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Texas Courthouses

Persistence and Tenacity Preserves Blanco Landmark

JoNell Haas and
The 1885 former Blanco County courthouse

by Terry Jeanson
The story of JoNell Haas begins in the very building that she helped to save in the 1980s. She was born in the historic 1885 courthouse in Blanco, Texas in 1958 when it was still being used as a hospital. Her family had been longtime residents in the area, but when JoNell came of age, she moved to Pennsylvania. Upon her return to Texas, she married her husband, Joe (also born in the old courthouse in Blanco,) and they moved back to the Blanco area in 1982.
Former Blanco County courthouse, Blanco Texas, Ruffini 1885
Early photo of the 1885 former Blanco County courthouse in Blanco
Photo courtesy Texas State Library and Archives
During my conversation with JoNell in October of 2007, she relayed to me the story of how the old courthouse nearly vanished. In mid-1986, businessman John W. “Mike” O’Boyle, who lived in nearby Stonewall, bought the land on which the courthouse stood and it was his intention to disassemble the building, stone by stone, and move it to one of his ranches for use as a private residence. The community immediately reacted. JoNell’s mother, Rosa, heard of a meeting that was being held in the back room of a local Blanco barbecue joint to discuss saving the courthouse and she convinced JoNell to go with her. Unaware of what was going on at the time, JoNell walked out of the meeting in disbelief. How could this happen? How could this person just take their courthouse away from them? JoNell was also surprised at the apathy shown by some of the members of the community, not only towards the saving of the old courthouse, but other historic buildings on the square as well. Knowing of JoNell’s tenacity, her mother encouraged her to get involved.

“Most of the time, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” JoNell admits as she was helping to put together fundraisers to raise the money needed to purchase the land back from Mr. O’Boyle.

JoNell was elected to the board of a non-profit organization that became incorporated in order to apply for various grants. Their first fundraiser was a bake sale.
1885 Former Blanco County courthouse, Blanco Texas, before restoration
The former Blanco County courthouse before restoration
Photo courtesy the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation
Former Blanco County courthouse, Blanco Texas, before restoration
A photo taken by JoNell's father before the restoration.
Photo courtesy of JoNell Haas

“We made $750.00. People laughed at our effort. Because we were a grass roots organization, they didn’t take us seriously. Many people who knew me still saw me as that little girl who used to run around in pigtails.”

As word spread locally about the efforts to keep the old courthouse from being dismantled, the press from around the state picked up on it.

“It was everywhere. Everything you read had a mention about the courthouse.”

A majority of the press coverage vilified Mr. O’Boyle who had no intention of making the courthouse a gift to the county, thus losing his considerable investment. In actuality, Mr. O’Boyle also did not want the town to lose their courthouse and had given the preservationists time to raise the money to buy it back from him and also offered to assist in accruing state and federal monies. The news of the fight to save the courthouse even spread as far as California where descendants of the building’s architect, F. E. Ruffini, had been living at the time.

“The correspondence I received from the Ruffini family meant so much to me.”

County officials from Johnson City who wanted to get involved ruffled the feathers of many residents in Blanco. Apparently, almost a century later, there was still bad blood between the two cities after Blanco lost its status as county seat to Johnson City.

The fundraising efforts continued for the next three and a half years and culminated at a dance hall in Johnson City in May of 1990. A popular country & western dance band from Austin performed with tickets selling for $100 per person. Another performer was considered for the fundraiser, but it was determined that he would not be a big enough draw.

“At the time, the name Garth Brooks didn’t mean much to anyone. It was not long afterwards that he became a household name.”

Along with the ticket sales, many high dollar items were auctioned off, including a limited edition book put together and signed by Lady Bird Johnson, one of the courthouse’s biggest supporters, and a signed football and jersey from Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell. The fundraiser brought in an unexpected $50,000.00. The following day in Blanco, another fundraising event brought in $10,000.00.

