Coke County Courthouse, Robert Lee, Texas

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“Coke County, in West Central Texas, is bounded on the east by Runnels County, on the south by Tom Green County, on the west by Sterling County, and on the north by Mitchell and Nolan counties. It was named for Richard Coke, a Texas governor.”

“The terrain includes prairie, hills, and the Colorado River valley; sandy loam and red soils predominate. The elevation varies from 1,800 feet in the south to 2,600 feet in the north, where Nipple Mountain, Meadow Mountain, Horse Mountain, and Hayrick Mountain are located. Its 911-square-mile area is drained by the north branch of the Colorado River and Yellow Wolf Creek.”

“Ninety percent of Coke County’s agricultural income of $10 million comes from cattle, sheep, goats, and horses. The rest is from cotton, sorghum, small grains, hay, fruits, and peanuts. Coke County is among the leading counties in sheep ranching. Extraction of sand and gravel is a minor industry, though the county has no manufacturing; county oil production of 2,249,804 barrels in 1982 earned almost $77 million.”

“From about 1700 to the 1870s, Comanche Indians ranged the area that is now Coke County. They competed with the Tonkawa Indians to the east and the Lipans to the west for dominance of the Edwards Plateau and Colorado River valley. In 1851 Fort Chadbourne, in the northeast part of the future county, was established by the United States Army to protect the frontier; the fort was manned until the Civil War. The Butterfield Overland Mail ran through the area from 1858 to 1861.”

“Between 1860 and the early 1880s the only settlers in what became Coke County were ranchers attracted to open grazing land. J. J. Austin established his ranch headquarters near Sanco in 1875, and Pate Francher settled in the area in 1877, after he drove a cattle herd for John Austin and Joe McConnel to the Odom Ranch near Sanco. In 1882 the Texas and Pacific Railway began providing service to San Angelo, and settlers started coming into the region in somewhat larger numbers. Severe drought in the 1880s led to fence cutting and its attendant quarreling, particularly on L. B. Harris’s ranch: when landless cattlemen found that Harris had fenced in waterholes on the range, they destroyed $6,000 worth of his posts and wire. State authorities eventually settled the disputes.”

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“The Texas legislature established Coke County in 1889, carving it out of territory previously assigned to Tom Green County; the county was organized that same year, with Hayrick as county seat. In 1889 the county’s first newspaper, the Hayrick Democrat, began publication; shortly thereafter it was renamed the Rustler. By 1890 there were 163 farms and ranches in the county, and 2,059 people lived there.”

“In 1891, after an election, the new town of Robert Lee became the county seat; Robert E. Lee had once served at Fort Chadbourne. That same year, the county’s newspaper moved to the new county seat and was renamed the Robert Lee Observer. Early settlers named a new town Bronte, after English writer Charlotte Brontë; another was named Tennyson, in honor of the English laureate. By 1900, 480 farms and ranches had been established in the county, encompassing 605,842 acres.”

“In 1907, when the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway built tracks north out of San Angelo, the little towns of Tennyson, Bronte, and Fort Chadbourne lay near the line, and residents moved their business centers to enjoy the benefits of transportation. The county seat, Robert Lee, was not on the tracks, but managed to survive nonetheless.” [This was certainly a rarity.]

“In the first years of the twentieth century cotton culture expanded significantly. By 1910 cotton was planted on more than 29,600 acres in Coke County; by 1920 cotton acreage had declined only slightly, to about 28,200 acres. Cotton production plunged sharply during the 1920s, however, apparently because of a boll weevil infestation, and by 1929 county farmers planted only 5,321 acres with cotton.”

“By 1920, after cotton production had begun to decline, there were only 721 farms and ranches in the area, and the county’s population had dropped to 4,557. By 1925, as cotton production continued to drop, the number of farms had declined to 636. But farmers were expanding their production of corn, wheat, and sorghum; in 1929 they harvested more than 55,300 acres of cropland in the county. Thousands of fruit trees were also planted during this time, and by 1920 about 18,000 fruit trees, including almost 14,000 peach trees, were growing in Coke County.”

“The number of farms and ranches in the county increased from 636 to 838 between 1925 and 1929. Meanwhile, the population of the county also began to recover; by 1930 there were 5,253 people living in the county. The momentum of this recovery was lost during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Cropland harvested in Coke County dropped more than 10 percent between 1930 and 1940, and the number of farms in the area fell again to 756. Hundreds of people left during the depression, and by 1940 only 4,593 remained.”

“Prospects for the local economy were greatly improved after 1942, however, when oil was discovered in the county. In November and December 1946, Sun Oil drilled the discovery well in the Jameson field in the northwest section of the county. In November 1948, Humble Oil Company (now Exxon) opened the Bronte field in the eastern part of the county.”

