus Hooks sprinting through the pines and bois d' arcs in the dark of night, his backside reflecting a big fire back down the road in Hardin. Several courthouses survived fires lit in hopes of destroying indictments or cattle brands. In Texas, cattle brands are registered by county rather than statewide, so you have to go to the courthouse to identify someone's brand - or to destroy any trace of it, in case you're heading in the opposite direction with a herd of rustled Herefords.

Dentom County Courthouse night view, Denton, Texas
The 1896 Denton County Courthouse

Postcard courtesy rootsweb.com/
~txgenweb// postcards/Index.html
One of the most persistent alleged torchers was a close friend of the infamous bad guy, Sam Bass. Denton's picturesque, if not fireproof, courthouse burned in 1875. County officials were sure Sam's pal lit the fire in an attempt to destroy an indictment, but they didn't have any proof to present in court. County records were moved to a church until a new courthouse could be built. When the church burned, too, they collared the highly motivated arsonist. Both he and the Denton courthouse fires came to an abrupt, welcomed end.

Anderson County
once boasted a tall, graceful courthouse designed by the famed Wesley Clarke Dodson. It lasted just 26 years, then fell victim to arsonists in 1912. John Ballard McDonald, a former Anderson County judge, civic leader and courthouse pigeon fighter, explained, "A young guy was indicted for something and a pal of his down at the pool hall convinced him they could burn down the courthouse and destroy the indictment. It was bad advice - they burned down the courthouse, but they didn't destroy the indictment."

What's in a Name?
The Artists in Brick, Stone and Mortar

If the clerks who filled in indictments had the spelling skills of early Texas Legislatures, all those indictments would have been thrown out on technicalities. Remember that red-letter day of August 21, 1876 when Texas named 56 new counties? It had a downside ... next page
Bill Morgan
June 10, 2005
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