The Permian Basin & Wind Country Day 2

The Midland/Odessa Petroplex sits on the Llano Estacado, halfway between Fort Worth and El Paso, at the far end of West Texas, and at the cusp of the Trans-Pecos Region. This far into the trip, we’d arrived at this edge. The nine counties west of the Pecos River had all been accomplished on that August 2013 trip, but that didn’t mean we still didn’t have to head west from Odessa.

Our day began with a journey towards Winkler County, the region that hugs New Mexico’s southeast corner. This is the thick of the Permian Basin, and the area is naturally marked by the pump jacks you’d expect. We found wind turbines here as well, especially around the point where the highway descends south off of the Llano into the petroleum businesses’ own personal prairie.

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These brush plains of mesquite and sun dried grass, pockmarked by gas and oil operations, begin in Winkler County and sweep west over the minimally inhabited Loving County next door.

The rapid change from Odessa cityscape to the described countryside is a site to behold.

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The terrain here is barren enough to influence the name of one of the tiny settlements we passed through.

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The county seat Kermit is relatively isolated, being some forty-five miles west of the Petroplex and over thirty miles to the east of Mentone (which is itself barely a town). The only nearby, “major” settlements are Jal, New Mexico to the north and Wink to the south. Wink is the hometown of one of my favorite singers, Roy Orbison. After realizing this, I later found myself singing “Blue Bayou” under my breath as I walked around the Winkler County courthouse to get my pictures.

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It’s a late 1920s building of the Texas Renaissance style. After oil was discovered here in 1926, the populations of Kermit, Wink, and the surrounding area boomed. As a result, the previous courthouse (which was only sixteen years old at the time), was replaced by this design of David S. Castle, who had a fair amount of work stretching from this region to the San Angelo area.

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This building is fairly shaded around its main façade, which is the same annoying problem found at Castle’s other work in Reagan County. It’s hard to get a comprehensive shot featuring both the front door and the top that reads: WINKLER COUNTY COURTHOUSE. While here, I really enjoyed the decorative stone flowers installed on the entrances. In my opinion, they’re the most interesting feature of the building.

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“Heritage Park” is across the street from the rear of the courthouse, and offered a series of five murals to my photography. They detail the history of Winkler County, from its pre-history when Native Americans roamed these plains, to its humble beginnings as a small cattle center, its establishing in 1910, its days as an oil capital, and finally to the Winkler County of today.

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The middle mural in this set even happened to have a painting of what the 1910 courthouse would have looked like.

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Unless you’re from West Texas, the name “Kermit” is sure to ring a different kind of bell than the one ringing for the Winkler County seat. We’re prone most to associate that name with the star of the Muppets, Kermit the Frog. It just so happens that in 2005, the king of the Muppets went on a world tour to celebrate his 50th birthday. He kicked it off in Kermit. Rightfully so.

According to an article of the Associated Press I found, the people of Kermit painted their water tower with the frog’s face, renamed a street Kermit the Frog Boulevard, and dedicated a park to him. The local Dairy Queen was even said to have served green fries and ice cream for a time. I was eager to see these things when I arrived in Winkler County, but to my disappointment, in ten years’ time the people of Kermit have forgotten their amphibious friend.

Kermit only has two water towers, and neither had a large frog painted on. They’ve coated them both with yellow jackets, the town mascot.

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We also searched to find Kermit the Frog Boulevard, but it had disappeared from both the map and the city. It was nowhere to be found. I didn’t try the park or the Dairy Queen, but I’d be willing to bet the only green food left in the latter would be the kind not to pass a health inspection.

It was no matter. We had a long day ahead of us, and as the sun began rising towards its apex, we took off west of Kermit into the oil-filled countryside. Most all of the traffic that trucks along this section of Highway 302 is gas trucks and big semis working for the area’s energy companies. They’ve all staked their claims wherever they could find empty land. The region is thick with mesquite and pump jacks, gas wells and telephone poles that stop and pick up again miles down the road. This area is the least-populated in the entire state. That’s not an assumption; that’s fact.

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So why were we heading out here?

In August 2013, I’d visited the area briefly to claim #107 on my list: Loving County. My pictures had been fine, but they were regrettable…as was common on that West Texas trip. This was the first time I’d begun going inside the courthouses, and most of my pictures came from the interior rather than the exterior. Those that were of the exterior were close ups, and just not good at all. Plus, I used that pesky iPhone. So are these redos?

