Irion County Courthouses, Mertzon & Sherwood, Texas

Irion County Courthouse - Sherwood Texas

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“It was named for Robert Anderson Irion.”

“The county embraces 1,051 square miles of rolling prairie, grass, mesquite, and, in some sections, exposed rock. Elevations range from 2,100 to 2,600 feet above sea level. The county is drained by the Middle Concho River and its tributaries; springs in the Edwards Plateau limestone feed Dove and Spring creeks. Soils vary from sandy to clay to gravel. The average annual rainfall is 21.33 inches.”

“On January 8, 1865, the battle of Dove Creek was fought at the junction of Spring and Dove creeks between 1,400 Kickapoo Indians and 370 state border guards under Capt. Henry Fossett. The Kickapoos were eastern Indians who had been uprooted by the American government and removed to reservations in Indian Territory; they were attempting to move to Mexico when intercepted by Fossett’s troops. Thirty-six whites were killed and sixty wounded in the battle; Indian casualties totaled eleven dead and thirty-one wounded.”

“The area had been part of the Fisher-Miller Land Grant of 1843, but no settlements were established in what is now Irion County until the late 1870s, after the Indian threat had been eliminated. In 1874 the area became part of Tom Green County, which was formed that year from 12,500 square miles taken from Bexar County. G. W. Wood, Richard F. Tankersley, Bruce McCain, and others established cattle ranches in the area.”

“Cattle and sheep thrived on the well-watered range. John Arden brought the first flock of sheep from California in 1876, and in 1880 the 7D Ranch was established by Billy Childress with longhorn cattle from Atascosa County. Beginning in the 1880s a few pioneer farmers built small irrigation systems, and several ranchmen planted hay and grain. Underground water resources were tapped with windmill-driven pumps; the first cotton crop was planted in 1886 by W. H. White.”

Irion County Texas

“In 1889 the Texas legislature formed Irion County from Tom Green County, and that same year the county was organized with Sherwood county seat.”

“By 1890, 118 farms and ranches, encompassing 193,000 acres, had been established in the county. Though fourteen of these were larger than 1,000 acres, many were relatively small holdings; the average size was 1,627 acres. Nevertheless, ranching dominated the local economy; almost 64,000 cattle and over 42,000 sheep were reported in the county that year, when only 218 acres was planted in corn (the county’s most important crop) and fourteen in cotton. The United States census counted 870 residents that year. By 1900 the number of farms and ranches declined to fifty-two, and the population dropped to 848.”

“Though ranching continued to dominate the local economy well into the twentieth century, crop farming became more important after a number of homesteaders settled on state lands between 1901 and 1904. By 1910 there were ninety-four farms and ranches in the county, and the population had increased to 1,283. Further immigration into the area was encouraged when the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway slowly extended its tracks through the county between 1907 and 1911. Thanks in part to the new railroad connection, the county continued to grow between 1910 and the late 1920s.”

“More than 33,000 cattle, more than 3,700 mohair goats, and almost 203,000 sheep were counted in Irion County in 1930. As the county’s agricultural economy developed, its population also grew. The census bureau counted 1,610 county residents in 1920 and 2,049 in 1930.”

“The arrival of the railroad also shaped the political geography of the area. Sherwood, the county seat, began to decline when it was bypassed by the railroad, while Mertzon-which was on the line-grew and began to challenge Sherwood for the role of county seat. In a 1927 election held to determine which town should be county seat, voters chose Mertzon over Sherwood by 286 to 231. Sherwood retained its status, however, because a two-thirds plurality was required for a change. After another election in 1936 Mertzon was chosen county seat by a vote of 453 to 222.”

“The Great Depression years featured dry ranges, dust storms, short crops, low markets, and unemployment. Federal programs for the purchase of cattle and sheep helped, as did other relief projects, including a Red Cross sewing and knitting venture. By 1937 conditions looked brighter, as wool and meat prices rose and the Work Projects Administration provided partial funding for a new courthouse. Nevertheless, the number of farms in the county declined to 149 by 1940. By that year the population had also dropped slightly, to 1,963.”

