over Monterey Square
The 1888-89 Wharton County Courthouse was not merely a county building, but also a place for cultural and civic events and even a place of refuge in times of disaster.
Usually, when I talk with more mature residents of the county, they reminiscence about their memories of the courthouse and events on the square.
On man told me that even though his family didn’t live in town, whenever the Colorado River was rising, they would travel to town to see the spectacle. The adults would stand along the riverbanks to watch the water rise while the kids would gather around the courthouse and its emergency exit slides that once connected its upper floors to the safety of the ground below.
To my knowledge, the slides were never used for their original purpose; however the slides got a lot of use as Wharton County’s first theme park. Boys and girls would jump out of second or third floor windows and slide to the bottom. Some of the boys would scale the outside of the building like secret agent James Bond and race to see who could get to the bottom of the slide first.
Later a fountain was added, providing a convenient place to load a water pistol. Before the fountain, kids had to use the horse troughs around the square for their ammo.
William Cline Sr. tells the story of playing water guns with the late Thomas Abell, whereby Cline received a blast of that dirty horse water in his mouth and he got so mad he threw his gun at Abell and chipped his tooth. Luckily, the two boys got over the incident and remained the best of friends.
The courthouse also provided a convenient backdrop for parades, and its walls hosted many cultural events such as baby shows and dances.
Horton Foote, in his book Farewell, accounts how his father put on a tux and his mother her best dress to go to dances at the courthouse.
Another interesting event was the fiddler’s contest. The following announcement appeared in the WhartonSpectator (August 31, 1934), which read:
“Old time fiddlers to enter contest courthouse tonight.
“An interesting event to be presented from 8:30 to 12:00 o’clock at the courthouse here tonight is the old fiddlers’ contest which musicians of Wharton and surrounding counties are invited to enter.
“Cash prizes will be awarded the best players of string instruments, and will also be awarded the winners in the contests for the tap dance by a small girl, home talent recital, prettiest baby and ugliest man.”
The courthouse was not just a place to go in good times, but was also a place of refuge in bad times. In 1913, during one of the worst floods in Wharton County history, the courthouse served as an unofficial Red Cross shelter housing 700 county citizens who had been flooded out of their homes.
Fortunately, since the courthouse was built on the highest point of land around, even though there was two and one-half feet of water covering Milam Street, the courthouse did not flood. To give you an idea of how bad the flood was, consider the following passage from Horton Foote’s book Farewell:
“The flood of 1913 was the one my father talked about the most. It was the flood when the Colorado, the Brazos (in neighboring Fort Bend County), the Bernard and Peach Creek all flooded, the water covering everything from Wharton to Richmond, thirty miles away. It was a vast lake, my father said, of floating livestock, household belongings, provisions and debris.”
In the late 1990’s, the courthouse question continues to vex the populace as it did in the late 1880’s, with discussions of how to better use the building and how much it will cost compared to new construction.
While most buildings today are being stamped out making towns look more and more the same, our historical buildings set us apart from other communities. We should also remember that our historic courthouse is not just a county building, it is also a time capsule that holds the shared memories and experiences of good times and bad.