“Wharton County, named for brothers William H. and John A. Wharton is southwest of Houston on U.S. Highway 59 on the Coastal Plain of southeast Texas at the coastal bend. The county is bounded by Matagorda, Colorado, and Jackson counties and the San Bernard River, which forms its northeastern border and the Fort Bend county line. Wharton County comprises 1,086 square miles and is divided primarily between prairie and timber land.”
“The early colonists located their land grants along the Colorado and San Bernard rivers for access to building materials and stream transportation, but most built their homes along the Peach and Caney creeks, as the Colorado was prone to flooding. Earliest agriculture was developed primarily along the Caney with its rich alluvial soil; slaves burned off large sections of the primeval canebrake forest and planted corn, cotton, and sugar cane.”
“Wharton County was established after Texas statehood and the Mexican War in 1846 from parts of Matagorda, Jackson, and Colorado counties, taking their best and most fertile land. The act that formed the county provided for its immediate organization and a county seat to be named Wharton and located on the northeast bank of the Colorado River in the east central portion of the county within one of the leagues granted to William Kincheloe.”
“The first county courthouse was built in 1848 but was so poorly constructed that it was replaced in 1852. Antebellum Wharton County resembled parts of the Deep South, as planters and farmers from states there moved to the region. By 1850 the county had a population of 1,752 living in 112 dwellings; this included 1,242 slaves but no free blacks. In 1858 slaves made up 2,181 of a total population of 2,861.”
“The Civil War delayed the development of Wharton County. Prior to 1880 the only postal stations in Wharton County were East Bernard, Egypt, New Philadelphia, Quinan, Spanish Camp, Waterville, and Wharton. In the 1880s the influx of Europeans and the extension of railroads stimulated growth in the area. Wharton County’s population tripled between 1870 and 1900, from 3,426 to 16,942. In 1910 it was 21,123, of which 12,234 were whites (2,000 were foreign born) and 8,899 blacks. El Campo experienced rapid growth with the 1881 completion of New York, Texas and Mexican Railroad and by 1900 had a population of 856. It doubled to 1,766 by 1920; Swedes, Germans, and Czechs settled there during that time.”
“Cattle raising replaced the plantation system as Wharton County’s major industry after the Civil War and drew significant numbers of Mexicans into the area to serve as herdsmen. Herds were formed as residents bought cattle and rounded up strays that had multiplied on the prairies when access to markets was limited. Abel Head (Shanghai) Pierce took advantage of the times and acquired vast acreage on the west side of the Colorado, with a cattle empire that stretched over three counties, encompassing a half-million acres, of which 30,000 were in Wharton County.”
“Other farmers turned to potatoes, spinach, broom corn, cabbage, figs, and honey. Cotton production took forty years to recover, due to the economy and the boll weevil, but a cottonseed oil mill in Wharton, organized in 1900, eventually became the county’s first long term major industry. Hay shipped from El Campo added to the prosperity of that community by 1901. A government sponsored experimental farm raised tea, camphor, and poppies in 1900 on the Pierce Ranch lands. In 1910 the county reported 38,263 cattle, 14,500 horses and mules, 17,317 hogs, 2,136 sheep, and 96,033 poultry on 2,654 farms.”
“Numerous Jewish families immigrated to Wharton County as early as 1850 and founded business establishments; the greatest number moved into Wharton. Eugene T. Heiner was commissioned to design a new three-story courthouse and a three-story jail for county use. A smallpox epidemic in 1898 led to the draining of Caney Creek and the construction of a hospital in Wharton. A county hospital was built in 1937.”
“During the Great Depression years of the 1930s, public works projects upgraded county and federal facilities, introducing streamlined and modern design and adding plain or art deco style facades to many buildings, including the county courthouse and its additions constructed in 1935 and 1954. In 1926 a new county jail was constructed, and in 1938 the old jail structure was redesigned for county, state, and federal agriculture agencies and the Wharton County Library.”
“Population figures rose from 35,966 in 1950 to 38,152 in 1960, but only two towns claimed a population over 2,500; Wharton and El Campo. The number of farms continued to decline, while the size of farms increased as agribusiness grew. In 1960 there were 977 owners, 627 tenants, and 1,415 sharecroppers. Studies indicated that over 28 percent of all households in the county were indigent.”
“By 1961 the county had twenty-nine manufacturing plants, 174 service industries, and 57 wholesale industries, but before the 1980s the county never had more than 700 persons employed in manufacturing. Lack of sufficient industry to employ those with college training and insufficient vocational training facilities caused many young people to leave the county in search of better jobs. From 1960 to 1970 Wharton County’s population declined to 36,729, but between 1970 and 1982 it grew by more than 4,000, chiefly in the urban area.”
“Wharton County is only thirty-five miles from the Gulf of Mexico and minutes away from Houston, making it a prime location for a bright future in agriculture or industry and as a residential location for those working outside Wharton County.”
“In 2014 the U.S. Census counted 41,168 people living in Wharton County; about 46.2 percent were Anglo, 39 percent Hispanic, and 14.4 percent African American.”
“Wharton (population, 8,664) is the county’s seat of government, and El Campo (11,515) its largest town. Other communities include Boling-Iago (1,131), East Bernard (2,318), Louise (1,011), and Hungerford (335). Wharton hosts Shanghai Days Cowboy Gathering in spring, and El Campo holds a Polka Expo in November. Wharton County is only thirty five miles from the Gulf of Mexico and minutes away from Houston, making it a prime location for agriculture or industry and as a residential location for those working outside Wharton County.”
- Handbook of Texas Online, Merle R. Hudgins, “Wharton County“
I was the guest of Wharton and Wharton County on June 20, 2014.
Wharton County Courthouse 1889 / 1935
(Photos Courtesy: Bailey Architects)
This fantastic design of Eugene T. Heiner was constructed in 1889 as a three-story brick building with a mansard roof and a striking central bell tower.
However, in 1935, the courthouse underwent a heavy renovation project that modernized it into a shell of what once was. These changes included the removal of both the bell tower and roof, and the addition of flanking wings to the building. These were built by J.W. Dahert Kronzer Construction Company.
In 1992, this courthouse started receiving angry calls for demolition. Only with the aid of the Texas Historical Commission’s Courthouse Preservation Program were those threats squashed. In the early 2000s, the THC launched its most extensive courthouse restoration effort yet and managed to restore this modern building back to Heiner’s original design. The effort was completed in 2004.
The main façade, on Milam Street
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