Newton County Courthouse, Newton, Texas

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“Newton County comprises 950 square miles of the lower regions of the East Texas timber belt. Common trees include longleaf and shortleaf pines, oak, magnolia, hickory, and cypress. The rolling terrain, dominated by loamy topsoils, ranges from 30 to 300 feet above sea level. The Sabine River forms the county’s eastern boundary.”

“Indians were the earliest human inhabitants of Newton County. Artifacts attributed to members of the Caddo confederacies have been located in present-day Newton County. The Atakapans, whose name means “man-eaters” in Choctaw, occupied the coastal regions around the Sabine River and may also have ventured into Newton County. The Coushattas, who migrated to lower East Texas during the early 1800s, also came through the county. In fact, one of the earliest trails through the area was known as the Coushatta Trace.”

“Most of the area of present-day Newton County was part of the Municipality of Liberty from 1831 to 1834 and the Municipality of Bevil, which later became Jasper County, from 1834 to 1846. The area north of the Little Cow Creek, which includes one-fifth of the present county, was within the Municipality of San Augustine in 1834–35 and the Municipality of Sabine from 1835 to 1837, before becoming part of Jasper County in 1837. The state legislature marked off Newton County on April 22, 1846, from the eastern half of Jasper County and named it in honor of John Newton, a veteran of the American Revolution. The county’s boundaries have remained unchanged since that time save for a small cession along the western border to Jasper in 1852.”

“The issue of the location of the courthouse dominated Newton County’s early history. Electors originally voted to place the seat at the center of the county, and the first commissioners’ court meetings convened near Quicksand Creek as a result. However, citizens of Burkeville successfully petitioned the Texas legislature to make their town the county seat in 1848. Voters narrowly approved the new location the following year.”

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“In 1853 a dispute concerning land titles, followed by yet another election, resulted in the move of offices to Newton, a newly established community at the geographic center of the county. Burkeville citizens refused to give up the struggle, and an 1855 plebiscite favored Burkeville by a small majority. County officials refused to leave Newton, however, convincing the legislature to recognize that city as the proper seat of government, where it has since remained.”

“Newton County citizens overwhelmingly favored the conservative southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge in the 1860 presidential election. Not surprisingly, they supported secession by an even greater margin. Although some 400 men from Newton County served during the Civil War, the commissioners’ court made strenuous efforts to help the remaining citizens avoid much of the war’s immediate economic destruction.”

“As had been the case before the Civil War, agriculture remained important from 1880 to 1930. The number of farms in Newton County nearly doubled during the fifty-year period. Corn, cotton, cattle, and hogs served as staples in the county’s agricultural economy. Sheep ranching enjoyed a brief span of popularity, although the number of these animals raised in the county declined rapidly after 1900.”

“The population grew steadily during these years, from 4,359 in 1880 to 12,395 in 1930. Blacks made up over one-third of the almost entirely rural population of Newton County. The post-Reconstruction period saw a tremendous expansion of the lumber industry. The census of 1880 estimated total industrial production, largely stemming from water-powered sawmills, to be just over $25,000. Early lumbermen used animal teams or creeks to pull or float their cut timber to the Sabine River, where it was then floated downstream to Orange.”

“Capitalizing on the region’s huge expanses of virgin forests, large timber interests became involved in Newton County during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Included among these lumber giants were A. J. Peavy, Henry Lutcher, and John Henry Kirby. By 1929 industrial production was over $4,000,000 annually, with 1,383 of the county’s 1,461 industrial workers employed by lumber-related concerns. Nearly two-thirds of the total work force was now involved in non-agricultural occupations.”

“The growth of the lumber industry from 1880 to 1930 also revolutionized transportation. Early settlers depended upon poorly maintained county roads and sporadic riverboat service along the Sabine. Promoters had gained charters to establish railroads in the county as early as 1852. Yet the first completed line of lasting importance to Newton County, a section of the Texarkana and Fort Smith to Ruliff, was not realized until 1897. Lumbermen, seeking to link their forest holdings with their mills, oversaw the rapid expansion of the rail system during the early twentieth century. Particularly important were the Orange and Northwestern, the Sabine and Neches Valley, and the Gulf and Northern.”

