(This is a blogpost about my courthouse trip. Here are the pictures of the courthouses themselves.)
The first leg of my roundabout trip to Nashville had one interesting aspect that I forgot to mention in the previous blogpost: I shunpiked. This is a word I just learned, but it’s perfect. In the hopes of a more interesting drive, I deliberately skipped the direct route (in my case, Highway 290) and for long stretches used its predecessor, Highway 20.
Shunpiking is a fun way to travel an otherwise boring route if you’re not in a hurry and your car’s suspension is in working order. The latter becomes evident almost immediately as you bounce like a moon buggy along a neglected two-lane road, some of it dirt or gravel, the modern highway often visible only a couple of hundred yards away.
Trees hug the sides of the road (some of them surprisingly colorful; take that, upstate New York). Buzzards the size of Cessnas occasionally swoop past. Importantly, the old highways actually travel through the towns that the new ones were designed to bypass. The forgotten downtowns typically include a half-dozen historic brick buildings, one or two of which have been turned into antiques shops, either or both of which has itself gone out of business. And the rest is left to decay. It’s either exhilarating or depressing, or both.
The shunpiking detour ended in Giddings, which conveniently enough was the first stop for my primary mission: photographing lots and lots and lots of Texas county courthouses. There are 254 counties in this great state, and I intended to hit 17 of them between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday evening. The one in Giddings was a lovely start—red brick, built in 1899—although when I entered the building I immediately noted alarming cracks on various walls suggesting some very serious foundation issues.
(If you’re interested, some cursory googling suggests they’re working on it, though they’re very obviously not done.)
After Giddings came Brenham. After Brenham was Bellville. The day was clear and cloudless, allowing these buildings to show their true beauty. …Some of them, anyway. A familiar pattern began to emerge: county courthouses are either historic and beautiful artifacts, or modernist horrors built to replace them. One particularly insulting example is Hempstead (Waller County), which according to literature from the time, replaced an 1894 architectural jewel with an “even more attractive” building in 1955. You be the judge. Third most common is the historic and beautiful courthouse that was given a modernist-horror renovation, leaving it a soulless zombie of a building.
Security in these courthouses was nonexistent. At one—I think in Woodville—there was a station with a metal detector, but nobody on duty. So I wandered through quite a few of them, finding (among other things) the file archive at the Polk County Courthouse, where I was able to peruse the county’s probation payment receipts from 1993.
I had lunch in Jasper at a barbecue joint recommended by my Texas Monthly Barbecue Finder app (yes, such things exist). Then I and my leftovers pressed onward. In Newton I photographed the easternmost county courthouse in the state, just reopened in 2012 after being all but destroyed in a 2000 fire.
Next I turned north through the Piney Woods. The road grew more windy as I weaved among Endor-like trees, sunlight winking. I crossed lakes that were miraculously filled with water, stopped quickly in towns you’ll never think to visit—Hemphill, San Augustine, Center—and nervously began checking the time and available sunlight against the miles and courthouses left to cover. See, I was stupidly far out of my way. To not finish this eastern leg of the County Courthouse Quest would be a disaster, in terms of how far I live from the missed courthouses. I could not let night fall before I was done. Still, I forced myself to spend a few precious minutes at each courthouse, knowing it would be the only time I ever see most of them, walking through the interiors of those that were open.
Two of my favorite cities thus far came right during the golden hour: Marshall and Jefferson, adjacent towns that boast gorgeous downtown districts. Marshall’s courthouse in particular is a real stunner, and the powers that be did humanity a tremendous favor in 1964 by constructing the modernist horror replacement courthouse next door to the original one, preserving the centerpiece to the city. Thank you, Harrison County.
Real anxiety set in as the sun dipped below the horizon and I raced the 18 miles north from Jefferson to Linden, my final stop of the trip. With headlights on I made it into the town square, and thanked my iPhone’s solid low-light capability as I got a serviceable picture of the Cass County Courthouse. It was built in 1861, I found out later, making it the oldest continually-operated courthouse in Texas.
The trip was done. No it wasn’t, that’s a total lie. Funnily, with all of my picture-taking done, I had reached the approximate halfway point of the trip to mom’s place in Nashville—you know, the ACTUAL reason I’d left home. And yet, despite having 8 hours to go—heck, a full hour before I even left Texas—the rest of it passed uneventfully, with the most excitement being my effort to stay awake for the final hour. I arrived at 1:30 AM, exhausted with aches and pains from too much continuous car time, and was asleep within seconds.
Oh, yeah, also I met my friends’ twins in Houston. So those were the babies.