Tidbits of Shelby County History
Center: Home of the Irish Castle


At first, the old courthouse appears out of place among the live oaks and pine trees on Center’s town square, looking every inch like a castle whisked from Irish soil. How did this castle end up as the county courthouse?

To tell the story of Shelby County you have to go back to the 1820’s when settlers from the United States put down roots in an isolated district of the Municipality of Nacogdoches. In 1835, the district became the municipality of Tenahaw with Nashville the seat of government. Two years later, after Texas won its independence from Mexico, Shelby County was created as one of the original counties of the Republic of Texas. Nashville, renamed Shelbyville, continued as the county seat, but only until 1866 when the county records were carted off to the county’s geographic center by County Clerk, Robert L. “Bob” Parker following a hotly-disputed election to move the seat of justice.

After the Civil War, voters were spread over the whole county and they wanted a county seat in the middle of the county as the Constitution promised. They made this clear in an 1866 special election. Petitions to relocate the county seat were passed around in the northern and western part of the county but was not shared with residents in the eastern or southern part of the county. The residents of Shelbyville disliked the results of the vote so heartily they ignored it. So, matters stood until County Clerk R.L. Parker decided to change them.

Following information about the first legal owner of land that later became Center was from an article written by David Swanzy posted on website called “We the People of Shelby County”.

The next step in removing the records from Shelbyville is where did the land come from to establish the new county seat?

The first “legal” owner of this particular league of land (called the patentee) was Jesse Amason. The process for acquiring it began in 1847, after it had been surveyed some nine years earlier. It was granted to him by the State of Texas, “by virtue of a First-Class Certificate” (Vol 2 of Abstract of Texas Land Titles)

How did a citizen of that time qualify for a 1st Class Certificate, and what exactly did the person have to do to get it? The person had to apply for a certificate and then was required to document his arrival in Texas by legal papers, including affidavits and depositions. Arrivals before March 2, 1836 (as head of the family) gained the 1st Class Certificate which, when processed, would be good for ownership of one league plus one labor of public land. (A league of land equals 4,428 acres and a labor, 177 acres, combined they add up to 4,605 acres.) The land selected by the certificate holder did not need to be in the county where the application was made.

As a certificate “grantee”, one could give or sell the certificate to an “assignee”, and the grantee or assignee, on his own, could go about locating available land in the public domain. Then, the certificate holder would have the land surveyed, and the survey would be filed with the Texas General Land Office.
As recorded in the Texas General Land Office in Austin, the State of Texas granted to Jesse Amasona league of land. This land was surveyed in 1838 along the Huana Bayou.  Deed stated, “a tract of land was sold to J.C. Wilson, being and lying in said county of Shelby on the waters of the Huana Bayou about six miles from the town of Shelbyville.”

The future site for the town of Center was laid out using part of theAmason tract. Amason had sold 520 acres to James C. Wilson in 1856 (at $1 per acre) who eventually gave fifty acres from its NW corner to the Commissioners Court of Shelby County. This gift was in consideration of a like gift from Jesse Amason of the adjacent fifty acre, immediately west of the Wilson tract, so the county seat and town of Center could be located on the two tracts of land.

Now that Center had the land for a new county seat it only needed the records to complete the process. A log building was built to house the records before the Shelbyville citizens realized the plan was underway to move the records and establish a new county seat site. When they did find out the plans, they posted guards day and night at the Shelbyville courthouse. It is said the guards drank too much one night (probably Parker gave the guards bottles of good whiskey to help facilitate the removal of the records); this drunken condition of the guards made the transfer of records from the courthouse to two ox carts pulled by unshod oxen easy with the help of two young men.

As told by Ossie Cartwright, one of the men who helped with the moving, "Mr. Parker was county clerk, so he had a key to the courthouse and went right on in while the men were not watching due to their drunken condition, and we loaded the record books and safe onto the carts."

Shelbyvillians followed the ox-wagon tracks the next morning seven miles northwest; they found a log cabin had been built in the surveyed center of the county. As a thief in the night, the records and safe were moved or "stolen" from Shelbyville and relocated at Center in August of 1866. The county papers were inside, and Parker was sitting in the door.  Using his loaded rifle as a pointer, he informed all visitors they were at the site of the new Shelby County courthouse in Center and was now open for business.  A small cabin was first used for the records and later a tent was used on the courtyard until a small wooden frame building could be built. This was also replaced with a larger frame building and it is this building that was destroyed by fire in June 1882. 