“The Great Depression and gradual depletion of available stands of timber had a severe impact upon Newton County. As late as 1940, public emergency work programs employed 468 persons (10.7 percent of the total work force); another 302 (6.6 percent of the total work force) were still seeking work. Mill closings at Deweyville, Call, and Wiergate also hurt the county’s economy.”

“As a result of the economic woes, increasing numbers of persons began to seek work outside Newton County. Industrial plants at Beaumont and Orange attracted particularly large numbers.”

“Other changes also contributed to the transformation of life in Newton County. While a few towns (including Newton and Deweyville) had electric service before 1925, electricity became available for the county’s rural residents during the late 1930s.”

“While cotton-growing has virtually disappeared in Newton County, farmers have produced increasing amounts of hay, and cattle raising continues to play an important role in the county’s economy. More importantly, proper forest management and reforestation programs have in recent years rejuvenated the county’s available timber resources, and in 1990 forestry was the main agricultural activity in the county.”

“Newton County’s once declining population has undergone changes in numbers, racial composition, and educational levels. After a 1960 figure of 10,372, in 1980 13,227 persons lived in Newton County, a 27.5 percent increase but still less than the high of 13,700 in 1940. As of 2014, the population was 14,138. Of those, 73.2 percent were Anglo, 20.8 percent African American, and 3.4 percent Hispanic. Newton (population, 2,449), Deweyville (1,035), and Burkeville (603) are the largest towns.”

- Handbook of Texas Online, Robert Wooster, “Newton County

I was the guest of Newton and Newton County on July 11, 2016.

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Newton County Courthouse – 1848 (Burkeville)

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(Photo Courtesy: Terry Jeanson)

As the first official courthouse in Newton County, this building succeeded the temporary use of a Texas Revolution veteran’s home in the community of Quicksand. Newton became the county seat shortly after the city’s founding, but a bill in the state legislature reversed that decision and made the seat Burkeville for whatever reason.

This two-story, wooden courthouse was built on land donated by John Burke (the town founder) and served until 1853, when county officials moved the seat back to Newton.

Newton County’s “log cabin courthouse” was demolished in the 1920s.

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Newton County Courthouse – 1853 (Newton)

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(Photo Courtesy: Terry Jeanson)

Newton County’s first county clerk, Major John Moore, was the local contractor of this courthouse. The identity of the architect (if it wasn’t Moore himself) is not readily known.

This building was simple enough: a two-story, wooden framed construction with a hipped roof. Apparently, the local Masonic Lodge rented the second floor for fifty dollars a year.

Two years after it was built, a county seat election was held once more, and Burkeville won out above Newton. However, stubborn county officials simply refused to leave. The Texas State Legislature sided for them in 1856 and Newton has been the undisputed county seat ever since.

This courthouse lasted for nearly a half century. A third (and final) courthouse emerged just after the turn of the century, and was built on the same land as this one.

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Newton County Courthouse – 1902

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(Photo Courtesy: THC)

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(Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)

I have more to say below, but an excerpt I discovered from the Texas Historical Commission can provide you with anything and everything you’d ever want to know about this courthouse. I’ve highlighted what I found most poignant:

