Nolan County Courthouse, Sweetwater, Texas

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“The county was named for Philip Nolan. It lies on the lower plains, with the western end of the Callahan Divide in the southern section of the county. The land is predominantly rolling uplands to the north, with plateaus traversed by valleys in the south; altitudes range from 2,000 to 2,700 feet above sea level.”

“The area of Nolan County had no Anglo settlers until after the Civil War, when buffalo hunters came to the plains. The county was carved from the Young-Bexar territory by the Texas legislature in 1876 and attached to Shackelford County for administrative purposes. Knight’s store on Sweetwater Creek was started in a dugout in 1877 to serve buffalo hunters operating in the area. The county’s first post office was opened in 1879 in the village of Sweet Water, which was two words until the spelling was officially changed in 1918.”

“The original name of the post office was Blue Goose, derived from a story that the first postmaster ate a blue crane that cowboys told him was a blue goose. By 1880 there were fifty-two ranches in the area, and the economy was dominated by the cattle industry. The agricultural census that year reported 24,515 cattle, 1,300 sheep, and only sixty-four acres devoted to growing corn, the county’s most important crop at that time. The 1880 census reported 640 people living in the county.”

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“The county was organized after an election held on January 20, 1881, and in April the Nolan County Court declared that Sweetwater was to be the new permanent county seat. The townsite was on the Texas and Pacific Railway, which had built into the area that March.”

“Though a blizzard in February 1885 destroyed much of the livestock in the area, settlers continued to move into Nolan County. By 1890 there were 144 ranches and farms, and the population had increased to 1,573. Ranching still dominated the local economy at that time, though sheep had come to outnumber cattle in the area, 38,000 to 13,000. Meanwhile, 563 acres were planted in corn, 900 acres in oats, and 490 acres in wheat. Hundreds of new settlers moved into the area during the 1890s and early 1900s, establishing towns as they arrived.”

“Roscoe, which grew on the site of a proposed Texas and Pacific station called Vista, was incorporated in 1890, and the town’s first shortlived newspaper, the Enterprise, was published in 1893, and replaced by the Roscoe Times in 1906. Blackwell, originally named Jamestown, was built around a station on the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway about 1906, and Maryneal was established about the same time. Further settlement was encouraged in 1908, when the Roscoe, Snyder and Pacific Shortline Railway was built to run fifty miles from Roscoe to Fluvanna. Between 1897 and 1908 fifteen post offices were established in Nolan County. Reflecting these trends, the population of the county rose to 2,611 by 1900 and to 11,999 by 1910.”

“During this period crop cultivation became central to the economy of the area. The number of farms increased to 293 by 1900 and to 1,160 by 1910. By 1910 over two-thirds of the land was being used for agriculture and 24.2 percent was in improved farm acreage. While about 16,000 cattle and 7,454 sheep were reported in 1910, 33,000 acres were planted in cotton that year, and 21,000 acres were devoted to sorghum. Cotton was by far the most important crop, accounting for almost 72 percent of the county’s income derived from cultivation.”

“The area’s cotton economy was severely shaken during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The number of acres devoted to cotton plunged to 58,000 by 1934 and to 39,000 by 1939. Almost a third of the farmers left their land during the 1930s, and by 1940 only 948 farms remained in Nolan County. Tenant farmers fared the worst, particularly after 1935; the number of tenants in the area dropped from 665 in 1930 to 628 by 1935 and to 440 by 1940. The population dropped to 17,309 by 1940.”

“Petroleum was discovered in 1939, but production was minimal at first: in 1948 only 3,353 barrels of crude oil were produced in the county. However, production of crude oil reached 8,315,000 barrels in 1956, 5,331,000 barrels in 1960, 4,900,000 barrels in 1974, 2,400,000 barrels in 1978, and 2,873,000 barrels in 1982. The value of petroleum produced in Nolan County increased between 1966 and 1984 from $5,243,000 to $92,415,782 and remained important in the 1990s, though both prices and production had declined since the mid-1980s.”

“In 1982, 94 percent of the county was in farms and ranches; about 18 percent of the farmland was cultivated, and 4 percent was irrigated. Cattle, sheep, Angora goats, and hogs were the most important livestock for the economy. Cotton, sorghum, wheat, and hay were the most important crops grown, though local farmers also grew peaches, pecans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and watermelons. One of the major industries in Nolan County is United States Gypsum, which began operating near Sweetwater in 1924.”

“The [Sweetwater] Jaycee’s World’s Largest Rattlesnake Round-Up began in 1958, and is hosted annually at the Nolan County Coliseum in Newman Park. The Texas State Technical College in Sweetwater is a vocational training facility that began operation in 1970. Construction of the Roscoe Wind Farm (RWF) began in May 2007, and it opened in four phases from February 2008 to October 2009. The plant is located forty-five southwest of Abilene became the largest onshore wind farm in the world with 627 turbines supplied by Mitsubishi, Siemens AG, and General Electric.”

