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.”
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.
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
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
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!”