Reagan County Courthouse, Big Lake, Texas

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“Reagan County comprises 1,173 square miles of flat to gently sloping sandy terrain in the northwestern and north central regions and flat to sharply dissected limestone and rolling caliche in the remaining sections.”

“Natural resources in Reagan County include caliche, limestone, salt, gas, oil and sulfur. Numerous draws, which remain dry most of the year, provide drainage into the Middle Concho River during floods. Centralia Draw, which crosses the middle of Reagan County, is the most prominent. Runoff from the extreme southwestern corner of the county drains into the Pecos River.”

“An important source of water for prehistoric peoples and early travelers was Grierson Springs, which once flowed substantially in southwestern Reagan County. Spaniards probably discovered the springs in January 1684, when the expedition of Juan Domínguez de Mendoza arrived there and camped for two days. The Comanches also used the springs as a campsite. In 1858 the Butterfield Overland Mail missed the springs when planners drew its stage route along Centralia Draw across the center of the county, but a source of fresh water was the first consideration when an outpost for Fort Concho was selected on April 30, 1878.”

“By the 1890s sheep and goat ranchers had moved into the central area of the county near the homesite of another early settler, Gordon Stiles, on Centralia Draw. The local post office, named for Stiles, was established in 1894, and a store opened there before 1900.”

“Reagan County was carved from Tom Green County in 1903 and named for Senator John H. Reagan, the first chairman of the Railroad Commission. Stiles became the first county seat. After constructing two temporary frame courthouses, county officials built a striking two-story white stone building in 1911. A wooden school building was constructed adjacent to the courthouse.”

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“Early in the twentieth century post offices opened at two other small communities in Reagan County. Reaganview, fifteen miles northeast of Stiles, operated a post office from 1905 through 1910 and a one-teacher school from 1902 to 1915. The second community, Isaac, maintained a post office from 1907 through 1909.”

“In 1911 Taylor sold 320 acres of land to the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient of Texas Railway for a station and townsite, which was named for the local landmark and promoted by the railroad. The railroad chose a route through Big Lake rather than Stiles, because a large landowner near Stiles failed to grant a right-of-way. A post office, public school, newspaper office, and various stores were established by 1912.”

“One of the oldest cattle trails in Texas crossed the Big Lake area, and between 1916 and 1920 up to 400 carloads of steers were unloaded at Big Lake each year to winter in Crockett County before being sent north to fatten for market.”

“In May 1923 the focus of the area economy changed from agriculture to petroleum when the Big Lake oilfield started producing. The discovery opened the Permian Basin and all of West Texas to oil exploration and production. Oil wells located on lands given to the University of Texas in 1876 subsequently became a major source of the institution’s endowment. By summer oil leases sold for quick profits to local landowners and out-of-town speculators. Several cafes, a hardware store, a lumberyard, and other new businesses opened to serve the expected Big Lake boom, and the local hotel was expanded by a twelve-room addition.”

“Big Lake citizens voted to incorporate on August 15, 1923. In 1925, by which time the population had reached 100 and Big Lake appeared to be the most important town in the county, voters moved the seat of government there from Stiles. As a result of the oil boom, two new post offices were established in southern Reagan County. The community of Best, six miles from the discovery well, received a post office in 1924 and operated a grade school under an emergency permit.”

“Best developed into a typical 1920s boom town with growing vice and violence, reaching a population estimated at 3,000 by 1925. In an effort to clean up the town, citizens called out the Texas Rangers, who destroyed buildings that were being used as brothels, gambling houses, and saloons. By the 1980s less than a dozen people lived at Best.”

“In 1930 the Reagan County population reflected the oil boom rather than the Great Depression. Of a total of 3,028 residents, sixteen were foreign-born. African Americans numbered sixty-four and Hispanics 101.”

“The population declined to 2,000 by 1940. In 1947 the county reported only two manufacturing establishments. By the 1950s the population had risen to 3,127, of which only one resident was black. Among county residents were 440 high school and 120 college graduates. A renewed oil boom swept the county in the spring of 1951, when the Spraberry Trend area, a shallow pay, was brought into production.”

“By 1970 the population reached 3,239. High school graduates numbered 1,561 and college graduates 162. Between 1923 and 1973 the county produced over 287 million barrels of oil. By the 1980s Reagan County had 4,135 residents, 82 percent of whom lived in urban areas, though there had been a significant increase in rural population during the previous decade.”

