Couple take Texas-size county courthouse trek
Aaron Mason and Anne Cornell travel 14,500 miles, see 254 sites.
Aaron Mason and Anne Cornell’s excellent adventure began just over two years ago in La Grange, at Fayette County’s tall stone, Romanesque-revival courthouse, built in 1891. The building is a rarity with an open atrium at its center that features a large fountain, cast-iron sculptures and tropical plants.
“It was beautiful,” Mason, 34, remembers thinking of the recently restored gem in the center of downtown.
From that visit began a two-year quest in which the couple, both Austin public school teachers, visited every county courthouse in Texas, all 254 of them. The trek took them more than 14,500 miles to all corners of the Lone Star State.
So enamored are they with the experience — “we have seen the heart and soul of Texas in its courthouses,” Mason explains — that they plan to write a book about their travels and be married next spring at the ornate Ellis
County Courthouse in Waxahachie.
It was designed by James Riely Gordon, the same architect who did the imposing La Grange edifice.
“You can see the personality of communities, of counties, in their courthouses,” Mason said, reflecting on the project, which was completed Dec. 1 with a visit to the 1931 Travis County Courthouse in downtown Austin. “Some are fancy; others are simple. Some are very ornate in small towns, reflecting an era when they were important centers of commerce. ... One in the Panhandle had very fine leather on the doors.”
Others have marble walls, ornate brass fixtures, architectural details from the long-gone Victorian Era, stained glass cupolas, even tall white columns on the oldest of them all, the Cass County Courthouse in Linden in far Northeast Texas, which was first occupied at the start of the Civil War when Texas was part of the Confed- eracy.
“In a lot of ways, the courthouse is the keeper of local history, the center of local history, and all of them together make up state history,” Mason said. “They show that little places are important, just as the big places are. Courthouses are about people, even though many times people who go to a courthouse probably aren’t happy to be there — to go to court, for jury duty, to pay a fine.”
After the La Grange trip, the couple decided it would be fun to visit other courthouses on weekend trips, much as Cornell’s parents had done on a smaller scale several years ago, seeing 30.
“I thought they were a little nuts at the time, but once I saw the courthouse in La Grange, I wanted to see more,” said Cornell, 39, an elementary art teacher in Austin. “What a great way to see Texas.”
After La Grange, Mason and Cornell took in the recently restored, 1909 Beaux Arts-style Williamson County Courthouse in Georgetown. Then they rode the Austin steam train to see the Moderne-style Burnet County Courthouse, built in 1937 in part with Depression-era federal Works Progress Administration funds. They were hooked.
“We started out doing weekend trips to visit a courthouse, sometimes several, but pretty soon it turned into longer trips where we would see six,” said Mason, a hospitality services teacher at a North Austin school. “We decided we wanted to see all of them.”
The pair mapped out their plan, selecting routes that would let them see as many as possible on long car trips to remote corners of the state. They took photos at each and started a blog documenting their travels at texascourthousetour. blogspot.com.
They took vacation weeks to check out courthouses in the Panhandle, to make a sweep of ones in the Piney Woods of East Texas, to visit ones along the Gulf Coast and in tumbleweed-populated stretches of arid West Texas. They viewed both the 50 that had been rejuvenated by the Texas Courthouse Preservation Program, a state program launched in 1999 to rescue Texas’ crumbling seats of county government, and many more that had not — including some where officials warned them to stay off the upper floor because of bats.
Debbi Head, a spokesman for the Texas Historical Commission, which administers the award-winning courthouse preservation program, said $247 million has been spent on the initiative, whose patron in recent years has been Texas first lady Anita Perry.
Head said 63 additional counties have received funding for full restorations, but not all are completed. Another 75 need money for repairs and restoration work.
Commission officials said they are seeking $20 million for the next two years, the same amount the agency received two years ago but half of what the program received a decade ago, thanks to state budget cuts.
“Courthouses are an important historical resource that should be saved,” Mason said, reflecting on his travels.
“At the (Winkler County) courthouse in Kermit, we rode the oldest elevator still in use. It was beautiful,” Cornell added. “We arrived just before they closed. They were proud of the building. They stayed 20 minutes late to show us around.”
The most remote? The boxy, red brick Loving County Courthouse in Mentone, in the least populous county in America, in what is surely the remotest county seat in Texas.
“There’s only one road to get there, and there’s only a courthouse and the post office. The rest of the county is ranches,” Cornell recalled.
Their travels now complete, the couple are working on a travel guide to see Texas courthouses and their home communities so more Texans can do what they did. They’re also making wedding plans, which they knew would include a courthouse. After mailing letters to several counties with magnificent edifices, they picked Waxahachie because a county worker there insisted pridefully, “This is THE county courthouse to get married in in Texas.”
The travelers’ next project? Visit all 93 state parks in 98 counties. cial donations will help Jackson take care of basic needs.
Jackson’s positive spirit never leaves her.
“I refuse to let it get me down,” she said. “You never know what can happen. I was healthy one day. Now I’ve got MS. But you’ve got to have a positive attitude to live. I might as well enjoy life while I’m in this world.”