Austin County Courthouse, Bellville, Texas

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“Austin County covers 656 square miles on the boundary between the Post Oak Savannah and the Coastal Prairie regions of Texas. The terrain varies from rolling hills in the northern, western, and central sections to a nearly level coastal prairie in the south. Elevations range from 460 feet above sea level in the northwest to 120 feet in the southeast. Most of the area lies within the drainage basin of the Brazos River, which forms the eastern border of the county. The margins of the western and southern sections of the county are drained by the San Bernard River, which forms much of the county’s western border.”

“It is likely that the first European to set foot within the boundaries of the present county was René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who may have traversed the area in the spring of 1686 and crossed the San Bernard [River] near present Orange Hill, while traveling northeastward from his base at Fort St. Louis, above Matagorda Bay, in a desperate attempt to reach the Mississippi River.”

“American settlement in the area began in the early 1820s with the founding of Stephen F. Austin’s first colony. By November 1821, just ten months after the Spanish government’s acceptance of Moses Austin‘s colonization application, four families had encamped on the west bank of the lower Brazos. The next month saw the arrival of several additional parties of colonists, and settlement proceeded rapidly.”

“In the fall of 1823 Stephen F. Austin and the Baron de Bastrop chose a spot on the west bank of the Brazos at the Atascosito Crossing, now in southeastern Austin County, to be the site of the unofficial capital of the colony, San Felipe de Austin. The settlement quickly became the political, economic, and social center of the colony. By the end of 1824, thirty-seven of the Old Three Hundred colonists had received grants of land.”

Austin County, Texas

“The area played an important role in the events of the Texas Revolution. The conventions of 1832 and 1833 were held at San Felipe and, as the site of the Consultation of November 3, 1835, the town became the capital of the provisional government and retained the role until the Convention of 1836 met the following March at Washington-on-the-Brazos. After the fall of the Alamo, Gen. Sam Houston‘s army retreated through Austin County, pausing briefly at San Felipe before continuing northward up the Brazos to Groce’s plantation.”

“On March 30, 1836, the small garrison under Moseley Baker that remained at San Felipe to defend the crossing ordered the town evacuated and then burned to keep it from falling into the hands of the advancing Mexican army. Residents fled eastward during the incident known as the Runaway Scrape. After a brief skirmish with Baker’s detachment at San Felipe in early April, Antonio López de Santa Anna marched his army southward for Harrisburg, but not before his troops had looted the eastern part of the county. In May 1836, as news of the Texans’ victory at San Jacinto spread, residents began returning to what remained of their homes and possessions.”

“Although the state of Coahuila and Texas designated San Felipe the capital of its Department of the Brazos in 1834, the first machinery of democratic government in Austin’s colony appeared in 1828 with the establishment of the ayuntamientoof San Felipe; the municipality over which it exercised authority extended from the Lavaca to the San Jacinto rivers and from the Old San Antonio Road to the coast.”

“The Constitution of the Republic of Texas (1836) made counties of the former Mexican municipalities, and by 1837 Austin County, named in honor of Stephen Austin, had been officially organized.”

“Although the burning of San Felipe left the town unavailable to serve as the capital of the republic, the partially rebuilt town became the county seat of Austin County. After a referendum of December 1846, however, Bellville became the county seat; this new community was near the geographical center of the county.”

“Within a few years a steady stream of Germans began settling in Austin, Fayette, and Colorado counties. In 1838 Ernst surveyed a townsite on his property on which the community of Industry arose. Between 1838 and 1842 alone, several hundred Germans moved near the town; those not establishing permanent residence soon began rural communities throughout northern and western Austin County.”

“Most of the early German immigrants were from provinces of northwestern and north central Germany; among them, however, were increasing numbers of AustriansSwissWends, and Prussians. Most soon acquired land and began cultivating cotton and corn like their Anglo-American neighbors, although many followed the example of prosperous early settlers Johann Friedrich Ernst and Robert J. Kleberg and raised tobacco. The crop was either fashioned into cigars locally to be marketed in San Felipe and Houston—the activity that inspired the name Industry—or, during the 1840s, was sold to the German cigar factory at Columbus in Colorado County.”

“From 1824 to 1837 San Felipe was the only town in Austin County. By the early 1850s, however, Industry, Travis, Cat Spring, Sempronius, Millheim, and New Ulm had appeared. Many communities were simply open clusters of farmsteads with a post office and general store in the center of the settlement. Despite a modest increase in steamboat traffic on the Brazos, the chief mode of commercial transportation continued to be the ox wagon, as a brisk trade developed between Austin County and the burgeoning town of Houston.”

Secession brought turbulence. In early 1859 mounting fear of slave insurrections inspired the formation of the county’s first patrol system. As early as February 1860 a mass meeting at Bellville advocated secession if the “aggressions of the North upon the South” continued. Six months later the tension had increased; another public meeting at Bellville called upon the county’s ministers to cease preaching to blacks in public places.”

“When Austin County elected representatives to the Secession Conventionin late 1860, one of the delegates refused to attend the gathering on ground that although a majority of those casting ballots favored a convention, they did not constitute a majority of the county’s eligible voters. However, in the referendum of February 23, 1861, Austin County approved secession 825 to 212. Several heavily German precincts had voted decisively against the secession ordinance.”

“Amid all the [postwar] turmoil, the county’s black residents set about constructing new lives for themselves. By 1870 Austin County’s population had climbed almost 40 percent above its level of a decade before, to 15,087. Black population had increased about 68 percent, to 6,574, and now amounted to some 44 percent of the county’s population.”

“Austin County’s economy recovered slowly from the havoc of the Civil War. By 1870 county farms had fallen to scarcely 45 percent of their 1860 value. No county resident in 1870 owned property worth so much as $100,000. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the revival of cotton farming and stock raising had restored much former prosperity.”

