Shelby County Courthouse, Center, Texas

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“Shelby County comprises 791 square miles of the East Texas timberlands, an area that is heavily forested with a great variety of softwoods and hardwoods, especially pine, cypress, and oak. The terrain varies from undulating to rolling with elevation ranging from 150 to 400 feet above mean sea level. The soil varies from a gray sandy loam on the uplands to a black rich loam in the bottom lands. Between 21 and 30 percent of the land in the county is considered prime farmland.”

“The county seat and largest town is Center, which is 160 miles northeast of Houston and forty miles northeast of Nacogdoches. Center is named for its location at the geographic center of the county, which lies at 31°47′ north latitude and 94°11′ west longitude.”

“French and Spanish explorers discovered and utilized traces of an east-west Hasinai Indian trail, which, after 1714, became a part of El Camino Real or the Old San Antonio Road. The road ran through the area of Sabine and San Augustine counties, just south of Shelby County. In 1716 Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de los Ais Mission was founded just south of the site of present San Augustine. Although the mission was abandoned for a short period, it remained in existence until 1773. During this period the Spanish probably explored the area comprising present-day Shelby County.”


“Shelby County was first organized under the Mexican government as Tenehaw Municipality; Nashville, founded in 1824, was the most important town. In 1836 the Congress of the Republic of Texas established Shelby County, named for Isaac Shelby, hero of the American Revolution and governor of Kentucky. The name of the town Nashville was changed to Shelbyville, and Shelbyville became the county seat, which it remained until 1866, when the county seat was moved to Center. Since that time Center has remained the county seat.”

“The courthouse in Center, along with all county records, was destroyed by fire in 1882. A new courthouse, modeled on an Irish castle, was designed by the architect John Joseph Emmett Gibson, an Irish immigrant. It was completed in 1885 and was recognized in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The courthouse still housed the county government in 1984.”

“Although slaveholding was restricted to a small minority of the Anglo population, slavery was an integral part of the county’s economic and social systems. In fact, between 1847 and 1860 the number of slaves in the county grew at a faster rate than did the free population. The 763 slaves present in 1847 constituted a little under 23 percent of the total population, and the 1,476 slaves present in 1860 constituted just less than 28 percent of the total population.”

“Shelby County’s white inhabitants overwhelmingly supported the secession movement during the winter of 1860–61. When the secession ordinance was submitted for popular approval in February of 1861, county voters approved the measure by a vote of 333 to 28. They also wholeheartedly supported the war effort of the Confederacy that followed. One county source estimated that as many as 750 men from Shelby County served in either state or Confederate army units. Shelby County was never occupied by Union forces, and thus escaped the destruction which devastated other parts of the South.”

“For more than six decades after the Civil War Shelby County remained rural and agricultural as it had been during the antebellum period. The number of farms in the county rose each census year through 1940, as did the population. In 1870 the population of the county was 5,732, and there were 820 farms; by 1940 the population had risen to 29,235 and the number of farms to 4,952. Just as during the antebellum period, the principal food crop was corn, and the principal cash crop was cotton. Each census year between two-thirds and nine-tenths of all harvested cropland in the county was planted in one of these two crops. The largest corn crop was harvested in 1919, when farmers produced 765,420 bushels of corn on 54,517 acres.”

“Until the 1940s most of the cotton and corn fields in the county were still being cultivated with a mule or team of mules, and the crops were being harvested by hand. In 1940 only fifty-five of the 4,952 farms in the county had tractors, 392 had trucks, and 1,119 had automobiles. Almost 90 percent of the farm houses in the county were not wired for electricity, and more than 90 percent had no telephones. Although the same crops were being produced, with many of the same tools and methods, there were real differences in the lives of the county’s farmers.”

“During the antebellum period the main avenue for moving crops to market had been the Sabine River or a wagon to Marshall, Jefferson, or one of the other larger market centers. In 1885 the Houston East and West Texas Railway was built through the northern portion of the county, and in 1904 the Gulf, Beaumont and Great Northern Railroad was completed, crossing through the center of the county from north to south. These two railroads gave farmers easier and more efficient access to markets.”

“The population of Shelby County grew steadily during the first four decades of the twentieth century, reaching a peak of 29,235 in 1940. After World War II the population began a long slow decline, as numerous residents left to take advantage of opportunities elsewhere. By 1970 the county’s population had fallen to 19,672, its lowest figure since the 1890s. The drop in the number of inhabitants was particularly in the county’s black population, which declined from a high of 7,522 in 1940 to 4,796 in 1970.”

