Early courthouses faced a firebug infestation

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The following information is a summer rerun, from what appeared in the Meteor three years ago this month.

Locals who were here 60 or more years ago have memories of the courthouse that graced our Town Square before the current one. Several photos of that previous one hang in the Museum. Usually they catch new visitors’ eyes right off the bat. It was totally different than our current one. For many of us, a fascination stems from the proverb “We don’t appreciate what we have until it is gone.”

Now one Museum display case focuses on all six of our county’s courthouses. We’ve downsized the exhibit but there is still a case full of memorabilia and photos, hopefully enough to interest you.

When Madison County was organized in 1854, Job Starks Collard donated 200 acres of land to the county for the purpose of establishing a county site. There is no record of that transaction, but deeds to surrounding areas make it possible to infer the area conveyed included what is now the town square and a narrow tract of land running from Highway 75 west to the western boundary of the older of the town’s two cemeteries. Legend has that the Commissioners Court was given a choice of either the present town site or a similar location at some distance east. The former was chosen because of the presence of a good water supply, which was a lake that then existed a bit east of The National Bank of Madisonville.

In the beginning, court convened south of what is now Alan Tinsley’s law office, and then later under some oak trees southwest of the First Baptist Church’s Family Life Center. Later in the year, the Commissioner’s Court decided to order the erection of a log structure in the center of the town square.

It was duly built and promptly burned, hardly giving Judge W.F. Harmes time to open the session of court.

A similar log courthouse was built and miraculously stood until 1867. It, too, was destroyed by a fire of extremely mysterious origin, and records were lost too.

By then, Walker County had a sawmill in operation, and our Commissioners Court ordered work begun on a frame structure. Lumber was hauled in on ox-drawn carts, and that more modern courthouse stood until Jan. 2, 1873.

According to old timers, a middle-aged white man was charged with horse theft and went into the courthouse on Sunday afternoon and set it afire, destroying records again. He was never indicted.

Following that third fire, county offices were set up in the local Masonic Hall. On April 2, 1878, the Commissioners Court, composed of County Judge W.D. Gibbs, County Clerk William W. Viser, and Commissioners H.B. Cobb, P.K. Goree, and R.S. Page, met and voted to levy a property tax to finance construction of a brick courthouse. Contractors erected it for $7,000. It was forty feet square with two stories and seven rooms. The ground floor contained four rooms, while upstairs was the courtroom, jury room, and judge’s office. It was surrounded by a wooden fence with no gates, but instead stiles over the fence for people to use. The fence was necessary, because this was open country and cattle could wander almost wherever they pleased. The building was entirely unsatisfactory and was said to be extremely shaky. In only a few years it was deemed unsafe to use and the Commissioners Court decided to demolish it. No one alive remembers the building, but you can come into the Museum to see a photo of it.

Tune in next week to hear the tale of the county’s next courthouse, which carries a familiar, fateful, fiery finale.

The Madison County Museum, at 201 North Madison, Madisonville, TX 77864, is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Curator Jane Day Reynolds would welcome your visit.

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