Martin and Moodie designed the Newton County Courthouse in 1902. With its three-dimensional massing and prominent mansard roofs, the building is reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Second Empire style. The structure originally consisted of four symmetrical facades, the north and south, and east and west being identical respectively. In 1936, the square form of the original symmetrical plan was changed when a two-story courthouse annex and jail were added to the south side of the building. The three-story courthouse is composed of structural masonry walls set on a continuous brick footing. The locally fired brick, originally exposed on the exterior, is laid in cement mortar and tempered with lime. When the courthouse annex and jail were added in 1936, these walls were covered with an application of cement stucco with a coarse aggregate. The three remaining original facades are composed of five projecting bays, with the central bay projecting the farthest. Entrances, located in the central bays, are accentuated with bracket-supported, balustraded balconies. The smooth plaster walls of the bays are offset by decorative quoins and hood moldings in the form of segmented, triangular, rounded and flat keystone arches. The central projecting bays are crested with a classical pediment on which a floral form is captured in a shallow relief. Originally, the windows were double hung with wooden mullions, and the doors were wooden with glass and wood insets over the door transoms. In 1972, the original doors and windows were replaced with aluminum and glass counterparts. The structure is topped with a mansard roof composed of painted, pressed metal. The roof is pierced with both round and arched dormers as well as two chimneys. Rising from the center of the roof is a truncated clock tower that consists of an open-sided belfry and is terminated with a pilaster-supported apron. The clock facades are topped with a pediment architrave and mansard roof. The interior originally featured tile and wooden floors, high ceilings with fans, plaster walls, and wooden staircases. Modern finishes now hide many of the original features. One example of this is the district courtroom, where the original balcony was removed and the historic pressed metal ceiling obscured by a dropped ceiling. The judge’s bench was moved when a jury dormitory was added; an office and a restroom were also added at this time. The dormitory has since been locked up and is used primarily for storage. A new surface now covers the top of the original judge’s bench. Throughout the years of continual use, the courthouse has been altered several times. In 1919 and again in 1925, the interior was modified to provide more functional spaces. In 1972 and 1973, the structure was “renovated” by contractors D. E. Walker and Sons. At this time, the original doors and windows were replaced with aluminum and glass counterparts; the ceilings were lowered; the walls paneled; the first floor was retiled, while the second and third floors were carpeted. In addition, a stair glide was installed on one staircase, the plumbing and wiring were updated, and a central air/heat system was installed.”

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At the dawn of the twentieth century, the most elusive and mysterious of all Texas architects found their inexplicable way to Newton County, deep within East Texas and hundreds of miles from their usual area of practice.

Of course, I’m referring to Martin & Moodie. Based in Comanche (of all places), this pair kept a relatively small profile across the architectural wonders of the state in their time, but I have yet to find one of their works that doesn’t simply captivate.Very little is known about who they were or how they operated, but we know a few of their most impressive designs: the Newton County courthouse among them.

Built from brick made on Caney Creek, this design with key elements from the Second Empire style came to being between 1902 and 1903. I’m not aware of who the contractor was.

On August 4, 2000, an electrical fire broke out in the courthouse attic. This disastrous blaze destroyed the entire building except for the outer walls and a handful of inner walls on the bottom floor. Immediate repairs were made to make the building habitable, but from 2000 to 2006, it sat abandoned on the courthouse square.

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(Photo Courtesy: Barclay Gibson) (This is the building post-fire, pre-restoration).

Yet after six million dollars in private donations and a large grant from the Texas Historical Commission, the process was put in motion to restore the building to its 1930s appearance. A restored tower was added in 2009 and the official restoration project was completed in 2012.

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The salvaged and shining Newton County Courthouse
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This is the eastern façade, facing Rusk Street / Highway 190.
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Rusk Street (as seen from the eastern doors)

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The northeast corner
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A small memorial on the northern side of the courthouse holds the original bell and clock face (amazingly, they survived the 2000 fire). They date from 1929.
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The northern façade, on Court Street…
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The western entrance, on Kaufman Street
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An extensive handicap ramp and fire escape can be found here.
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A cluster of buildings sits on the southwest corner of the courthouse property.
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DSC_9102Newton County Law Enforcement, on Main Street
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A look inside
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The second floor landing (and courtroom entrance)
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Up on the third floor
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Court was in session when I arrived, unfortunately.DSC_9135
Up on the rooftop…
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Newton & Newton County

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Newton was carved right out of the forest.
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On Kaufman Street
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At the corner of Kaufman & Main on the square
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DSC_9095The courthouse square cat
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Main Street, Newton, Texas

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Previous Courthouse: Jasper County

Next Courthouse: Orange County

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