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Texas | Courthouses


County Seat - Center, Texas

Shelby County

by Swoops

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Shelby County Courthouse, Center, Texas
1885 Shelby County Courthouse today
Photo courtesy Lori Martin, 2006

When Bison Bill and I first pulled into Center in Northeast Texas, we could not help but notice the numerous chimneys surrounding Shelby County's 1885 courthouse. Bison Bill got out his calculator and found that a total of twelve chimneys encompass that beautiful brick structure. We later discovered that the architect, J. J. E. Gibson of Ireland, had wanted his masterpiece to look like the castles he had seen while growing up in his native country. This courthouse is now the only remaining Irish castle style courthouse in the United States.

Shelby County courthouse, Center, Texas old photo
Shelby County as it appeared in 1939
Photo Courtesy TxDoT

This impressed the socks off of Bill, who had clad his feet earlier in the day because of the chill in the air. We wandered around the courthouse square and eventually ran into someone who knew so much about the courthouse that I could not believe my eagle ears.

Shelby County, organized in 1837, was one of the original counties of Texas. Named for the American Revolutionary soldier Isaac Shelby of Kentucky, its county seat, Center, has been just that since 1866. The present area of Shelby County was a part of the Municipality of Tenaha when Mexico became independent of Spain in 1821.

The courthouse itself is a two-story Romanesque brick building. The two million-plus bricks were made by the architect, while the mortar was made from sand toted via oxcart from Louisiana some forty miles away.

The architect thought hard about the hot Texas summers, so he shuttered each window. So while the windows were opened, the courthouse still remained cool. The ceilings are also high, which further helped make the courthouse temperature bearable. But having windows opened caused a bit of an aviary problem. Oftentimes, newspapers would be handed out to those attending court to act as a shield from any unwarranted "attacks" from above. One time, the attention of the court kept straying upward as a lone bird flew from gable to gable. The judge asked if someone could do something about it, and BANG! Someone did.

Architect Gibson's portrait and artifacts
Architect Gibson's portrait overlooks the front room and courthouse artifacts. The desk was the one he used to design the courthouse
Photo by Lou Ann Herda
Fireplace in the courthouse restroom
The only courthouse with a fireplace in the restrooms
Photo by Lou Ann Herda

The first floor used to hold offices for county officials. Since the renovation was completed in 2000, these rooms now contain historical artifacts. Gibson's portrait hangs above one of his fireplaces, and the various tools used to make the courthouse are displayed. The wooden floor is refinished to a shine, and the walls look clean and new.

Placed in the center of the courthouse is an 1885 coin, commemorating the year the courthouse was finished. Before the renovation, there were no inside facilities. Since folks prefer the comforts of porcelain toilets and air conditioning over a wooden, splintery outhouse, two restrooms were built inside. As a result, this courthouse is the only USA courthouse that has fireplaces in the restrooms (until I hear otherwise).

Shelby County courthouse courtroom
Courtroom. Notice the balcony in the back where the deputies used to be stationed during trials and the two sets of stairs
Photo by Lou Ann Herda
The original escape door for the judge
Photo by Lou Ann Herda

There is a door in the front hallway that can only be opened from the inside. That was the original escape door for the judge. Upstairs is the huge courtroom, complete with the original benches. The floor sweeps down to the judge's bench. There are two sets of stairs in the back. Before desegregation, one was used for the White folks to enter, while the other was for the African-American folks. Above the center of the back is a balcony where two deputies used to stand with their shotguns just in case there was a problem with the verdict.

Courthouse Judge's escape hatch
Author's son Taylor makes a quick escape down the judge's escape hatch.
Photo by Lou Ann Herda

Speaking of which, next to the judge's chair on the floor is the escape hatch. If the verdict upset the crowd, the judge would open the hatch, climb down the stairs, and go out the one-way-only door. The deputies would keep one eye on the crowd and one eye on the outside to see when the judge had mounted his horse and made his escape. Only then could the crowd leave.

Former clock of Shelby county  courthouse
Photo of the former clock in front of the courthouse
Photo by Lou Ann Herda

The outside clock has caused quite a controversy. When we first saw it, we thought it looked pretty good, especially since they had the sense to put an eagle on top. But after hearing what had happened to the previous clock and all the sentimentality surrounding that 100+ year-old, non-working, nearly one-of-a-kind timepiece, I noticed that the eagle looked more like a buzzard, as one townsfolk put it. Since the courthouse and its square are properties of the Texas Historic Commission, by state law, there is supposed to be no changes to the looks of the courthouse or its grounds without first getting permission from the commission. Well, the current judge didn't like having a broken clock in front of the courthouse, so he had it removed without permission and had a new one put there. Talk about a feud! There's more to it than this, but that's all I have to say about that.
Sgelby County Clockhouse clock
Lou Ann Herda
April, 2002

Special thanks to Dowell D. Youngblood, volunteer for the Shelby County Historical Society, for his astounding rendition of the history of the courthouse. Also to Pam Phelps, executive director of the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce, for gathering materials about the history of the county and its courthouse.

Shelby County Courthouse, Center, Texas
The 1885 Shelby County Courthouse
Click on image to enlarge

Vintage photo courtesy Dan Whatley Collection

Related Story:

The Castle Builder by Bob Bowman
Architect Jacob Joseph Emmett Gipson, and the Shelby and Panola County courthouses.

Shelby County

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