Old bell was saved, will courthouse be, too?

In the old days, the 1888-89 Wharton County Courthouse looked a bit different than it does today. Originally built in Second Empire style, its two foot thick walls trimmed with Austin limestone have long since been covered over by a thin layer of stucco. The Mansard roofs and the clock tower have been replaced with a flat roof.

            All through the years, the question of what to do with the old courthouse has been an issue of much debate. In 1999, changes to the courthouse are once again being considered and support to restore the county landmark to its original Victorian appearance seems to be growing.

I am often asked: Isn’t it too late to save the old building? Haven’t we lost all of the important features that made it special? Wouldn’t it cost more than we could afford?

Actually each time I enter the grand old building, I am amazed how much of the Victorian building remains.

Did you know that the original bronze courthouse bell, cast in 1889 at the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, Md., can be seen today outside Wharton’s First Baptist Church?

Thurman Wilson tells the story of how his father and a group of church members rescued the bell from demolition.

According to Wilson, about the time when the clock tower and Mansard roofs were being demolished, Charlie Jopling noticed a group of workmen on the courthouse roof struggling to move the bell.

Joplin asked the men, “What are ya’ll going to do with that bell?”

The workmen replied, “We are going to push it off the top.”

Jopling shouted back, “Don’t do that!If you are going to do that, let the Baptist church have it.”

The men answered back, “If you want it, get it down.”

Joplin went and got Mr. Winn at Gifford’s Hardware store. They called Deacon Dodson and Thurmans’s dad, (H.E. Wilson), who brought over a group of men from the mill. The men erected scaffolding and with rope and a pulley, lowered the bell to the ground.

The bell was placed in the bell tower of their church, enabling residents to hear the bell until the 1980’s, when the Baptists built a new church and the old church was dismantled.

Since that time, the bell has remained silently on display in the church courtyard.

Even the original iron fence that surrounded the courthouse can be seen today at the Wharton City Cemetery. The fence, purchased from the Vandou Iron Works of Cleveland, Ohio in 1889, was used to keep horses out of the courthouse square. In 1915, after complaints had been made about weeds growing around the fence, it was decided to sell the fence to the city cemetery.

In those times, before the invention of the lawn mower, the courthouse lawn was often said to resemble a forest with weeds growing up above a person’s head. George R. Pickard wrote in the Wharton Spectator, (March 29, 1912):

“One could hardly see windows in the lower story of the courthouse because the weeds. To go to the courthouse before midday was to go through ‘rain’ from weeds---they were wet with dew and dense fog.”

Up on the third floor of the courthouse you can sit on one of the original courtroom benches similar to those still used today at the Colorado County Courthouse at Columbus, also designed by Eugene T. Heiner.

           Down in the basement, you can stand next to the mammoth foundations of the core building. The grade beams are eight feet wide and six feet tall. You can still see the massive limestone threshold that the heart cypress entrance doors used to rest on.

          In the district clerk’s vault some of the original window casings survive. Under the carpet in the District Courtroom, the original long leaf heart pine floor is just waiting to be exposed again.

Even some of the original courthouse furniture is on display at the Wharton County Historical Museum, thanks to Doc Barfield, who restored and donated the items.

         All around the state, counties are investing in their historic courthouses. Jasper County recently put their clock tower back on their courthouse, which also was designed by Heiner.

The new tower built with an aluminum frame and fiberglass exterior replaced the original tower that was removed in 1957.Jasper even hung their original 1000-pound bronze bell inside the tower, and all for a cost of $110,000 dollars.

          Now Milam and Bell counties are preparing to put their towers back on their courthouses.

Thanks to Gov. George W. Bush’s courthouse preservation grant program, our county has very good chances of receiving the maximum grant amount of $4 million, of which the county only has to put up 15 percent matching funds.

              We meet all of the criteria: our courthouse is old, still in use as an active courthouse, and has structural issues, mostly confined to the wings.

           Another reason that makes our county a prime candidate for the grant is because twice in this decade our courthouse was almost destroyed by abandonment, making our courthouse one of the most endangered in the state.

          Quick thinking once saved the courthouse bell and today that same kind of thinking can save the building for generations to come.

          In many ways, restoring the courthouse is a complex issue, mainly to do with what governmental offices go where.Yet, most people who stop to talk about the old building often reply as they stare at a picture of what it used to look like: “It’s so obvious what needs to be done. Let’s Just Do It!