In April of
1884, Shelby County's commissioners court awarded a $26,725 contract
to Jacob Joseph Emmett Gipson, a promising young architect
with roots in Ireland. Gipson produced a design that made his friends
suspect he had never forgotten his homeland, but Shelby County officials
were satisfied. "The design of Mr. J.J.E. Gipson leaves nothing
undone," wrote an early newspaperman.
work immediately and made good progress. That is, until a blue norther
howled in one night and froze the mortar between nine feet of brick
workmen had finished the day before. The wall cracked and the work
Gipson had been
given a year to finish the edifice, but when his deadline of August
1, 1885, deadline arrived, it stood incomplete. Commissioners gave
him a three-month extension, but that, too, passed with the courthouse
Finally, on February 12, 1886, the courthouse was finished. Gipson
submitted an itemized account of damages caused by the freeze, but
the county balked at paying the $1,773. They said they shouldn't
pay for an act of God.
was meeting with more success at Carthage. His creation there was
finished in 1885 at a cost of $27,375 and stood for 68 years. It
was sold at auction for $3,000 in the fifties and removed from the
Except for some
modifications, Gipson used the same plans for each of the courthouses
at Carthage and Center. Shelby County, however, did have one distinction.
It took the county more than 90 years to pay for its courthouse.
In 1883, two
years after Gipson finished the courthouse, the Shelby County School
Board issued $20,000 in bonds to the county for the courthouse.
But somehow the county never paid off the bonds and in 1937 the
school board's attorneys sued the county to collect $20,000 and
accrued interest totaling two to three times the amount of the original
bonds. After a legal fight that dragged on for years, the school
board won the lawsuit. The county was ordered to pay a bonding company
the first $5,000 in taxes it collected each. Nearly 100 years after
the courthouse was finished, it was finally paid for.
an extensive remodeling, the 115-year-old Center courthouse serves
as a community visitor center while county officials are housed
in another building.
One of the rooms
in the refurbished courthouse was named the Gipson room for its
architect and builder. It contains a collection of tools, artifacts,
photographs of the restoration effort, and Gipson's handmade desk.
courthouses weren't Gipson's only encounter with East Texas politics.
In 1914, he
ran for Shelby County treasurer in a race in which his Catholic
faith became the central issue. To defend himself, the old Irishman
scribbled out a two-page statement defending himself, the Pope and
his love for Texas, "my adopted state."
He lost the
race, but one politician was moved to comment: "We know a damn lot
more about Catholics now."
In 1931, far
from the green-glistening hills of his beloved Ireland, but halfway
between his castles at Center and Carthage, Gipson was buried in
Tenaha Cemetery. He was 82.
All Things Historical
December 2000 Column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
(Bob Bowman is a former president of the East Texas Historical Association
and the author of 24 books on East Texas history and folklore.)