Cou­ple take Texas-size county court­house trek

Aaron Ma­son and Anne Cor­nell travel 14,500 miles, see 254 sites.

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - mward@states­man.com

By Mike­Ward

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.”

Aaron Ma­son and his fi­ancee, Anne Cor­nell, stand in front of the Cald­well County Court­house in Lock­hart on Satur­day. The two have vis­ited ev­ery county court­house in the state and have doc­u­mented their trips on their Texas Court­house Tour blog. They also a

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