Words by Dan Haase
Photography provided by Dan Haase
Visiting courthouses is about appreciating history and celebrating the Texas spirit. Take a day trip with your family and explore a few. It’s a great reason to explore the back roads of Texas.
Texas is blessed with a rich, varied history. County courthouses are an important part of that history. They represent the touchstones in many communities—a cathedral of democracy, if you will. It’s where important legal records are kept. It’s where courtroom trials occur, where you are better off being a juror than a defendant.
Courthouses can be fun to explore. About fifteen years ago, I began a quest to visit all the county courthouses in Texas. The vast majority of Texas courthouses are in small towns to which you might otherwise never go. I would encourage you to pack up the kids and plan a weekday trip to see a few. You will discover a new town or two with true Texas character, see some interesting architecture, and meet some really nice people along the way. So see the countryside and have fun exploring some history!
Most Texas courthouse construction occurred in two distinct periods of time. The first major construction period began in the late 1800’s. Courthouses from this period are quite ornate and detailed, with clock towers and other features. The second major construction period occurred during the Great Depression. Many of the courthouses from that era are white limestone Art Deco designs, generally fairly simple in detail.
Over the years, terrible things were done to some courthouses by well-meaning people. By the 1930’s, those late 19th century courthouses just looked outdated to their citizenry. Some courthouses had their clock towers removed under the guise of being structurally unsound, and the exterior would then “modernized.” In other cases, a still-serviceable courthouse was demolished so people could be put to work building a new one during the Great Depression. The promise of federal financial assistance for the construction (through the Works Progress Administration, or WPA) was too much to resist in many struggling communities.
Despite these short-sighted alterations or demolitions, many courthouses survived until the movement to preserve our past took hold. In 1999, the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program was established, signed into law by Governor George W. Bush. The program identified candidates for restoration, and sought historic designations for them. Today, 136 Texas courthouses are on the National Register of Historic Places. To date, 63 courthouses have been historically restored with state assistance, and more are in various stages of planning.
I want to share some of my favorite small town courthouses and just a bit of each county’s history, all within an easy drive from Granbury. You should plan a trip that includes a few of them and make a day of it. Let’s start with the one right here in Granbury.
Tarrant County Courthouse stands tall in Downtown Fort Worth, Texas.
Hood County is named for Confederate General John Bell Hood. Fort Hood, the army base in Killeen, is also named for this man. The courthouse was built in 1890. The architect, Wesley Clark Dodson, designed thirteen Texas courthouses, six of which still stand today. Three are featured in this article.
The courthouse clock tower narrowly escaped removal after being damaged by a 1968 tornado. The community rallied to the tower’s defense by convincing the county commissioners to not remove it. This nearly unprecedented historic preservation effort began a spark that led to downtown Granbury business owners reinvesting in their properties over the following decades, and the eventual restoration of the courthouse. It was rededicated in 2012.
Today, Granbury has what is likely the most intact and active courthouse square in the state, full of life and interesting things to see and do. The citizens of Granbury have every right to be proud of the efforts they and earlier generations have made to preserve their history.
Parker County is named for Isaac Parker, who served in both the Texas House and Senate. He introduced the bill to create the county. The courthouse is in Weatherford, and was built in 1886. The architect was again Wesley Clark Dodson.
The prominent location and distinctive red roof of this three-story white limestone courthouse makes it hard to miss. The exterior was restored in the early 1990’s, and the heavily altered interior was restored in 2004. Park the car and pay this grand old lady a visit. Take in some of the small downtown shops, too, and be sure to see the nearby farmer’s market.
Johnson County is named for Middleton T. Johnson, who served in the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Texas legislature. The 1913 vintage Prairie Style courthouse with its massive clock tower is in Cleburne. It was restored in 2007. It has a “sister” in Gainesville, designed by the same architectural firm.
While the exterior of the courthouse is certainly interesting, the interior is stunning, a truly unexpected surprise. There are white marble panels with black and gray streaks that form mirror images of each other, creating some interesting optical illusions. The dark wood and ornamental details bring to mind an African motif. In the center is a beautiful stained glass skylight.
Bosque County derives its name from the Spanish word for “woods.” The courthouse is in Meridian, and was built in 1886. It was significantly altered by removal of four corner turrets and the clock tower in 1934 as a WPA project. It regained its original beauty in a restoration completed in 2007.
The restoration dramatically changed the appearance of this courthouse—I felt I had never seen it before. This once lackluster, rather sad courthouse sparkles again. When the new clock tower was set by crane, the area school children sat on bleachers and watched—a history lesson in the making.
Ellis County is named for Richard Ellis, president of the Texas Constitutional Convention. The courthouse was built in 1896 in Waxahachie, and was designed by J. Riely Gordon. He designed sixteen courthouses in Texas—twelve of which are still are standing. The courthouse was restored in 2002.
This castle-like courthouse is astonishing for its level of detail. There are small turrets or spires everywhere, numerous pattern and texture changes in the masonry, and sandstone carvings of every imaginable detail. I have never visited this building and not discovered something new on the façade. This courthouse also has a “sister,” in Decatur.
The Ellis County courthouse was featured prominently in the 1984 movie “Places in the Heart,” for which Sally Field won an Academy Award as Best Actress. Come and see this “movie star” in this special town.
Lampasas County is more than likely named for Lampazos de Naranjo, a Mexican town with mineral springs. The courthouse is located in the city of Lampasas. This red-roofed courthouse was completed in 1883, and is a third example of a design by Wesley Clark Dodson. It was restored in 2004. This courthouse has an interesting feature, noticeable the minute you step inside. You can clearly hear the clock ticking in the tower. This is because a small third floor room was created and the clock mechanism sits in the middle of the room, echoing to floors below.
The courthouse square is a few blocks off the main highway through town, but worth looking for. The square is somewhat reminiscent of Granbury’s, with quite a few shops and a café or two. And like its Mexican namesake, Lampasas has a mineral spring, too—Hancock Pool, one of the few free-flowing pools in Texas.
Young County is named for William Cocke Young, an early Texas settler and soldier. This Art Deco courthouse is located in Graham and was completed in 1932. It is perhaps the most interesting of the white limestone Art Deco courthouses built during the Great Depression in Texas.
The courthouse exterior features many carved limestone panels with western scenes depicting activities such as cattle ranching and Native American buffalo hunting. The exterior light fixtures feature a Native American chief in headdress. Just inside the building, be sure and look up. You will see that the ceiling has been intricately painted with a design that radiates around a beautiful light fixture. It resembles a Persian rug. One can only imagine the number of hours needed to complete this work of art.
Be sure and check out the Graham town square. If you are really nice to the lady in the Liberty Theater Building (now a clothing store), she may give you a sneak peek at the still-intact balcony and movie screen.
Texas has 254 counties, so this list is obviously only scratching the surface. Other cool north Texas courthouses worth a day trip are Shackelford County (Albany), Hill County (Hillsboro), Navarro County (Corsicana), and Hopkins County (Sulphur Springs).