“The Robert Lee Dam, completed in 1969, impounded the E. V. Spence Reservoir which covers 14,950 acres and holds 488,750 acre-feet of water. Besides giving the Robert Lee area a reliable water supply, the lake is a valuable recreation site for fishermen, boaters, and swimmers.”

“Oil production accounts for the major share of income for the county. Income derived from its production is several times more than the county’s income from agriculture. In the 1980s, Coke County maintained some 70,000 sheep and lambs and 30,000 cattle, along with smaller numbers of other livestock. About 500 acres were irrigated, and the county produced 47,000 bushels of wheat and more than 20,000 bushels of sorghum.”

“As of 2014, the population was 3,254. The county’s smaller communities include Bronte, Blackwell (partly in Nolan County), Sanco, Silver, and Tennyson. Robert Lee is the county seat and largest town. Recreation in the county centers around hunting and fishing at Lake Spence and Oak Creek Reservoir.”

Handbook of Texas Online, William R. Hunt and John Leffler, “Coke County

I was the guest of Robert Lee and Coke County on July 5, 2015.

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Coke County Courthouse – 1891

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(Photo Courtesy: THC)

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(Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)

We know for certain that this was the second courthouse for Coke County. A two-story, frame building preceded it in the original county seat, Haydrick, but burned in 1890 (just a year after its construction).

Past that, however, the waters become murkier. There are two conflicting reports of who designed Coke County’s 1891 courthouse. As the preserved cornerstone on the current courthouse grounds maintains, Martin, Byrne, and Johnston served as both architects and contractors. A painting within today’s courthouse shows the building before its tower was removed, and in that spirit, it certainly appears to be in line with their previous designs. See Throckmorton County’s for confirmation.

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(Photo Courtesy: Terry Jeanson)

However, documents discovered by the Texas Historical Commission in San Angelo indicate Oscar Ruffini as the “architect and superintendent” of a “Coke County Courthouse in Robert Lee, Texas”. Because the only building before this one was in Haydrick, and the only other courthouse in Robert Lee has been the 1955 modern variety still standing today, all signs point to a documented Ruffini influence here.

The Second Empire patterns of stonelaying in this courthouse do seem almost consistent with some of Oscar Ruffini’s brother Frederick’s designs (see nearby Concho County), but the courthouse still seems more “blocky” (as the Texas Historical Commission describes it) than most of the Ruffini Brothers’ work. The inclusion of a central tower, specifically, was inconsistent with every other courthouse they did. No Ruffini courthouse remaining today bears a tower except the Crockett County Courthouse in Ozona. That one, however, is still not a centralized tower.

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It is understood to be certifiable that Martin, Byrne, and Johnston were the contractors involved in this courthouse. If you ask me, all signs point to them being the architects as well. Perhaps Ruffini offered some aid in the plans, but I don’t believe he was the principal architect. 

This charming courthouse was constructed of stone quarried from nearby Haydrick Mountain and “lived” approximately sixty three years. It was demolished in 1954.

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Coke County Courthouse – 1955

DSC_4344This was a modern brainchild of Wyatt C. Hedrick and Harry Weaver, built to modernize Coke County in the wake of the previous courthouse’s demolition.

It’s made of concrete and brick.

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The Coke County Courthouse faces northeast on 7th Street.

DSC_4342DSC_4276This façade faces slightly southeast, on Commerce Street.

DSC_4285Out back is a large, rectangular parking lot. It runs the length of the courthouse property and is accessible from both ends.

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A digital welcome sign was installed in August 2013.

DSC_4295Southwest of the courthouse and the parking lot is a small, public Memorial Garden.

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DSC_4294A courthouse cat was on hand when I arrived in Robert Lee.

DSC_4297DSC_4303The courthouse has two rear entrances. This is the farther east of the two.

DSC_4304Its view looks back on the Coke County Memorial Garden.

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DSC_4307DSC_4308DSC_4312DSC_4316Austin Street’s plain, northwest façade

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DSC_4317DSC_4326DSC_4327The looming main entrance…
DSC_4336…and its view of 7th Street

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Just inside

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Robert Lee & Coke County

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South of town, heading north on TX-208 from San Angelo

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It was early in the morning when I arrived, so the square was just about empty.

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A gazebo sits near City Hall, just across 7th Street from the courthouse.

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7th Street’s Pink Building

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Austin Street, Downtown Robert Lee

DSC_4362Westbound on TX-158, en route to Sterling City

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Previous Courthouse: Crane County

Next Courthouse: Sterling County

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