No. I got 27 courthouses on that trip. Even if I decided they were worth redoing, I wouldn’t want to. When one spends a total of four/five hours round-trip getting from Van Horn to El Paso and back again, one doesn’t feel like redoing Culberson, Hudspeth, and El Paso Counties. Now, I’ll return to Jeff Davis, Presidio, and Brewster Counties some day, sure. And while I’m there, I’ll probably take some more pictures. After all, I didn’t get to see the courtroom in Marfa because it was being used while I was there. But, no, they are not redos. I’ve already made sufficient pages for most of that trip on this website.

However, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, given that I was this close to Loving County, to pass it up. Plus, the minuscule county seat Mentone really intrigued me last time, and I wanted to see it again. I think you’ll see why.

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Billed by the Texas Historical Commission as the smallest county seat in Texas (though Lipscomb and Gail are sure competitors, in my book), the tiny town of Mentone was established in 1925 after a nearby oil discovery, and called Ramsey. The postal service rejected this name, so those that laid out the community chose the name Mentone. This was named after a previous settlement in northern Loving County that went by the same name, but was abandoned in 1896. The story goes that the original Mentone was named by a French surveyor, longing for his home of Menton, on the French Riviera.

Check this out from the Texas State Historical Association:

“By July 1931 Mentone had five cafes, five gasoline stations, two hotels, two drugstores, two recreation halls, two barbershops, a dance hall, a machine shop, and a dry cleaner. From March 1932 to September 1935 a weekly newspaper, the Mentone Monitor, was published. By October 27, 1933, Mentone reported a population of 600.”

In its hey day, Mentone was quite the place to be. But come 1940, the population began dropping…fast. In 1946, only three businesses were left. It’s reported that from 1972 to 1984, no businesses were started, and the majority of all work (aside from a job in the gas station/cafe/post office), came from working for the county or for one’s pick of the oil service companies that dominate the area. In 2000, the population was 15. In 2010, that number jumped back up to 19. Though, in 2015, that number has dropped to 5. 

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Loving County is the least populated county in the entire United States.

Their courthouse dates from 1935, and it’s as plain as the countryside outside of Mentone.

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Yet, out of all the buildings in Mentone, this is one of the best in shape. Others are fit to fall apart. The large Hopper Annex (named after county sheriff Billy Hopper) is also in good condition, and is just behind the courthouse.

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There’s a lot of interesting features I came across while in Mentone. Check ‘em out.

This church is the oldest building in Loving County. It was originally built in Porterville (abandoned after a 1930s Pecos River flood), and eventually moved to Mentone. It’s now used for non-demoninational worship. I had to hop the fence and scratch up my leg in the process to get some closer pictures of the structure, but I’d say it was worth it.

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I particularly enjoyed the gas station, which is a self-serve unit. It was locked up when I visited, but I stuck the camera up to the window to see inside. There, I found some older-looking Dr. Pepper and Coke refrigerators. Mentone is just about stuck in time.

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Keep in mind that this community doesn’t have any of the following, as listed by a historical marker:

  • Water System
  • Bank
  • Practicing Doctor
  • Hospital
  • Newspaper
  • Lawyer
  • Civic Club
  • Cemetery
  • School (students are bussed to Wink, thirty miles away)

But, like all towns big and large: it does have a post office. Being both a Saturday and the Fourth of July when I arrived in Mentone, there was no one working there, but the door was unlocked for self-service.

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The current office is directly adjacent to the original one, which is now abandoned. We laughed because there’s a padlock on its door, but the windows are busted.

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Trucking west towards the Pecos River and Reeves County, we left Mentone behind. Though it’s small and in “another world” so to speak, it’s got a certain charm to it. Though I don’t imagine I’ll ever be back. This isn’t exactly the center of all tourism to West Texas.

That’d be more the Marfa-Fort Davis-Alpine-Big Bend region, which we were now heading towards.  As desperately as I wanted to return to this area (one of my favorites in Texas), I knew we’d be turning east once we reached I-20 at Pecos.

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But, as long as we were in Reeves County (#106), I wanted to “stop back by” the courthouse.

Completed in 1937, this definitely has the feel of the Moderne works of the age, though its brick color and red abode tile roof point heavily towards influences of a certain Mediterranean style.

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Perhaps in its prime it looked better than it does today, but a huge influx of grackles and other birds have warped the building to their will. Large bird nets detract the eye from appreciating the structure.

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The courthouse isn’t in fine shape otherwise. There are definitely portions that seem to cry for renovation, and to my knowledge, the THC has yet to reach Reeves County.

I found myself fighting the birds while I took my pictures. They’re everywhere, flying back and forth from tree to tree. Twice one swooped down towards me, and given my irrational fear of birds, it jarred me for sure.

