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  Texas : Trips : Courthouses : The Great American Legends Tour, Texas Style

County Seat - Hillsboro, Texas

by Lou Ann Herda
Photos courtesy Stephen Michaels

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Hill County Courthouse, Hillsboro Texas
Hill County Courthouse in Hillsboro
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, April 2008

When I began this tour in May 2001, one of the first courthouses we read about was the 1890 Hill County Courthouse, gutted by fire on New Years Day 1993. This courthouse became the impetus for the Great American Legends Tour.

Famed architect W. C. Dodson designed this edifice, which was a conglomerate of Second Empire, Classical Revival, and Italianate features. Kind of a Texas hodge-podge. Northeast snooties gave the tallest building in Hill County mixed reviews. A writer for the Saturday Evening Post called it a "monstrosity," while one at Harper's said it was "an outstanding cathedral." Townfolks were simply proud of it.

This massive three-story limestone structure has a tower in the middle that shoots up seven stories. There are also Corinthian columns and mansard roofs, and a clock inside that 70-foot tower. Even if you were miles away, you could see if it was time to feed the dog.

Although the county seat of Hillsboro is close to a busy highway (I-35), it still retains that small-town charm. But back in 1853 when Hill County was created from Navarro County, Indians, bear, antelope, buffalo, wild horses, and deer made up most of the population.

Since the animals didn't threaten the settlers too much but the Indians did, a fort was built about fifteen miles west of present-day
Hillsboro. Fort Graham, built in the late 1840s, helped keep the more hostile Indians at bay and served as a scouting and reporting station. Major Ripley Arnold, who founded Fort Worth back when it was just a camp, was supervisor of the fort. Now, he was a tough one. Once, when a soldier stole a pig from a nearby farm, he had the fella tied up in front of the officers' quarters for hours with pig guts around his neck. Arnold later got into some kind of trouble and met his Maker after having a close encounter with several bullets. The fort was dismantled not long after that.

Both Hill County and
Hillsboro are named for Dr. George W. Hill, a pioneer Navarro County settler who served both as a congressman and as Secretary of War for the Republic of Texas. He was a surgeon with a degree from Transylvania University who married a gal named Slaughter. (hmmm) Not long after the county was established, the first courthouse, 12' X 12', was constructed of elm poles, clapboard, and dirt floors. It took the county five tries to build a courthouse that they could be proud of.

By 1890, Hillsboro's population had grown to 2000. There were six churches, a new courthouse, many cotton gins (cotton was definitely king), an opera house, two weekly newspapers, and the railroad shipped cotton, livestock, grain, and wool. A person could also take the stage to Whitney for a dollar.

The courthouse underwent many changes over the next hundred years, meeting the needs of a changing community. Although it still looked pretty nice on the outside, the interior had lost much its Victorian-era charm. Then, on the night of January 1, 1993, the courthouse caught fire, and not even firefighters from more than fifteen companies could save it. The grand clock tower, the roof, and the third floor collapsed as onlookers cried. The impressive district courtroom was gone. Records dating back hundreds of years were either lost or badly damaged. An important part of Hill County history went up in smoke.

Hill County Courthouse after 1993 fire
The courthouse in ruins
Photo courtesy Bettye Wingate

Restoration architects ArchiTexas of Dallas had little to go by in their attempt to recreate the courthouse's past glory. Since there were no blueprints, they looked at Granbury's 1890 courthouse, also designed by Dodson, and incorporated many details from this edifice. They also interviewed those who had worked in the courthouse and were able to decide what the "new" courthouse would look like.

Many millions of dollars later, the courthouse has been rebuilt to its original splendor. Help from community members, including Hill County native Willie Nelson, and funding from the Texas Courthouse Alliance made this phoenix rise from the ashes.*

Hill County Courthouse tower , Hillsboro Texas
Hill County Courthouse tower
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, April 2008
Hill County Courthouse confederate soldier statue, Hillsboro Texas
Confederate Monument on the courthouse lawn
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, April 2008
More Texas Statues
Hill County Courthouse and bell, Hillsboro Texas
Hill County Courthouse and bell
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, April 2008
Hill County Courthouse  bell,
Hill County Courthouse bell
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, April 2008
Mc Shane Bell Foundry trade mark, Hill County Courthouse  bell
Mc Shane Bell Foundry trade mark
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, April 2008

I guess my favorite places in the courthouse are its courtroom, the basement, and going up the stairs where the stain glass windows are. It's a magnificent work of art. Be sure you find the bricks on the walls with names of folks who donated their time and money to make this courthouse "rise again."

Hill County Courtroom
The District Courtroom gallery.
Photo courtesy Lou Ann Herda
Hill County Courthouse stairway and stained glass
Hallmarks of the courthouse: stairway and stained glass.
Photo courtesy Lou Ann Herda
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July, 2002 Copyright Lou Ann Herda
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*The basic legend of the phoenix: it was a mythical bird that lived for 500 years, built its own funeral pyre, was consumed by the flames, then rose anew from the ashes. This legend supposedly symbolizes the rising and setting of the sun, as well as immortality, resurrection, and life after death.

Thanks to Alex Hernandez at the Chamber of Commerce for getting me some materials about the history of Hill County. The Hill County Courthouse restoration brochure is fantastic! Also thanks to County Judge Tommy Walker for taking me on a tour of the courthouse. Fascinating stories that I wish I could have used. And thanks to those at the courthouse who showed me photos of the courthouse after the fire.
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