“Though the economy largely recovered during World War II, the mechanization of agriculture and the trend towards fewer, larger farms contributed to the depopulation of the county. Between 1940 and the 1970s the number of residents in Irion County declined-to 1,590 by 1950, 1,183 by 1960, and 1,070 by 1970. Partly because of intensified oil production, however, the population rose to 1,386 by 1980; in 1990 it was 1,629.”

“Oil was discovered in Irion County in 1928, but substantial production did not begin until the late 1950s.”

“Irion County has not had any substantial urban growth and remains a land of ranches and farms. About 1 percent of the county’s farmland is devoted to crops. Extensive irrigation from the rivers still sustains hay and grain feed crops for local livestock and sales. Irion County has no manufacturing, little tourism, and only a modest agricultural income; the county is one of the most lightly populated areas in the state with 1,574 people in 2014. In that year, 69.4 percent of the population was Anglo, 1.9 percent African American, and 26.9 percent Hispanic.”

“Mertzon (population, 852) is the county seat and farm center. Other communities are Barnhart (110) and Sherwood. Outlaw Tom Ketchum once maintained a hideout in the county, at the mountain now named for him.”

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

I was the guest of Mertzon, Sherwood and Irion County on August 13, 2013 and returned to rephotograph both of the area’s courthouses on July 4, 2015.

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Irion County Courthouse – 1901

Irion County Courthouse Sherwood Texas 1901

 (Photo Courtesy: THC)

The isolated and sparsely populated Irion County of today began its journey through history in 1889 when the state legislature created the area from adjacent Tom Green County land. The very same year, residents petitioned for the organization of county government and their wishes were granted when Sherwood was named the county seat.

Sherwood had been laid out three years previous in 1886, around the same time pioneer W.H. White introduced the first cotton crop to the area. As more settlers moved into the surrounding countryside, the small county seat swelled. Early records indicate that the county’s first courthouse was constructed in 1889, but there is no clear picture of what that might have looked like.

Eleven years later, at the turn of the century, a bond election successfully approved the requisite funds to construct a newer and larger courthouse. History would come to note the subsequent, striking achievement of architects Martin & Moodie of Comanche.

Nearly three decades previous, in 1876, the architectural pairing had completed and executed the designs of their first Texas Courthouse: one for Grayson County in Sherman. In those days, the Italianate style reigned across the state’s architectural profession.

Before I continued the story, I need to make something clear. Much of what the lives of Martin and Moodie might have consisted of is simply unknown. To date, I’ve been unable to find a photograph of either man and have struggled to uncover much information. Their group is simply the most mysterious I’ve ever encountered throughout this project.

Like ghosts, their names will suddenly appear while going over various courthouse records. Strikingly, their body of work follows no discernible patterns. Their courthouse resume is bound neither by a similar style nor a region they operated within. With a lack of any substantial information on who they were or how they lived, they have always proven to be increasingly extraordinary in my imagination.

As such, I use what knowledge I have of Texas’ general architectural history and climate in this period to make the following claims (as I really can’t know for sure). After their work in Grayson County, the two drop off the courthouse record. They don’t remerge into history until 1899, twenty-three years later. In between 1876 and 1899 passed a tumultuous change in the landscape of Texas courthouses that I largely attribute to James Riely Gordon after he swept onto the scene in Bexar County in 1891. Landmark giants like Eugene Heiner and Alfred Giles had also already been at work, developing new styles from the more antique varieties of the 1870s and 80s. Richardson Romanesque, a castle-like school of architecture that Gordon popularized, seemed to become a dominating request among developing Texas counties in these years.

I say this to explain how difficult it may have been for Martin & Moodie to find any sufficient courthouse work. They might not have been looking for any certainly, but I think the new, larger demand for opulence is what mainly prohibited them. Gordon and his contemporaries were clearly hot commodities, which would explain his astounding eighteen courthouses across Texas by the end of his career. Roughly 14% of Texas counties had, at some point in history, a Gordon courthouse. That’s more than any other architect.