“Everything started to fall in place after that. We started to receive grants from private foundations and getting donations from businesses all around the state. They must have been inspired after seeing how the community was backing our efforts.”

Indeed, Mr. O’Boyle seemed impressed at their efforts as well. Although they had not raised enough money to even meet Mr. O’Boyle’s purchase price, a settlement was made through Mr. O’Boyle’s representatives to sell the land back to the preservationists. It was JoNell whose name was put on the title.

“It was an important moment for me that I wanted to capture on film,(see picture) but it was done in secret. The public didn’t know about it until about a month later.”

JoNell Haas signing paper to  title of Blano Courthouse land
JoNell Haas signing the papers giving her the title to the land on which the old courthouse sits. Photo courtesy JoNell Haas
After Thanksgiving in 1990, JoNell helped start a tradition which continues to this day. With the help of her husband, a skilled electrician, they decided to light the old courthouse for Christmas, using the lights to accentuate the architectural details of the building. The one thing that JoNell insisted on was that there be a large, red, lighted bow over the front doors to the courthouse as a symbol to the efforts of the community to save the building. At the lighting ceremony, JoNell presented the title to the land, not to the county or the city, but to the community. Present at the ceremony was Ernst Ruffini, the architect’s grandson, and Kay Ruffini, the architect’s great-granddaughter. Ms. Ruffini, an accomplished artist, presented JoNell with a limited print of a watercolor painting of the courthouse that she had painted.

“It is something that I will always treasure.”
Kay Ruffini watercolor of Blanco  County courthouse
Print of a watercolor painting done by Kay Ruffini, great-granddaughter of architect F.E. Ruffini. Because the old Blanco County courthouse had not yet been restored, Ms. Ruffini used the nearly identical Concho County courthouse as her reference, thus the red colored mansard roof in the painting versus Blanco's dark gray roof. - Photos by Terry Jeanson, Courtesy of JoNell Haas, October, 2007
Blano county courthouse water color painting  notatin
A notation on the back of the watercolor painting identifies this limited print as number 2 of 200. Photo by Terry Jeanson, Courtesy of JoNell Haas, October, 2007
JoNell Haas with Ruffini watercolor
JoNell Haas today at her home west of Blanco, TX, posing with the print of the watercolor painting done by Kay Ruffini, the great-granddaughter of the architect of the old Blanco County courthouse, F.E. Ruffini. - Photo by Terry Jeanson, October, 2007
The courthouse was now safe, fulfilling the goal of preserving it for the future. JoNell wanted to stress that the saving of the courthouse was very much a group effort. Her organization received so much support from state Senators, state representatives and even local business owners who donated things such as the use of their Xerox machines. Even so, many of the people involved often looked to JoNell for hope because she was the “local girl” whose family had lived in the area for generations and because they knew that her desire to save the courthouse was genuine and motivated by her love for the historic building.

After the initial saving of the courthouse, county and state officials began to take control of its future and JoNell gracefully bowed out, focusing more on a growing family that needed her attention. Although the exterior restoration of the courthouse was completed in 1998, much more work needs to be done.
1885 Former Blanco County courthouse, Blanco Texas, after restoration
The former Blanco County courthouse after restoration
Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, March 2007
“I still keep my eye on things,” JoNell says from her home west of Blanco. “They haven’t heard the last from me.”

One thing that was never completed was a walkway to be made from bricks with the names of the people who donated money to saving the courthouse. One thing is for sure, JoNell won’t let the current leaders of Blanco forget. Still interested in preservation, her current project is the restoration of an old dance hall in Twin Sisters, a community just south of Blanco.

When I asked JoNell what she remembers most of her time spent raising money to save the courthouse, she said that it was a combination of “fun, family and the people of the community. People who had nothing would come up to me and say “Here, JoNell. Here’s a dollar for the courthouse.” Even the small contributions. That just meant so much.”

Copyright Terry Jeanson
"They Shoe Horses, Don't They?" November 9, 2007 Column
See Blanco County Courthouse | Preservation | Blanco, Texas
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