“Originally named Buchanan County after President James Buchanan, the county was renamed in 1861 to honor Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America. The county extends across almost 922 square miles of broken, hilly plateau country with loamy topsoils covering deep reddish, clayey, or mottled subsoils. The area is drained by the Clear Fork of the Brazos River and by other tributaries of the Brazos.”
“Comanches and Tonkawas occupied what is now Stephens County before Anglo settlement began in the late 1850s. John R. Baylor, probably the first white settler in the area, built a cabin on the Clear Fork in 1857, and others soon followed. The Texas legislature established Stephens County in 1858 from lands formerly assigned to Bosque County. By 1860 there were 198 people living in the area; the United States census did not report any slaves living in the county at that time.”
“In 1861, after Texas had left the Union, the small town of Picketville was designated the temporary county seat, and the county was renamed to honor the vice president of the Confederacy. During the Civil War about 100 local residents lived together for protection at Fort Davis, a “citizens’ fort” in the area; a school was established at the place. A salt works was operated on Big Caddo Creek at this time.”
“Though the Tonkawa Indians were friendly, early settlers were in constant danger of attacks by the Comanches and Kiowas who roamed the area. Samuel P. Newcomb, a pioneer schoolteacher, wrote sadly in 1865, “My pen is incapable of doing justice in recording the horrible depredations committed on this frontier by the barbaric, uncivilized savages.” The last large Comanche and Kiowa raids on the Clear Fork took place in 1871, although a few settlers lost their lives to raiders as late as 1873.”
“After Indian removal settlers were free to deal with what Newcomb called the county’s “disagreeable peculiarities,” which included “sand storms in spring, northers in winter, traveling grasshoppers in the fall, and long, severe, and parching droughts in the summer and all other seasons of the year.”
“There were only 300 people living in the county in 1870, and as late as 1875 ranchers were still traveling 200 miles to Tarrant County for flour and other necessities. The county was organized in 1876, and Breckenridge became the seat of government.”
“By 1880 the county had 567 farms and ranches, encompassing about 96,000 acres. Ranching continued to dominate the local economy; almost 35,000 cattle and more than 4,900 sheep were reported that year. But crop farming was beginning to become established in the area, as more than 3,800 acres were planted in corn that year; about 2,200 acres was planted in wheat, and another 700 acres was devoted to cotton. Reflecting the area’s economic growth, by 1880 the county population reached 4,725.”
“The people of Stephens County suffered through the terrible drought and freezes of 1886 and 1887. During the drought, according to one resident, “you could follow the bed of the creek by the buzzards that flew over.” Despite setbacks and challenges, the county continued to grow; by 1890 there were 713 farms and ranches, encompassing over 226,000 acres, and by 1900 there were 1,049 farms and ranches. Meanwhile, the population increased to 4,926 by 1890 and to 6,466 by 1900.”
“Wildcatters first drilled for oil in Stephens County land in 1911; a 2,400-foot well eight miles northwest of Breckenridge was abandoned in 1913. Oil was finally found in May 1916, at a depth of 2,470 feet, on the W. L. Carey farm near Caddo. Soon other producing wells were drilled, including Smith No. 1 near Parks, which was the first heavy gas well struck in the county and the one that started the local boom.”
“A terrific boom centering around Breckenridge took off in 1921, when drillers brought in Stoker No. 1 just outside of town. Breckenridge became a forest of wooden derricks; over 200 wells were drilled within the city limits. On September 1, 1921, Keithly No. 1 blew in at 3,068 feet with a huge flow that drenched the countryside until it was harnessed by the Humble Oil Company after two weeks’ work.”
“The Breckenridge oilfield was prodigious. In one year it produced 15 percent of all the oil produced in the United States (more than the combined production of the states of Louisiana and Kansas that year), and supplied one-third of the petroleum produced in Texas. Breckenridge grew quickly, as thousands moved into the area; by the early 1920s the town had two daily newspapers, ten theaters, eighty-nine oil companies, and seventy-nine eating places.”
“The oil boom also led to the construction of two other railroads into the area; the Ranger, Wichita Falls and Fort Worth line built into the county in 1920 and was followed by the Cisco and Northeastern in 1921. Thanks largely to the oil boom, the total population of the county more than doubled between 1910 and 1920, when the census counted 15,403 people; by 1930 the population had increased to 16,560. The number of African Americans increased substantially during this period, rising from four in 1910 to sixty-two by 1920, and to 447 by 1930. One of the less pleasant episodes of the period occurred in 1923, when a unit of the Ku Klux Klan staged a huge parade in the town.”
“Oil production also helped to stabilize the economy during the [Great] depression; in 1938 more than 1,408,000 barrels of petroleum were produced. Nevertheless, the county suffered a significant population decline during the 1930s, and by 1940 only 12,356 people remained. Droughts, farm consolidations, and the mechanization of agriculture have all contributed to a general decline in population since the 1940s. The number of farms dropped from 957 in 1945 to 685 in 1950 and to 488 in 1959; meanwhile, the population declined to 10,597 by 1950 and to 8,885 by 1960. Except for the 1970s, when oil production rose considerably, the population continued to decline between 1960 and 1990. The census counted 8,414 residents in 1970, 9,926 in 1980, and 9,010 in 1990.”
“In the 1990s oil, manufacturing, recreation, and agriculture combined to make a diversified economy. As of 2014, 9,405 people lived in the county. About 73.7 percent were Anglo, 2.5 percent African American, and 22.4 percent Hispanic. Communities include Breckenridge (population, 5,581), the county seat, Caddo (70), Crystal Falls, Eolian, Gunsight, Ivan, Necessity, and Wayland.”
- Handbook of Texas Online, John Leffler, “Stephens County“
While arguably the most historic courthouse Stephens County has ever had was the 1883 design of Dallas architect, James Flanders, it it not the one that stands. After the current building was completed in 1926, the original was demolished, however not completely destroyed. The main doorway of the building was spared and now stands on the courthouse grounds as a memorial.
I was the guest of Breckenridge and Stephens County on November 9, 2013.
Stephens County Courthouse – 1883
(Photo Courtesy: historictexas.net)
Dallas architect James Flanders’ heyday was the 1880s, a period in which he designed several courthouses, most of which could be found within the same, approximate two hundred miles radius as Breckenridge. This region of Texas seems to have been one of his most profitable. This Italianate courthouse replaced an earlier version from 1876, and was constructed at the center of the Breckenridge square. In 1926, the building met its end.
Keep note of the entryway on the left hand side of this photo. That was the southern façade, and the main entrance. The red sandstone arch constructed there still stands.
Also of note, in the distance in the photo above, one can see the oil derricks erected just a mile or two from downtown. Breckenridge was one of the most prolific boomtowns in Texas history.
Stephens County Courthouse – 1926
(Photo Courtesy: THC)
David S. Castle of Abilene provided the plans for Flanders’ building’s successor. This sleek, metropolitan, Classical Revival courthouse borders on a Moderne classification, but arrived just before that style had picked up seam. Its Corinthian column-lined façades indicate as much. Walsh and Burney, of San Antonio, brought the creation to life. Built at both an architectural and historical crossroads in time, it has served ever since.
The southern and main façade faces south on Walker Street / Highway 180.
A veterans memorial sits near the southwest corner.
The eastern façade, on Court Street
The historical marker is positioned behind a bush in front of the main entrance.
The entrance to Flanders’ 1883 courthouse, preserved and found at the southeast corner
I’m betting that Walker Street is named for Judge Walker.
Breckenridge has a wealth of murals.
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