After the fire, the county commissioners voted to erect a new county clerk’s office and the building would be fireproof.  The Commissioners Court minutes for November 16, 1882 ordered a courthouse be built of the following dimensions …50 by 40 feet brick, 2 stories high, to have 5 rooms below and two above besides the District Court room. It was to be covered in slate. One hall would be 8 feet wide running clear through and one hall 10 feet wide running halfway through on the lower floor. The floor, doors, sashes, and shutters would be made of planks. There would be 4 chimneys with 8 fireplaces.

This is where the exciting story of the contractor and builder John Joseph Emmett Gibson (J.J.E.) comes in. Gipson was born on November 4, 1849 in County Ballymore and reared in Dublin. J.J.E. Gipson was about 2 years old when his parents with their children decided to move to America because of persecution. J.J.E. was left behind because he had measles. An aunt promised to take him to America soon but instead got married and J.J.E. remained in Ireland until after he graduated from school.

The years passed and when J.J.E. was seventeen, he docked in New York on April 15, 1865 and joined his family in St. Louis and worked there for a time. When he was twenty-one, he and a cousin went to New Orleans, Louisiana. There they built fine homes. Then, he felt the call to come to Texas which was known a the “Wild and Wooly West”. He settled in Panola County and on September 2, 1875 married Elizabeth Anne Twoney. Eight children were born to the couple. All of them were born in Center.

The Commissioners Court Minutes on May 16, 1883 states:  Whereas a necessity exists for the erection of a courthouse for Shelby County and whereas the question of the building of same is before the Court and discussed. They decided to take bids.

On April 7, 1884, they opened the bds and compared them. It appeared that the $26,725 bid of J.J.E. Gibson was considered the lowest bid. Payments were to be paid as the work progressed as follows:

  1. One seventh of amount when the first-floor joist is laid
  2. One seventh of amount when the second-floor joist is laid
  3. One seventh of amount when the roof is on
  4. One seventh of amount when the house is ready for plastering
  5. Three seventh when the building is completed.

The $26,750 was to be the full payment for the courthouse and jail. The commissioners gave J.J.E. the privilege of designing the jail and courthouse and building them; therefore, the two building would complement each other.

The building of the courthouse soon became a difficult beset by labor problems. There were strikes and other labor troubles. The original contract called for completion on August 1, 1885.

J.J.E. requested the commissioners allow him to stop work during extremely cold weather because he knew the mortar was likely to crack. They would not agree and insisted he continue. When a “blue norther” came in the winter of 1884, a wall cracked. The Commissioners told him to ignore the damage, but Gipson felt responsible and rebuilt the wall anyway. Hedid this with his own money and was never paid for the rebuilt wall.

Gibson had his own train and tracks coming off the main line, to get his brick out of the yard to wherever he needed them. The bricks were dried in the sun and all were hand made. All the round bricks were hand touched. He made tools to suit the project. Curved bricks came out of curved molds.  He knew exactly how to chip a brick at just the right time when he was laying them to make other shapes needed. There are five different shapes of bricks and sizes used in the construction.

The building has many prominent chimneys, tall and narrow windows, and a cupola in the middle of the high-pitched roof like a lookout behind battlements. It has a built-in ventilation system through its many chimneys and ducts. Gibson added arched crawl spaces and arches over the windows. The actual forms from which these were made were found under the building during the early day of restoration in 1998. Another interesting fact of the courthouse is there is dirt between the ceiling of the first floor and the floor of the second level. It was placed there so if there was a fire on the first floor and it began burning the ceiling, the dirt would fall and help extinguish it. There is even a secret back stairway, so the judge could slip away in the event of an unpopular decision.

Even though the plans called for eight fireplaces, there are twelve in the building. The shutters to the windows were made so they could be “hidden” back inside the walls. The cupola added a picturesque touch to the building but that was not J.J. E.’s intention. The cupola’s louvers combined with the ceiling vents in the courtroom below were a clever early-day air-conditioning system.

On February 12, 1886, commissioners formally accepted the courthouse. The building had been “minutely inspected” and the structure was found to be acceptable. A final payment of $351.58 was ordered. The unpaid $2700 coupled with other problems incurred while building the courthouse, left Gibson’s financial affairs in a sad state. J.J.E. sold his Center brickyard to S.T. Fleishman, his foreman for the courthouse job, and Gibson borrowed at least a part of the money for the courthouse repairs from Mr. Wall and was never able to repay him.

