Rangers to the rescue
In the late1880’s, the question of building a new courthouse on Monterey Square consumed the hearts and minds of Wharton County voters.
Once sides started to be taken either for or against new construction, county residents who had not previously given the matter much thought began to express there views more and more strongly, until feelings were running hot and the Texas Rangers were sent to keep the peace.
News of the Rangers being stationed in Wharton became a matter of statewide interest. As one Galveston newspaper put it:
“Citizens of Wharton County do not seem to want the Rangers there, and say that the feud will die out without such intervention. So did the feud of Kentucky when both sides were killed off, and there was nobody left to fight.”
Back then, Wharton County was a rough and tumble place, where men with guns were a common site. There were also a number of saloons, where drinking began quite early.
Gunfights were so common that historian Annie Lee Williams wrote, perhaps with a little exaggeration, that “after the turn of the century there was at least one killing almost every Saturday night in Wharton.” The result was family feuds that could make the Godfather cringe.
Into this context, the struggle to build a new courthouse was waged. The two groups most at odds over this issue were those for new construction, led by County Judge W. J. Croom, and those who opposed the measure, lead by Green C. Duncan and A.H. (Shanghai) Pierce.
The situation erupted over the sale of courthouse bonds, when opposition forces filed an injunction against Judge Croom and Architect E.T. Heiner aimed at stopping them from letting a construct for the new courthouse The contention was that the old courthouse was still perfectly sound.
What happened next is best described by Williams, author of The History of Wharton County 1846-1961, who many years later interviewed Judge Croom’s son-in-law, Walter W. Armstrong. According to Mr. Armstrong’s account, as told to Williams:
“The Judge got together a bunch of his friends and went to work the day before the injunction was to be issued. They began to cut a hole in the roof of the old frame courthouse. When he (Judge Croom) could get half his body through the hole, he sailed his hat out and said, ‘Come on, boys, let’s go’!”
Just as passionate disagreements are part of our heritage, so too is the art of compromise. Soon the two sides cooled off and came to an agreement whereby the county could build a new courthouse so long as taxes would not be raised. On April 28, 1888, The Wharton Independent said this of “The Compromise,”:
“This harmonious proceeding speaks well for both sides representing as they do the wealth, spirit, enterprise and people of Wharton County. Judge Croom had maintained his firm determination throughout the long struggle guided by sober judgement, acting for the county commissioners.
“And to Mr. Green C. Duncan particularly much credit is due for his calm and deliberate deportment which has characterized his dealings with the opposition. These two gentlemen are personally the staunchest and warmest of friends and the compromise effected by their practicability is a fitting end to the issue which threatened to prove serious for the welfare of the county at large.”
Its not really known what impact “The Compromise” had on the budget for the courthouse. Some have speculated that because we had less money, the county had to use bricks made locally down by the river. Others have said, wouldn’t it have been nice if we had spent more on the building, like they did on the Colorado County Courthouse in nearby Columbus. Actually, the courthouse in Columbus was constructed from bricks made locally along the river too.
I found that Mr. Heiner’s courthouse specification book listed different ways to bid on courthouses depending on the budget. The most expensive was all stone, the mid range was stone and brick, and the cheapest was all brick construction, like the 1888-89 Walker County Courthouse, in Huntsville.
Therefore, there must have been ample funds for the 1888-89 Wharton County Courthouse because our officials opted to use both Austin Limestone and brick, when all brick construction would have been much cheaper.
However, the constraint on the budget might explain why the roof cresting and indoor plumbing were omitted from the project. Unfortunately for the citizens back then, the Governor’s courthouse grant program did not exist.
Historically, proposals to build new courthouses in Texas often faced opposition from wealthy land owners who did not want their taxes raised, but the twist in our story was that Pierce supported building a new courthouse only if it was built in Pierce. Take a look in the Wharton County Pictorial History Book, edited by Merle Hudgins, and you will find what Pierce had envisioned as the county seat.
He hired an architect to draw up plans that would make it the largest town in the county and made provisions for a large school building, a public park and a county courthouse.