Towards the end of the 1890s, however, a ‘less flashy’ style of architecture had gained more traction. I attribute a lot of this cultural shift to Wesley Clark Dodson (of Waco) who helped bring around a significant Second Empire trend across the state, following patterns and designs out of France to fuel the creative forces within Texan architecture. What we can tell from the rest of Martin & Moodie’s documented work indicates that they felt more comfortable with this newer trend. From 1876 to 1899, perhaps it befell the two to fall back from the overwhelming themes of grandeur and elaborate ornamentation being worked out by Gordon in San Antonio. Instead, they might have designed smaller buildings across Texas, the records of which we don’t have, and only found significant courthouse work when the pendulum of more simplistic style swung back their way. We can’t really be sure what prompted such a large gap in the courthouse record, but we do know that Martin & Moodie mysteriously reappeared in Brady just before the turn of the century.

The 1899 McCulloch County Courthouse bears their fingerprint. It’s an unmatched building in terms of similarity to any other Texas courthouse and follows no real overarching style I’m familiar with. Gone are any attempts at a Second Empire design, although the rock pattern employed is somewhat similar to those of Texas’ impressive Dodson Second Empire courthouses. I can only surmise what they attempted to do was liken their work to a faint echo of Gordon’s. It’s a beautiful courthouse, but it just stands out as something very strange indeed. There’s not anther one like it in Texas. I share this only to explain how almost unpredictable and elusive Martin & Moodie are to historical rationalization.

I supposed that’s what intrigues me most about their magnum opus they built two years later. When the call was sent out from the rugged and isolated seat of a harsh, sparsely populated, western ranching county for a new courthouse, it was Martin & Moodie who answered. At the same time, Wesley Dodson and James Gordon were busy collaborating on the massively impressive McLennan County Courthouse in Waco, Alfred Giles was off in Corpus Christi working on a school,  two more years would pass before Henry T. Phelps would even establish his practice, and Eugene Heiner died in 1901. The only competition in the immediate region might once have come from F.E. Ruffini or James Flanders, but both had been retired from designing courthouses for nearly a decade by this point.

The door, much like all of Irion County, was wide open for Martin & Moodie.

And as quickly and mysteriously as they arrived, with designs in hand for what would become one of the most notable symbols of Texas ghost towns, they disappeared and left nothing but a single rock slab bearing their names near the northern doors. What captivates me about this courthouse is that no Masonic lodge even laid a cornerstone. Perhaps there was no Masonic chapter nearby. As much could be likely expected for a community as small and isolated as a 1901 Sherwood. My guess, though, is that’s just how the two architects did things. They didn’t operate with convention. Much like Martin, Byrne, and Johnston before them, they served as both architects and contractors. When they alone chiseled their names into the courthouse’s rock, they were as much signing their work like Van Gogh or Monet. This was theirs.

Rusticated limestone was quarried from a local Irion County gulch to provide building materials and a pressed metal roof was chosen to keep the rain off. Remarkably, I believe this is the only historic courthouse to bear a metal roof. Galvanized iron was used to cover the central clocktower and the clocks themselves were painted on. Local legend tells us that the chosen time was meant to reflect the hour and minute that Abraham Lincoln died in 1865. You gotta love this stuff.

And yet, as all of these small town stories do, things didn’t end all that well. Sherwood’s first death knoll rang as early as 1927, when local voters became frustrated over the railroad’s brazen disregard for the county seat. In one of the most unbelievable chapters of the drama that is Texas’ railroad history, a rail was plotted less than just 1.5 miles west of town. In this move, the nearby settlement Mertzon came to be the local rail stop instead and Sherwood was suddenly denied the significant commerce such a title brought.

