After 70 years, fourth county courthouse sees same fate as predecessors

Posted 8/20/19

The following information is the second part of a summer rerun, from what appeared in the Meteor three years ago this month. It continues the fiery story of Madison County’s courthouses.

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After 70 years, fourth county courthouse sees same fate as predecessors

Posted

The following information is the second part of a summer rerun, from what appeared in the Meteor three years ago this month. It continues the fiery story of Madison County’s courthouses.

In 1894, the Commissioners Court ordered the building of a new courthouse, a structure intended to “overshadow in grandeur all of the Courthouses in East Texas. J.C. (Cab) Morris (brother of Dr. John Elijah Morris), was county judge, and commissioners serving with him were S.H. Lindsey, P.K. Goree, A.J. Hicks, and E.A. McCorquodale. F.S. Glover and Company of Houston was hired to draw up plans and specifications, which they did using mixed Gothic and Flemish styles. A Houston firm contracted to erect the courthouse for $25,300, of which the county had on hand only $300.

Two kilns of brick were burned (made) near the old home of Perry Ashley, which stood on what is now Highway 21 West, near where Bubba and Carolyn Byrd now live. The Courthouse was completed and moved into in 1897. The refuse brick and mortar were used to build Burtis Corner Drug Store, on the northeast corner of The Square.

The cornerstone for the turreted brick courthouse was laid without ceremony, but it was inscribed on two sides. The east side held the year and the names of architects and builders, and the north the names of the judge and commissioners. That cornerstone can now be seen in the Museum.

A cavity in the cornerstone was prepared to hold a copper box filled with items, and that box is also now in the museum, along with several items that were in it. Several coins were placed by individuals, including a fifty-cent piece by the head architect. E.B. Seay added several items, including a small Bible. M.Y. Randolph placed a piece reading, “When future generations look in to this corner stone, may they think of M.Y. Randolph who once lived happy in this world and is now in the Spirit world enjoying the pure blessing of the Great God of the Universe and will continue to live happy forever and forever. Yours respectfully, M.Y. Randolph”

The Courthouse was red brick with white trim and had a tower and spires. There were four clocks high on the tower, one facing each direction. In my recollection, the clocks seldom showed the same times, much less the correct time.

One form in the Museum says the Courthouse’s roof was metal, and the ground floor measured 60 feet square, so of course containing 3,600 square feet. It was 110 feet tall. In later years,

Christmas lights were strung from the four corners of the square to the upper turrets. At night during that season, they could be seen from miles around.

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At 6:45 p.m. on Mother’s Day, May 14, 1967, the courthouse’s fire alarm was sounded. The structure burned out of control from the moment of the alarm. Except for valiant efforts of firemen, the raging inferno would probably have spread to surrounding buildings. Not only were local equipment and firemen involved in fighting the blaze, but also those from Huntsville, Centerville, Bryan, Navasota, North Zulch, and Midway.

The tinder-dry rich pine wood frame of the red brick building burned with such heat that the windows in store fronts on the west side of the square cracked, and few also broke on the northwest and southwest corners of the square. A high wind from the north fanned the flames but were also a blessing in that it lifted the intense heat over the buildings on the south side.

Many years of accumulations of birds’ nests in the roofs of the courthouse tower and spires were blasted out when the entire central structure collapsed right down the middle. There were reports of burning wads of bird nests, paper, and wooden pieces flying southward almost to the hospital, five long blocks away. Firemen and volunteers also fought small fires on the roofs over several surrounding buildings, including on the (old) First Baptist Church in the second block southwest from the square, but damage to those other roofs was reported as light.

The following day, some sections of standing walls were pulled down as a safety measure and to allow entrance into County Clerk Marie Evans’s office and vault, to remove all the county records there which were found to be safe. Many records in other offices were destroyed.

In recent years, Pete Hunter Museum shared his memories of the 1967 Courthouse fire. He was the local assistant fire marshal at the time. Arriving at the fire as quickly as possible, he was there all night, leaving about 7 a.m. Monday morning. For the 13 ½ hours of fighting that fire, he received 50 cents. After leaving the fire, Pete went home, cleaned up, and went to his regular job for Mr. Rayford Hardy, the Sinclair distributor.

Frances Reynolds Hooper wrote her memoir of the courthouse fire. She and her two children had been to celebrate the holiday and her own birthday with her mother in Trinity when they got to our square and saw smoke. She pulled over to the northwest corner of the square where Prosperity Bank now stands. Watching in horror, she stood helpless with others gathering, hopeless with shock, tears, and sorrow showing on their faces. She wrote, “It was a sad, heartbreaking thing to witness.”

A local young man born soon admitted to intentionally igniting the fire, supposedly with the intention of becoming a hero by saving the courthouse. He stated that he dropped a lighted cigarette into a trash bin at the head of a stairway. The trash bin contained waste paper and floor sweep. The chimney-like interior of the building plus the old timber framing allowed the fire to spread rapidly, destroying our treasured landmark.

Our current courthouse was completed in 1970, built of concrete and brick. The modern style contrasts sharply with the previous structure. When it was first built, the jail was in the basement. As more space was needed, jail space was renovated for offices and the jail was moved east of town on Highway 21. In the last few years, several offices have relocated into the annex on the south side of The Square.

The Madison County Museum, at 201 North Madison, Madisonville, TX 77864, is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Curator Jane Day Reynolds would welcome your visit.

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