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Before leaving Pecos, we drove by the “West of the Pecos Museum”, which features an original train depot on site, as well as a model of the Jersey Lilly, the saloon-turned-law office of Judge Roy Bean. You may remember the story of Bean becoming the “Law West of the Pecos” and setting up camp in Langtry on the Rio Grande, in what is today Val Verde County.

On the same trip that I visited Pecos originally, I briefly drove through Langtry (where the original Jersey Lilly is on display). However, I wasn’t able to see it as the local museum was closed. I intend to revisit Langtry some day, but for now, this model satiated my interest in the history of outlaw justice.

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Given the high levels of potassium and salt in the Reeves County soil, Pecos has become a hot spot for the growing and selling of watermelons and cantaloupes in West Texas. We looked for some, but all the fruit stands up and down Cedar Street were either closed or out of melons until a shipment later that day. We didn’t have time to wait, and so one local market owner recommended we try Pyote, a small town between Pecos and Monahans.

Arriving there, we quickly surmised that that man didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. My grandfather got a strange look when he asked a gas station clerk where to find the “Pecos Melons” in Pyote. With no such luck, we headed east on I-20 for the Ward County seat.

Pulling in to the courthouse square, we found things in full swing. A huge Fourth of July celebration was underway. Music. Food. Games. Heat. It was the perfect combination, and the Monahans citizens had come from far and wide it seemed, to party in Hill Park. This park just so happens to be located directly across from the Ward County courthouse. At first, I was concerned that the celebration would get in my way, but I quickly discovered that it wouldn’t be a problem. After completing my pictures here, I even took a stroll through the park and briefly enjoyed the festivities.

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It was getting close to lunchtime now, and we looked for a spot to eat in Monahans, but found that every restaurant we passed was closed! That made sense, because the whole town was down at Hill Park enjoying the party. A quick stop at the local Lowe’s also proved to be unsuccessful. No Pecos Melons here, either.

We turned south next, towards Grandfalls. About a quarter of the way there, our path turned east to navigate the county roads of Ward County. We were making our way to the next courthouse stop, Crane. For some time, I’d wanted to visit Monahans to see the Sand Hills state park where there are actual sand dunes that cover the ground, as opposed to the mesquite and brown/green grass that one usually finds. It’s east of town on I-20, so as we headed towards Crane, I unfortunately realized we wouldn’t be passing through it.

But, to my surprise:

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There they are!

These are similar to dunes in the park, but they’re just not roped off by the Texas State Parks and Wildlife Department. I was very surprised to find them on this county road. We figured that a large series of them must run north-south all the way from here to I-20.

However, a quick search on Google Maps’ satellite view would prove otherwise.

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(Photo Courtesy: Google Maps) 

It’s easy to see where the sand dunes south of town are, near the bottom right corner of the picture. That’s the patch we crossed through, but they don’t seem to stretch all the way to I-20. I’m lucky to have passed through this “mini-desert”. Someday, I’ll go back and visit the state park.

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The sun was high in the sky when we showed up in Crane, and I was mighty hungry. Most restaurants here, like in Monahans, were closed. Only two were open: Jazzy’s Yogurt and Dairy Queen. Always trying to stray away from chains on trips like this, things we “could just get at home”, we tried Jazzy’s. They advertised as offering a variety of food besides yogurt, but one look at the inside of the building and you knew what food they were geared towards serving.

Not sure about yogurt bar pizza, we left and went to Dairy Queen instead. At least there, we knew what we were getting. After a “fast” lunch came the Crane County courthouse at #220.

It’s a modern building, but a refreshing one for its bursts of color. Blue, red, and orange walls and features alleviate what would normally be just another one of West Texas’ painful gray and white 1970s creations.

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Literally across the street from Crane Elementary, this courthouse happens to look more like an ISD admin building or middle school than the seat of county justice. We joked that it was designed to look like that because Crane County is named for William Carey Crane, president of Baylor University from 1863 to 1885. He was a leading figure in Texas education and a major force in the development of the college, being particularly instrumental in its move from Independence, Texas to Waco.

Before leaving the city, I found a crane of my own:

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We took off east now, sliding back down off the Llano Estacado to the windswept and brush covered plains of the western Edwards Plateau. The oil industry is still prevalent here, and there are plenty of pump jacks to be seen, but the highway stretching from Crane into Upton County traces the beginnings of wind country. It’s through the canyons and prairies of this region that a transition begins, replacing the pump jack majority with a wind turbine takeover. Mountainous rises and bluffs here form both the end of the Llano, and the subtle hills of the Edwards Plateau. This plateau is a geographic formation that stretches from here all the way to my home of Hood County, just west of Fort Worth.