Enraged, electors took to the polls to move county government from the sleepy little seat nestled next to Spring Creek in the Irion County hills to what was a larger and more successful Mertzon. The 1927 county seat election amongst eligible Irion County voters saw Mertzon the winner (286 to Sherwood’s 231). Unfortunately for the revolutionaries however, a two-thirds plurality was required to make such a monumental change to county life. Yet nine years later, Mertzon had grown substantially more and on the other hand, Sherwood had only dwindled by the same proportionality. A second election in 1936 permitted Mertzon to become the Irion County seat by a vote of 453 to 222.

By this time, at the height of the Great Depression, Abilene architect David S. Castle had become quite successful at designing Classical Revival courthouses in this particular region. His Moderne-esque, hilltop courthouse in Mertzon was built a year later. Meanwhile, less than three miles north, the Sherwood courthouse had fallen to pitiful and heartbreaking disuse.

With no further need for the building, county officials made the decision to sell it off to a Mrs. W. W. Carson for $450. Mrs. Carson then turned around and most likely made a profit selling it to the Sherwood Homemakers Club. The Club owned the courthouse for fifteen years, while all throughout that time Sherwood got smaller and smaller. Residents just poured out of the now defunct seat, heading for Mertzon or San Angelo for more success and better lives. By 1951, the club had dissolved. My guess is they simply didn’t have enough people left to become members. Even more indicative of the way Sherwood was headed was when the local Baptist church dissolved in 1966. Previously, the church had been the ones in charge of the courthouse after the Homemakers Club donated it to them in the early Fifties.

At some point after ’66, it fell into the ownership of an R.C. Crabb who owned it for some time before selling it to the Sherwood Community Association. For at least the last quarter century and perhaps even longer, the old courthouse has been a community center for the last remaining residents of Sherwood.

At some point within just the last four years, Martin & Moodie’s Irion County Courthouse became a nondenominational church. The second floor courtroom has now been redecorated with a preacher’s pulpit and pews where at one time, rugged outlaws and highwaymen would have been tried by a jury of their peers. That’s got to be an allegory for redemption if ever there was one.

Yes, the Sherwood Courthouse still stands. You know I had to see it.

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 Irion County Courthouse – 1937

Irion County Courthouse Mertzon Texas

(Photo Courtesy: THC)

Irion County Courthouse Mertzon Texas

(Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)

As mentioned above, the second Irion County Courthouse was completed in 1937. That was one year after the landmark vote that decided to move the county seat from Sherwood to the railroad-bordering Mertzon.

Abilene architect David S. Castle was selected to complete the designs for this courthouse. He tended to embrace the Classical Revival style throughout the plans he drafted in the 20s (see nearby Reagan County), but turned towards a more Moderne school as the 30s arrived and wound on. The design he prepared for Irion County officials was one that certainly shares some similarities with the more strikingly Moderne courthouses of Voelcker & Dixon or Wyatt C. Hedrick, but offers its own take all the same.

I call Castle’s distinct style “West Texas Moderne”. Sterling County’s is another fine example.

Balfanz Construction Co. was the county’s chosen contracting firm. Much unlike Martin and Moodie’s days when architects possessed the ability to both design and bring their plans to life, the era of the two roles being combined into one had come to an end.

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The road through quiet Irion County passes through a land of simplistic and underrated beauty.

Mertzon Texas Irion County

Life’s slower pace hasn’t been lost on Mertzon.
DSC_3900Broadway Street, Downtown Mertzon
DSC_3905DSC_3903The courthouse is up on a hill bound by Park View Street and Sherwood Avenue.
DSC_3909Aptly named
DSC_3910Irion County Courthouse Mertzon TexasThe large and imposing hilltop courthouse faces due east on Park View Street, towards Highway 67 nearby.
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DSC_3914DSC_3921 2DSC_3923Rock gardens flank each entrance.
DSC_3932DSC_3929The northeast corner DSC_3930The northern façade on Fayette Street
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DSC_3934Castle’s Modernist influences become clear here.
DSC_3920DSC_3938The courthouse’s position offers a great vantage point to see Irion County’s gentle landscape.
DSC_3944DSC_3937The northwest corner

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They say they’ll grow if you water them.

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