“After that the county’s population began to grow again, and by 1982 the estimated number of inhabitants was 23,700, a 17 percent gain from 1970. In 1990 the population of the county was 22,034. During the early 1980s almost 75 percent of county residents lived in rural areas. The county’s population also had a high percentage of residents over age sixty-four and a median age of thirty-five, reflecting the continuing outmigration of the young.”

- Handbook of Texas Online, Cecil Harper, Jr., “Shelby County“ 

I was the guest of Center and Shelby County on July 14, 2014.


Shelby County Courthouse – 1867

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 3.42.43 PMI came across this antique photo while inside the courthouse, but I’m not 100% sure of the fact that this is the 1867 building. However, I haven’t found any photos on the Internet of that building. Since this doesn’t really look like the building standing today, so I’m going to assume it’s an older variant.

There is nothing to say about this courthouse other than it burned on June 1, 1882. Three years later, the next one would be complete.


Shelby County Courthouse – 1885

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(Photo Courtesy: TxDOT)

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This unique and pleasant courthouse was designed by J.J.E. Gibson, a native of Dublin, Ireland. He also provided its construction. Gibson modeled both the Shelby County Courthouse and the original Panola County Courthouse in a style that was reflective on the castles he remembered from his homeland. Unfortunately, the citizens of Panola County did away with theirs in the 50s, making the remaining structure in Shelby County the only Irish Castle-styled courthouse in the United States.

Built from 1883 to 1885, the small, two-story, red brick Victorian courthouse is of the early Romanesque Revival style [and this one, specifically, is styled in the "Irish Castle" style]. The courthouse has a cruciform plan with a main east-west axis and two-story pavilions in the center of the north and south facades. A frame cupola rises from the center of the main gable roof. The courthouse is given its distinctive character by the detailed brickwork on the cornice, stringcourses, window hoods and the twelve diminutive buttresses and turrets (or tourelles) with rounded ends that resemble chimney stacks. The courthouse has an entry in the middle of each faade, but the primary approach is from the north. This front side is divided into three bays delineated by its four prominent tourelles. The two-story entrance pavilions have small gables, a large segmental arch opening with a hood mold and full enframement at the entrance on the first floor, and enclosed space on the second floor. In the flanking bays, decorative buttresses between the windows break up the facade even more.” - Texas Historical Commission 


Modern Shelby County Courthouse

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I’m not familiar with the date of construction or completion for this courthouse. All I know is that some time in the last thirty years or so, the 1885 courthouse was retired. Thankfully, rather than demolish it, Shelby County turned it into a county museum and moved all offices over to this one.

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It’s an up-size when it comes to space, but certainly a down-size in design.


Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.53.56 PMThe 1885 courthouse is far more impressive.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.52.53 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.54.43 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 3.04.36 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.59.41 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 3.09.56 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 3.02.38 PMYou can see the current courthouse from the southwest entrance.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.46.57 PMI’m very thankful to two local residents who were locking up the courthouse for the day at the time of my arrival. They were very kind to let me explore the interior instead of turning me away.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.47.44 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.49.17 PMJ.J.E. Gibson, Architect

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.41.57 PMThe second-floor courtroom is classic.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.41.31 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.45.03 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.42.27 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.43.43 PMBehind the judge’s seat is an actual trapdoor! Just in case he needed to make a quick escape…

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.44.19 PMThe steps are incredibly steep.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.46.35 PMAnother way to ensure safety in the courtroom was a perch for a sheriff with shotgun at the ready.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.45.36 PMThe northeast side of the courthouse square, as seen from the courtroom

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.50.45 PMHere’s that view from the first floor.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.49.35 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 3.00.07 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.55.43 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.59.16 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.55.34 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.51.02 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.54.32 PMThe southeast façade…

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…and its view

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 3.10.48 PMThis clock on the eastern side of the courthouse apparently caused some controversy when a judge decided to implement it (because it worked) over the historic one (since it did not work). Apparently that didn’t go over too well.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.57.11 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.52.30 PMThe northwest façade…

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.59.56 PM…and its view

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 3.02.05 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.51.11 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-05 at 2.52.00 PMThe historic county jail, also designed by J.J.E. Gibson, is now the Center Chamber of Commerce Building.

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Previous Courthouse: Panola County

Next Courthouse: Rusk County

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