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The county seat of Upton County (#104), is Rankin, a “pass through” city (called such with much respect) on Highway 67 between San Angelo and Fort Stockton. It straddles the side of one large hill and overlooks the mesquite-covered prairies below. Excellent views of the countryside are provided by the courthouse’s location near the summit.

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The original cover photo of my Rankin County page was a shot I captured on Main Street. It’s a favorite picture of mine, but when I originally visited Rankin, I took it with that darned iPhone!

When we entered Rankin, I of course had a yearning to return to the Upton County courthouse, but I also made sure to get that shot again.

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Here’s the courthouse:

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On the second day of that 2013 trip, we had lunch here in Rankin at the Basin Cafe. I recall that the fried pork chops were especially good. Had I not checked online to see if it was open or not for the Fourth (which it wasn’t), we would have skipped the Dairy Queen in Crane and driven on down to Rankin, but it’s a good thing we didn’t.

Some time in the last two years, the Basin Cafe was transformed into the Basin Bar. Good things never last. I have learned that throughout this project many times…and often the hard way.

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 Mind that glare.

Back on Highway 67 now, we began retracing our steps from our first trip through this area. From #104, we passed into #103 (Reagan County), where the seat is Big Lake. After returning home from my first visit to Big Lake, I learned that its status as county seat was not always existent. At the time of the county’s organization, a community closer to the center of the county called Stiles served in that position. To my dismay, I learned that up in what remains of Stiles is an abandoned courthouse. I completely missed this in 2013!

Now was finally my chance to right that wrong. Before reaching Big Lake, we turned left and set out on a small farm-to-market road (however there aren’t any farms here). The terrain through what was once a town called Best, is another stretch of road bordered on both sides by natural gas and oil operations. The only traffic that trucks down this path belongs to either.

We took this road to deposit us on Highway 137, about twenty-two miles north of Big Lake. We turned south here, and a mile of two more carried us into Stiles.

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Of all places, a small RV park has been set up two hundred feet or so from the courthouse. The residents/patrons of this establishment are the only residents to remain in this ghost town, aside from the desert lizards I found scurrying around the courthouse property (and of course the rattlesnakes that we knew had to be there).

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Constructed in 1911 for a thriving community, this courthouse served Reagan County for fourteen years. As these things go, the railroad eventually passed through the southern portion of the county on its way to Fort Stockton, and Big Lake took over as seat in 1925. Stiles’ population dwindled, and the courthouse was eventually abandoned. The exact same fate happened to Upton County. The previous seat of Upland was vacated in favor of the railroad hub Rankin and a courthouse there was abandoned. Like this one, it still stands. I would’ve gone to see it too, if it wasn’t located on private property.

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I figured my visit to Stiles to be the equivalent of a journey through Frio Town, if only I had been able to access the private land that it sits on. The abandoned Frio County courthouse must have looked something like these ruins I was now walking through, though Frio County’s had been empty for far longer than Reagan’s.

The county treasurer in Glasscock County (who I’d meet the next day), told us that the Stiles courthouse didn’t look like it did now because it had been long abandoned. Instead, he said that its current condition was thanks to an arsonist’s work in 1999. Thankfully, the culprit was apprehended for his crime, but the Stiles courthouse has been a pile of debris ever since.

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The courthouse property is now locked by chain-link fence, hopefully in an effort to deter any more vandals. Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 1.57.22 PM

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You can bet I spent my fair share of time photographing this courthouse, relishing the opportunity to explore a token of history that the plains had nearly claimed for their own. The abandoned/retired courthouses are always the most fun to visit. They tell the best stories, if you ask me.

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When I’d finished with Stiles, we followed the highway south again for Big Lake. There, I intended to swing back by #103, a David C. Castle design vaguely similar to the one in Winkler County.

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I discovered while here that a dissertation of sorts had been taped to the front door of the Reagan County courthouse, protesting the Supreme Court’s (at the time of this writing) recent ruling on the legality of same-sex marriage. Including this as part of my blog is in no way trying to push an agenda, or renouncing one. I keep things like political opinions far away from my work here.

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I include this tidbit as it made me remember how central of a part the courthouse plays in a community. This is the place where citizens feel like they can take a political stance, as this is the center of all law in each county. It’s just a curious thing to remember the purpose of these courthouses for someone who’s only appreciated them for their architecture and history.