“As of 2014, the county’s population was 15,093. Of those, 58.4 percent were Anglo, 5.3 percent African American, and 35.3 percent Hispanic. Communities in the county include Sweetwater (population, 10,652), the county seat; Roscoe (1,304); and Blackwell (310in Nolan County, partly in Coke County). Visitors and residents find recreation at Lake Sweetwater and at Oak Creek Lake. The largest tourist attraction in Nolan County remains the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Round-Up, which is held each March, and has been featured on ESPN.”

- Handbook of Texas Online, Gerald McDaniel, “Nolan County

I was the guest of Sweetwater and Nolan County on July 5, 2015.

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Nolan County Courthouse – 1883

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(Photo Courtesy: The Collection of Dallas / Texas History Archives, Dallas Public Library, Louise Kahn files)

It’s some kind of shame that the only architects we consider prolific throughout Texas courthouse history are those who were fortunate enough not to lose more than half of their resume to wrecking balls or fires over the course of time. John Riely Gordon and Wesley Clark Dodson, men with certain talent in their own fields, are among the best known architects today for what I can only imagine is the sea of their surviving visual reminders littered across Texas.

Gordon designed a whopping twelve courthouses that still stand today, while Dodson did six. When it comes to historical courthouses, these two men hold the records for the most extant creations left. Others weren’t as lucky.

James Edwards Flanders, arguably Dallas’ most accomplished architect of the 1880s, had a wide resume. His work, from approximately 1878 to 1906, left Texas with eleven courthouses of his own. As of today, only two remain. Of those two, only one retains his earlier (and better known) style. His is a story of disappointment that I can only tragically report was all too common. Some of the most striking architectural designs I’ve ever seen for county buildings were drawn up by Flanders, and they were nearly all destroyed.

One of those late creations stood in Nolan County.

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 (Photo Courtesy: Terry Jeanson)

Flanders was employed by the Nolan County commissioners court in 1882. The Victorian-Italianate plan he presented them was approved shortly after, and Fort Worth construction agent J.M. Archer was hired as contractor. To construct the courthouse, local stone was quarried from west of Sweetwater, but the story goes that financial problems arose shortly after the mining process began. To cut costs, commissioners ordered that plaster-of-paris (made of locally mined gypsum – a Nolan County economic staple) be used in place of the mortar traditionally required. A slow and difficult construction period ensued.

In 1885, two years after the courthouse was finally completed, the plaster-of-paris substitute degraded and caused the entire north wall to collapse. For good measure, the building was abandoned. Nolan County reportedly then held court in an annex next to the jail, and didn’t rebuild until 1891. That was six years later.

From stones salvaged from the Flanders construction, the courthouse was subsequently partially rebuilt. That variation lasted the county for approximately twenty seven years (until 1918).

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(Photo Courtesy: THC) (This is what the building looked like post-rebuilding).

If memory serves, this is the only courthouse I’ve ever discovered that literally fell apart.

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Nolan County Courthouse –  1917

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(Photo Courtesy: THC)

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 (Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)

C.H. Page arrived in Sweetwater in approximately 1917 and presented Nolan County with his Classical Revival design. W.P. Barry & Co. served to build this charming building. It cost the county $101,656.75.

Smooth, sophisticated, streamlined, and practical and still it didn’t fit Nolan County’s standards of “modernization” to survive the wrecking ball in 1976. What were these counties thinking back then?

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Nolan County Courthouse – 1977

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(Photo Courtesy: Terry Jeanson)

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 (Photo Courtesy: wikipedia.org)

I don’t have much to say.

Welch & Hampton designed this monster. Yes, if ever there was a modern courthouse to encapsulate the architectural spirit of the 1970s, this was it.

Remarkably, it later underwent an extensive renovation project that completely rejuvenated the exterior. That process lasted from 2012 to 2014. I arrived one summer later.

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(Photo Courtesy: Google Maps) (This was the appearance mid-renovation).

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The Nolan County Courthouse, reborn and shining anew
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The main entrance faces southeast on Broadway Avenue.
DSC_4866This county has seen some significant courthouse changes in its time.
DSC_4868This is the main entry lobby. The central display case houses the J Paul Turner Winchester Collection, a series of over one hundred rifles donated to Sweetwater’s Pioneer City Museum. Today, it’s maintained by the Sweetwater Rifle & Pistol Club.
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This is Broadway, as seen from the main doors.
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The eastern corner
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Just hangin’ around
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This is the northeast entrance, on Locust Street.
DSC_4876Here’s its view.
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DSC_4891The rear entrance, on 3rd Street
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This is the ‘youngest’ cornerstone I’ve ever seen. I imagine it’s the baby of the Texas courthouse collection.
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DSC_4895The western corner
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County jail offices are located in this half of the courthouse.
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The southwest façade, on Oak Street
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Sweetwater & Nolan County

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DSC_4931DSC_4896DSC_4893DSC_4956DSC_4953DSC_4952DSC_4942On Broadway (a fitting location)
DSC_4943DSC_4890DSC_4957DSC_4958DSC_4948DSC_4950The 1925 Municipal Building, on Locust Street
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