“Rusk County comprises 932 square miles. The terrain is marked by sloping hills, narrow valleys, and glens. The altitude varies from 300 to 750 feet, with the highest elevations along the iron-capped ridges in the northern and northeastern and southern portions. The soil of the county is light-colored deep sandy loam with underlying clay and lignite, both of which are produced in the county. The clay is made into bricks by Boral-Henderson Clay Products, and the lignite is mined by Texas Utility Mining and Generating Company.”
“After the Texas Revolution, the population grew rapidly, as new settlers arrived by way of Trammel’s Trace, the Nacogdoches Road, and the Green Grass Trail. Cherokee and Shawnee Indians under the leadership of Chief Bowl occupied the western part of the area during the 1820s and 1830s, but with their removal after the Cherokee War in 1839 the way was opened for white settlement. Most of the new colonists came from the Old South, particularly Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, attracted by the availability of abundant cheap land.”
“After Texas independence the territory was originally a part of Nacogdoches County, but upon an act of the Congress of the Republic of Texas, Rusk County was formed on January 16, 1843, and was named for Thomas Jefferson Rusk, who had been secretary of war under President Sam Houston. The county seat was established as near the center of the county as possible by the five commissioners appointed to acquire land for the purpose. Gen. James Smith donated the original townsite of 65.5 acres, and he later sold 69.5 acres more to the town. Later, William B. Ochiltree donated five acres north of the town square and in the deed named the town for his friend James Pinckney Henderson.”
“Numerous new communities sprang up during the late 1840s and early 1850s, and by 1857 twenty-two localities had post offices, the largest of them being Henderson, Camden, Harmony Hill, Millville, Mount Enterprise, New Salem, and Pine Hill. The “Wire Road,” so called because in the early 1850s it was flanked by one of the earliest Texas telegraph lines strung on brackets nailed to trees, was a busy thoroughfare with regular stagecoach lines carrying passengers and freight from Marshall and Jefferson to Crockett and points south and west.”
“In 1860 Rusk County, with a total population of 15,803, was the most populous county in Texas. It was fifth in total wealth, with the combined value of its land, slaves, livestock, and property worth $6,494,175. Twenty-one persons reported estates with an estimated value of more than $30,000. A considerable proportion of the county’s wealth was invested in its 6,132 slaves, one of the largest slave populations in Texas. One indication of the county’s wealth and importance is the fact that two proposed railroads, the Eastern Texas and the Galveston, Houston and Henderson, were chartered to link Henderson with the outside world in the late 1850s.”
“When a huge fire destroyed the courthouse and nearly the entire business section of Henderson on August 5[, 1860], most of the population blamed the calamity on pro-Union arsonists. A man named Green Herndon, a recent arrival from the North who was known to harbor abolitionist sentiments, was singled out as the alleged perpetrator after a black woman reportedly confessed that Herndon had hired her to set fire to the town. On the strength of her testimony a mob gathered, lashed Herndon to a horse, and dragged him around the public square until he died. They then hung the body from a tree and fired repeated shots into it.”
“During the early 1870s the county began to show signs of recovery [from the Civili War]. Several new schools opened, including Henderson Male and Female College, incorporated in Henderson in 1871, and Alexander Institute (see LON MORRIS COLLEGE), established at Kilgore in 1873. In 1872 the first railroad, the Illinois and Great Northern, reached the northwest corner of the county, and Overton became the principal shipping point. Two years later a branch line was built to Henderson. The arrival of the railroad opened new access to markets.”
“During the early 1870s residents in the northern part of the county moved to separate and form a new county. On April 30, 1874, the legislature approved the proposal, and Gregg County was formed. Rusk County lost 284 square miles of territory and with it several thousand residents. The loss was partially offset by a modest growth in the population during the decade of the 1870s.”
“By the late 1920s Henderson residents numbered nearly 4,000. The town had 5½ miles of paved streets, a sewer system, and an electricity-generating plant. A new courthouse was built in 1928, and several new school buildings were constructed after 1900. Overton, the second-largest town in the county, had a population of 600, two banks, and a new high school.”
“Although oil [discovery] brought new riches, it also brought disaster. In March 1937 a powerful explosion caused by a natural gas leak blew up the New London School, killing nearly 300 children and teachers. Moralists saw the disaster as a result of excesses brought by so much new wealth and wondered whether the oil money was worth such a catastrophe. Oil also brought the beginning of the end of Rusk County’s status as a leading cotton-producing area.”
“Although oil production has dropped off since the peak days of the boom, Rusk County continues to be a leader in the industry. In 1990 crude production was 7,690,643 barrels; between 1930 and January 1, 1991, 1,766,118,575 barrels were pumped from Rusk County wells, making it one of the state’s all-time leading oil-producing counties.”
“In the 1980s Rusk County also remained a significant producer of livestock and poultry. In 1982 it ranked 140th among Texas counties in agricultural receipts, with 90 percent coming from livestock and livestock products. Approximately 50 percent of the land in the county was in farms and ranches, with 12 percent of the farmland under cultivation. The primary crops were oats, hay, and wheat; watermelons, peaches, and pecans were also grown in significant quantities.”
- Handbook of Texas Online, Virginia Knapp and Megan Biesele, “Rusk County“
I was the guest of Henderson and Rusk County on July 14, 2014.
Rusk County Courthouse – 1879
(Photo Courtesy: THC)
This courthouse was designed by F.E. Ruffini in the Italianate style, which included “decorative cornices, consoles, chimneys, pilasters, balconies, and both Roman and stilted arches”. It was constructed by D.N. Darling and a partner by the name of Redwine, costing the county $14,948.80. An unfortunate demolition came in 1929.
The cornerstone from that building is on display on the current grounds.
Rusk County Courthouse – 1928
(Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)
This modernist courthouse was designed by in the popular Art Deco style by Arther E. Thomas of Dallas in a collaboration with Corneil G. Curtis. It was built by Ross Maddox and in subsequent years, annex and jail structures were added.
The east-facing (main) entrance isn’t too appealing. It could seriously use a facelift provided by the THC.
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Next Courthouse: Gregg County