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It was about five o’clock when we left Big Lake, heading east once more to Irion County (#101). We didn’t retrace our steps to Crockett County (#102) (even though I’d like to), because it’s highly out of the way and we didn’t have enough time in the day to drop down to Ozona, and come all the way back up. If we weren’t concerned about sunlight being optimal in Irion County, it probably could have been a reality, but there were better things to be seen.

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The first of such things was a redo at the courthouse in Mertzon.

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Entering Mertzon

Like Upton County’s courthouse, this too sits on a hill overlooking both the countryside and the town below.

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The Irion County hills are a sight to behold and vastly underrated. This area is no Hill Country, but it’s not too far from the westernmost county considered as part of that region. Its rolling terrain is still a pretty place to visit. These plains though, are another one of the least populated places in Texas.

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Davis S. Castle designed this one as well, but it’s a very different style than the Reagan and Winkler County versions.

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Having been completed in 1937, it has obvious influences from the gripping Moderne phenomenon of the era. However, its shape and some of its features are only at home in West Texas, and separate from the Moderne works more familiarly seen in East and North Texas. This one’s in a category of its own.

The same can be said for the next courthouse we visited, one of my all-time favorites.

Irion County was formed from land taken from Tom Green County in 1889, and organized the same year with the city of Sherwood as its county seat. In the mid 1920s, the railroad bypassed Sherwood by only a mile or two, and a new community called Mertzon began to prosper. An election in 1927 to move the county seat to Mertzon won 286 to 231. However, a two-thirds majority was required to make a change, and Sherwood retained its status. That changed in 1936 when a second election occurred and Mertzon beat Sherwood 453 to 222.

The county seat changed, and that same year (’36) the David S. Castle courthouse was built on the hill. As a result, the community of Sherwood dried up, leaving behind a marker that has, since 1936, acted like a massive tombstone to a town that was once was.

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The reigning jewel of Texas courthouses, in my opinion anyway, is the 1901 Irion County courthouse designed by Martin & Moodie of Comanche. Folks, it doesn’t get better than this.

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For me, it’s a tough call between Hopkins, Tarrant, Harrison, Victoria, Ellis, and Fayette Counties (in terms of beauty), Hood and Somervell Counties (for nostalgic value), Hemphill, Donley, Archer, Shelby, and Presidio Counties (for uniqueness), and this one for my favorite courthouse. It is remarkable to visit in person.

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For history buffs and architectural appreciators, and then those that enjoy both (like myself), this 104-year building will excite. Its haunting and enduring façades, aged tin roof and tower, and its isolation among the hard hills of Irion County make it the ultimate find. This is the king of the retired courthouses.

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I first fell in love with the Sherwood courthouse when I visited it on that August 2013 trip. It’s been nearly two years since I was first the guest of Irion County, and ever since returning home, I’d kicked myself for not getting more pictures of this building (the one that had left the firmest imprint on my memory). Since then, I had planned on returning and on this Fourth of July day, I’d finally done it. A few local residents were shooting off fireworks when I arrived, as if they were celebrating my return to Sherwood. I certainly was.

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The owls are my favorite part.

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I suppose I like it so much because it’s a link to a nearly forgotten time, when this county was wild and rugged. This was a time fresh out of the nineteenth century, before WWI and II, and the rest of the turmoils of the 1900s. I’ve been to many courthouses built in the 1800s and the early twentieth century, but this one tells the best story. It’s a treat to walk the grounds here and just imagine what Sherwood might have looked like more than a hundred years ago.

1901. What a time that must have been.

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My camera’s memory card got closer and closer to being full as I spent my time in Sherwood. I believe I came out of there with over two hundred shots. That’s far too many to put here, and probably too many to fill the Irion County page with. I believe I’ll make a separate page for this unique and historic building.

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We observed many locals gathered outside their homes near the courthouse, enjoying Forth of July get togethers and other activities. It’s hard to believe they’re so used to seeing the courthouse, but to them, it’s just a community center. Nothing more.

Nowadays, they use it for a church. That’s happened since I last arrived. I was happy to see it’s actually getting utilized.

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Too many times historical sites like this are left alone and never touched, and sadly, they fall apart and fade back into the ground from whence they came. Just look at Frio Town for confirmation. Luckily, the Irion County Courthouse seems as if it has a good many years left.

After spending a great deal of time here in Sherwood, we took off on Highway 67 for the night’s stop in San Angelo. A speeding ticket, a quick drive by the Tom Green County courthouse (#100) (four or five pictures in total), and a dinner at Henry’s (Mexican and American food) comprised our time here.

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Try the guacamole!

Next came a hotel and a good night’s rest. It had been a long day, and tomorrow would only be more full of courthouse stops.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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