“Gardening and the cultivation of orchard fruits for home consumption have been important in the county almost from the beginning. However, the commercial production of fruits and vegetables began only with the improvement of rail facilities in the late nineteenth century.”

“A reconfiguration of the county’s agriculture began in the thirties as cotton acreage began to decline under the combined impact of continuing low commodity prices, diminishing soil fertility, the increasing relative inefficiency of small farms, and New Deal acreage-reduction programs.”

Irrigation, which began on an experimental basis in the county after the turn of the century, became more extensive after World War II; in 1982, 10 percent of the county’s cropland was irrigated, with much of the acreage devoted to rice culture. Most of the former cotton land, however, was converted to livestock production, which after World War II became the county’s chief industry. Between 1930 and 1987 harvested cropland was reduced 54 percent from 104,199 acres to 47,928.”

“Petroleum was discovered in Austin County in 1915, but the first significant production began only in 1927 with the opening of the Raccoon Bend oilfield northeast of Bellville. Soon other finds were made near Bellville, New Ulm, and Orange Hill. From the end of World War II until 1980 the county’s annual production of crude oil seldom fell below a million barrels and occasionally approached three million.”

“In 2014 the census counted 29,144 people living in Austin County. About 63.8 percent were Anglo, 25.5 percent were Hispanic, and 9.6 percent were African American. Almost 75 percent of residents age twenty-five and older had four years of high school, and more than 17 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century agribusiness, tourism, and some manufacturing were key elements of the area’s economy, and many residents commuted to work in Houston.”

“Bellville (population, 4,232) is the seat of government, and Sealy (6,326) is the county’s largest town. Other communities include Wallis (1,290), San Felipe (788), New Ulm (974), Industry (315), Kenny (957), Frydek (900), Cat Spring (200), and Bleiblerville (125).”

- Handbook of Texas Online, Charles Christopher Jackson, “Austin County

I was the guest of Bellville and Austin County on October 13, 2013.

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Austin County Courthouses – 1837, 1848, 1850, 1855

As one of the oldest areas of Anglo settlement in Texas, it should come as no surprise that Austin County’s history bears the records of as many as six different courthouses.

The story begins in 1824, when county namesake Stephen F. Austin founded his settlement of San Felipe de Austin on the Brazos River in what is today southeastern Austin County. On March 30, 1836, at the height of the Texas Revolution, town settlers received news that the Mexican army under President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was approaching their community. And so, fleeing in terror, they made the conscious decision to burn the town to prevent the Mexican army from using any of the leftover buildings or supplies. This process of burning communities and fleeing to the east (to America) is known to history as the Runaway Scrape, and many towns other than just San Felipe de Austin took part.

Less than a month later, Texas won its independence at the Battle of San Jacinto and on May 14, 1836, President Santa Anna officially signed over the territory to the autonomous control of the Republic of Texas via the Treaties of Velasco. On October 22 of that year, a government was formed under President Sam Houston and the process of establishing the first representative counties began. Austin County was organized in 1837, and the old San Felipe settlement was honored by being named the county seat. The town was rebuilt, and part of that process included constructing a courthouse. There are no clear records of what this building looked like or who was responsible for its construction. We just know it existed. Three years later, San Felipe de Austin was renamed to simply San Felipe and six years after that, a declining population brought about a vote to move the seat of government to the more centrally located Bellville.

Bellville was built upon land donated by Thomas B. Bell and his brother James and existed for approximately two years before it was properly plotted and surveyed. That was in 1848. The same year, a log cabin courthouse was constructed by contractor Benjamin L. Cheek and was accepted by county officials on August 26.

Two years later, in 1850, Sam Shelburne constructed Austin County’s third courthouse: a one-story, wooden frame building with a shed roofed porch. However, by 1855, the area was already clamoring for more space for county business. On November 19 of that year, officials authorized the sale of the building at auction. Prior to this, the construction effort of the next courthouse had already been underway due to the leadership of contractor Philip M. Cuny. It was completed on November 20, 1855.

An addition was made in 1877 for $2950, but those funds don’t appear to have been well spent. A recorded observation by architect Eugene Heiner while visiting Bellville (likely there because he was surveying the area as he drafted plans for the next courthouse) caught him saying the courthouse looked “liable to fall at almost any moment”. That was September 3, 1884.

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Austin County Courthouse – 1887

Austin County Courthouse, Bellville, Texas

(Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)

Indeed, this was Eugene Heiner’s work, and the grandest courthouse Austin County has ever seen. Working in tandem with contractor Henry Kane of Gonzales, the two men brought this imposing, brick, Second Empire creation to life. Source vary on whether its cost was $37,500 or $45,000. At any ate, records indicate that Heiner only took home $955.50 of that total.

The courthouse was accepted by commissioners on March 25, 1887 and burned seventy three years later in 1960.

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Austin County Courthouse – 1960

Wyatt C. Hedrick, one of the most notable Art-Deco and Moderne architects in the entire United States was based principally in Fort Worth. His work was not limited to courthouses, and his career would include some of Texas’ most widely known architectural wonders like the Shamrock Hotel in Houston and the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum in Fort Worth, however, a significant portion of Texas courthouses can be attributed to him today. Beginning in the 1920s and concluding in 1960 with the Austin County Courthouse, his lengthy career ended with his death in 1964. This was the final courthouse he designed before then.

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Approaching the Bellville square from the northwest
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The courthouse sits in the center of a busy traffic circle, facing slightly northwest towards Main Street.
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The west corner, facing W Main
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Looking northwest
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Some of the Bellville square

Previous Courthouse: Washington County

Next Courthouse: Fort Bend County

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