The Shelby County Courthouse is a fascinating building. It is believed to be the only county in America where a courthouse on the order of an Irish castle (Romanesque Style) graces the public square. When the square was surveyed, Sam Weaver made the courthouse square larger than the normal size. It is also interesting the courthouse debt was not completely paid off until its age reached ninety-one years. The Shelby County School Board issued $20,000 in bonds in the year 1883 to the Commissioner Court for the erection of a courthouse to replace the wooden one that burned. The county never paid off the bonds to the school board and on June 21, 1937, the school board filed suit for collection. An injunction was sought to restrain the commissioners from spending the sinking fund to retire bonds for other purposes. The school board in 1937 secured judgment against the county after fifty years. The amount involved was some $35,000 with accrued interest. Then in 1941, Shelby County was sued by the Federal Government for $90,000 and after that, the first $5000 of taxes collected in each fiscal year in the county went to pay the bond indebtedness. In the year 1976, the old courthouse debt was finally paid off after ninety-one years. In 1969, the Shelby County Courthouse was recorded as a Texas Landmark. On March 31, 1971, it was included in the National Register of Historic Places.

On August 18, 1895, ten years after building the courthouse Mr. Gibson wrote a lengthy letter to the people of Shelby County stating he had waited long hoping that the commissioners would refund the money he spent repairing the wall.

The final chapter to the history of the Shelby County courthouse has been written by a very special group of students in the Center Elementary School. This group of students were led by Mrs. Fanny Watson who was a teacher in the gifted and talented pull-out program in about 1990. According to Mrs. Watson, the group of third through sixth grade students were pulled out of their classroom one day each week..

At the beginning of the 1998-1999 year, gifted and talented 6th grade students brainstormed for ideas for a year-long project community problem solving project. Since the restoration of the courthouse was taking place, it was decided to name the group Historical Trackers and to see where this adventure would take them.

The group’s first project would be to write the story of J.J.E. Gibson. Through the cooperative efforts of the class and their parents, the children wrote a book entitled “Who Built the Irish Castle on the Courthouse Square?” The students drew illustrations and with the help of Mrs. Tommie Morrison got the book ready for printing. The book was in color and Center Printing helped with the printing of the book.  According to the records, the first order placed was for 500 books and J.R. Little just charged them two dollars a book to print the book. There was a second printing.  This was the beginning of raising the $2700 (the expense never repaid to J.J.E.) to memorialize him. There was a ceremony at the library to unveil the painting of Mr. J.J.E. Gibson commissioned by local artist, Mr. Woodrow Foster. The oil portrait now hangs proudly in the Gibson Room of the courthouse.

The next project for the Historical Trackers was painted slate tiles that had been removed from the roof during restoration. On the tiles, students mostly painted pictures of the courthouse and a father of a Center student made holders for them and sold the slate pieces for $5 each. Mrs. Debbie Leggett of Joaquin allowed her students to also paint on the pieces of slate. Mr. Gibson’s desk was restored by John Doggett and it now has its home in the Gibson Room of the courthouse.

With the new school year of 1999-2000, the Trackers raised the curtain on projects. A part of the goal was to leave a legacy of products for the museum and courthouse to sell. Mr. Woodrow Foster’s painting of the courthouse and Mrs. Alda Yarbrough’s slate painting of the Center Water Tower were used to make note paper to be sold. Fundraising efforts continued and Mr. Woodrow allowed the group to use his painting of the courthouse to have a jigsaw puzzle produce. How many Texas State Artists would allow students to use their artwork for free? (The museum has a few of the puzzles for sale and the book of “Who Built the Irish Castle on the Courthouse Square?” is available for sale for $15.)

The group was also responsible for obtaining the historical marker on the square that tells the story of the courthouse and J.J.E. Gibson and a special ceremony was held to unveil the marker on January 9, 2000. There were nine of Mr. Gibson’s family member present at the ceremony and approximately 300 guests attended.  The Center ISD’s Historical Trackers of the 1998-2000 school years did make a footprint in the sands of time as they helped to preserve the history of Shelby County. They raised more than the $2700 that Shelby County owed to Mr. Gibson for rebuilding the wall and memorialized him in many special ways.

Note: A special “thank you” to Mrs. Fannie Watson for sharing her history of the Shelby County historical courthouse and memorializing Mr. J.J.E. Gibson, the architecture. She and the Historical Trackers did an awesome job. I also wanted everyone know at the museum there is must more information on the courthouse; this is only a small part of the story. There is so much history that I will have a part 2 next week. One of the things I will cover is the different colors the courthouse has been. Does anyone remember when the courthouse was white? If so, I would like to talk with you about it. So be ready for the sequel next week!