Monday, December 5, 2011

The mystery of the California-style Courthouse.

Last week I told the story of Kerr County's first courthouse, a log structure, about 16 by 10 feet in size, which was built in 1856 on Jefferson Street. It was built where the parking lot for Grimes' Funeral Chapel is today, with a door facing Jefferson Street, and one window, which faced Earl Garrett Street.
Though meant to be temporary, the little log courthouse served Kerr County much longer than was intended, largely because politics got in the way.
I know, Gentle Reader: it surprises me, too. Imagine politics happening around the Kerr County courthouse!  What a surprise.
Two short years after the log courthouse was built, the commissioners court directed "a contract be let out to the lowest bidder for the building of a Court House in the California fashion, thirty-two feet long, twenty four feet wide, weather boarded outside, a partition across the room of twenty-four feet, also one partition of twelve feet making two offices of twelve by twelve feet. One door leading from the main room into each office, also two doors in the main room, six windows and three chimneys."
I've done an Internet search on courthouses in the "California fashion," but I've not found any references.
This proposed courthouse offered several advantages to the log courthouse: it would almost be five times larger and also offer two heated offices. It would also be the first courthouse built on the "Public Square," land set aside for that purpose by Joshua D. Brown when he platted the lots in Kerrville.
The commissioners also ordered, in the winter of 1859, "Jonathan Scott (Kerr County's 'Chief Justice') take up a subscription for the purpose of building a Courthouse in the town of Kerrville...."
It sounded like a good plan, but then the politics started.
In 1859 it was obvious war between the States would soon begin. There were many in Kerr County opposed to secession; in fact, the vote for secession was 76 for and 57 against. A closer look at the returns, however, tells a story.
Precinct 1, whose population was centered in Kerrville, voted 42 to 4 for secession; Precinct 2, whose population was centered in Comfort, voted 53 to 34 against. Comfort, then a part of Kerr County, was solidly against secession.
There was another difference with the voters of Comfort: they were mostly German immigrants whose votes here had been suppressed by application of loyalty oaths.
This rift between the two precincts spilled over into other areas of county politics: both Kerrville and Comfort were vying to be the county seat, a source of pride, but also a source of income, with all the economic activity a courthouse brings to a community.
If you think Kerr County politics sometimes becomes adversarial, consider this: in March, 1860, the county held an election to determine which town would be the county seat, Kerrville or Comfort. There were two voting precincts, one which included Kerrville, and the other which included Comfort.
In a decision by Chief Justice Jonathon Scott, the votes in Precinct 1 (Kerrville) were thrown out on the grounds "the tickets were not returned, and the poll books had not been sealed up."   The votes in Precinct 2 (Comfort) were counted, and the county seat was moved (big surprise) to Comfort, by a vote of 78 to 21.
Once Comfort became the county seat, the commissioners again sought to build a new courthouse, though not in Kerrville, but in Comfort, on five acres of land given to the county as a public square. This square was bounded by Broadway, Train, Fourth, and Fifth streets in Comfort. I'm guessing "Train" Street is now called Water Street there.
So, history buffs -- riddle me this: was the California style courthouse ever built?  I think the record shows the commissioners tried to build it twice -- once in Kerrville, and once in Comfort.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who thinks Kerr County politics is much tamer today than it once was. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times December 3, 2011.

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