“In 2014 the county population was 3,755. About 31.3 percent were Anglo, 3.4 percent African American, and 65.3 percent Hispanic. The major communities were Big Lake (population, 3,219), Texon, Best, and Stiles. The economy continues to revolve around oil, gas, and ranching, and the price and demand for petroleum are important economic concerns. Reagan County celebrates stock shows in January and July and a Chili Cookoff in October at Big Lake.”

- Handbook of Texas Online, Julia Cauble Smith, “Reagan County

I was the guest of Big Lake and Reagan County on August 13, 2013 and returned to rephotograph the courthouse and the ghost town of Stiles on July 4, 2015.

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Reagan County Courthouse – 1904 (Stiles)

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Now faded to history, Reagan County’s first courthouse(s) left behind nothing but this marker commemorating their location. The site rests on a small roadside bluff above TX-137 in Stiles.

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Reagan County Courthouse – 1911

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(Photo Courtesy: Terry Jeanson)

The rugged western county’s first seat was plotted on Centralia Draw shortly after the area’s organization in 1903. During Reagan County’s early years, two successive wooden framed buildings were used as courthouses on a site now overlooking the highway and surrounded by a mostly empty prairie.

In 1911, plans were put into action for a larger and more sustainable rock building. The elusive courthouse architect William Martin of Comanche left his fingerprint behind on early county records that cite him as both the building’s architect and contractor.

His work stood proudly at the center of life in Stiles for fourteen years until a landmark county decision prompted all county government to be moved to a larger and more prosperous community in the county’s southern half. Two years previous, in 1923, the railroad stop Big Lake had voted to incorporate and as such, had begun to attract a larger population. Conversely, it was Stiles whose number of residents slowly trickled away.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Big Lake swelled and Stiles shrunk. Such is the story of so many other western ghost towns who once claimed prominence. Throughout that period, most of the pioneers who called Stiles home packed up and left, but a key monument remained. For nearly seventy-four years the old Stiles courthouse was left standing, rotting away piece by piece but retaining its overall shape nonetheless.

Reagan County Courthouse, Stiles, Texas

(Photo Courtesy: THC)

Reagan County Courthouse, Stiles, Texas

(Photo Courtesy: rootsweb.com)

That changed abruptly on December 24, 1999 when a Christmas Eve arsonist took to the Stiles courthouse and burned its roof and inner walls away.

Today, it continues to stand on, albeit without a roof and a fire damaged interior. Padlocked fence separates it from the outside world, but the intrepid can still drive out into the oil-dotted, desolate Reagan County countryside and get close enough to see Stiles’ courthouse for themselves.

That’s exactly what I did.

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Northbound on CR-113 between Best and Stiles

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Big Sky, Big Heart, Big Oil, and a Big Lake nearbyDSC_3697
Rounding a curve on 137, the community of Stiles quickly spilled out before us.

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What looks like a stone vault or other outer building doesn’t appear to be original, but has clearly been there for some time.

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Folks aren’t keen to see a repeat of the last troublemaker. The cacti growing over the rusted gate lead me to believe that their efforts are working.

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The plains wait for no man. Nature takes its revenge on us all in the end.

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An impressive and solemn tombstone for the Stiles that once was

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Reagan County Courthouse – 1927 (Big Lake)

Reagan County Courthouse, Big Lake, Texas

(Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)

Architect David S. Castle was tasked with providing designs for the newest courthouse in Reagan County’s history. His Classical Revival design was constructed by J.R. Horn & Sons and an addition was built in 1957.

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Big Lake, Texas

Entering Big Lake from the north on TX-137

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The current Reagan County Courthouse, on 3rd Street
DSC_3817DSC_3802Turn of the century lampposts line the courthouse’s main walkways.
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The western entrance, on Court House Square
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The Reagan County Library sits on the property’s northwest corner at the intersection of Court House Square and 4th Street.
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The 1957 addition is connected to the original courthouse via its northern façade.
DSC_3842DSC_3845The eastern entrance, also on Court House Square
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A leftover from the olden days just inside the eastern doorsDSC_3851
DSC_3852The southeast corner
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Big Lake & Reagan County

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On Court House Square

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Previous Courthouse: Crockett County

Next Courthouse: Upton County

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