This was our eighth Courthouse in Texas to visit. That means we are at 3.1% of our goal with 96.9% left to go.
Van Zandt County has had six courthouses – 1848, 1850, 1951, 1859, 1872, 1896 and 1937 and the County was created by an act of the Texas Legislature on 20 march, 1848 from the territory of Henderson County. The county boundaries ran from present Anderson County north to Hopkins County and from the Neches River west to the then Kaufman and Henderson County lines.
Van Zandt’s County seat was mandated by the Legislature as a temporary one to be located at Jordan’s Saline, a three-year-old community on the south side of the Grand Saline where a salt making operation had been set up by John Jordan and Alney Taylor McGee. The courthouse was one half mile south of the Grand Saline on the west bank of Saline Creek and was a crude 16 x 16-foot round log affair with one door and one window.
It did not take the citizens long to realize the long slender shape of the county was impractical for their convenience so in 1849 a petition was sent to Austin asking for a more compact county to be formed. In 1850 the new Van Zandt County boundaries were approved with the law mandating that, “at or within three miles of the center of the county three places shall be selected as the county seat and a town erected and shall be named and styled as “Canton”.
As the surveying of Canton’s town lots were going on the court selected James Bundy to build the second courthouse and mandated it to be as the one built in Jordan’s Saline except it should be two feet larger, making it 18 x 18 feet. This was accomplished in December 1850.
On 18 February 1851, as the county court met it ordered the third courthouse to be built because the District Court was soon to meet. This was of logs as well, but the ceiling was raised to 10 feet from the earlier one of 8 feet. The other change was that the logs were hewed square instead of being left round. The round log building was turned over for the District Court meetings and the County Court occupied the third squared log courthouse. These two log structures were built off the square which was reserved for the time when a permanent courthouse could be built.
The fourth Van Zandt County courthouse in April 1857 was contracted to Fredrick Ezell. It was built of brick and was the first built on the square. It was 40 x 40 feet square and was two stories high. Because of insufficiency of money, construction went slowly, and it was not until November of 1859 until the County Court signed off and took possession of the first courthouse actually built on the square. The Civil War financially bankrupt the state and Van Zandt County as well. Little money was forthcoming therefore maintenance of county properties was neglected.
One of the final blows to the serviceability of the Ezell courthouse came when Congressional Reconstruction ended. When the Freedman’s Bureau troopers pulled out, as a parting gift to the Van Zandters they vandalized the courthouse. A letter from Van Zandt County Court for redress from the federal government went unheeded. Various committees were formed from time to time to decide if a new courthouse should be built or merely repairs made. Repairs were the only option until the January 1870 term of County Court when a bids order for building a new courthouse was passed.
After all bids were rejected as “inappropriate”, in January of 1872 local merchant George Washington Tull came to court and proposed that he would build a courthouse (the 5th) for the price of $8,333.00. At the November term the County Court accepted the new wooden two story 50 x 50-foot courthouse.
The 6th Van Zandt County Courthouse was the first one that was drawn up by an architect and built by a courthouse building contractor. James Riley Gordon’s design described on the Texas Historical Marker on the courthouse lawn as Richardsonian Romanesque was the one chosen by the court. The builder was Otto P. Kroeger. Contracts were made by the court in August 1894, it was of rock and brick construction, was three stories high with a six story central rotunda and tower topped with a copper eagle. Due to a number of difficulties Kroeger was 206 days over his contracted construction deadline when he finished in April 1896. Big Red as the 1896 courthouse became called, after 40 years was badly in need of repairs.
By 1934, it became apparent that the old red courthouse had become inadequate. Although large in appearance, the building had many areas which were never meant to be utilized as business space. The most obvious example being the center room or rotunda. Built in the form of a cross, the center square room from which all other rooms gained access, could only be used for that purpose.
One of the unique aspects of Van Zandt County’s taxing system is that it provided for a courthouse fund. Always aware that sooner or later the county would need a new courthouse, the citizens allowed the court to set aside money for that eventual day.
At a special session, the commissioners’ court met on June 7, 1935, to pass a resolution authorizing Judge E.C. Stovall to file an application with the U.S. Government seeking federal aid through the Public Works Administration to build a new Van Zandt County courthouse. The aid was approved in December of the same year.
The architect job selected by the court was given to Voelcker and Dixon and the General construction contract was awarded to L.W. Wentzel of Sherman, Texas. Sub-contractors were the American Seating Co., Dallas and Watson Manufacturing Co., Jamestown, NY, who furnished the wood and metal furniture, Jack Hurst Electrical Co., Quanah, Texas received the contract for hanging all light fixtures, fans, and clocks. Otis Elevator Co. of Dallas installed the elevator and the Southern Prison Co., San Antonio, Texas, built and installed the jail on the top floor. The price tag was $190,000 and the completion date was projected to be the 15th of December 1936. However, both the jail and the courthouse contracts had to undergo revisions.
The final cost was $210,000 and the first extension on the date of completion was from December to February 14, 1937. The final extension was the 15th of April 1937 and mostly covered the finishing of the jail which was boasted as being constructed on the same plan as the New York City jail.
The Commissioners’ court was determined however, to start the New Year off in the courthouse and it did. It called a special session to meet there the first day of January 1937. But the minutes of that meeting reflect that it could have been held at their old meeting place and at the regular meeting at any later date. This first special meeting though, could be interpreted as a reflection of the pride of the individual court members of their accomplishment.
The seventh courthouse, built of concrete reinforced with 86 tons of steel and finished with Ozark gray marble was accepted as complete by the court on March 27, 1937, although some loose ends had to be tied up.
The official dedication was held on 10 June 1937. In 2017, this seventh courthouse was honored with a “National Historic Places” plaque and is in line for a restoration grant from the State of Texas.