Williamson County celebrates its 100-year-old courthouse – Austin American

By Benjamin Wermund


Published: 11:08 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011

— The Williamson County Courthouse and the county around it have changed quite a bit in the past century. Small repairs, periodic updates and a nearly $10 million restoration in 2007 have wiped away much of the building’s 100 years. But little traces of the courthouse’s past remain.

Mickie Ross, director of the county’s museum, focused on those bits as she gave tours of the courthouse Saturday as part of the building’s centennial celebration.

“There are a lot of cool stories about Georgetown and this courthouse and what it has seen,” Ross said.

The celebration was an all-day event that included performances by the Round Rock Symphony Orchestra, speeches by the county judge and county commissioners, a rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song by Round Rock Christian Academy students and the orchestra, and a model of the courthouse made out of cake.

Inside the courthouse, Ross highlighted the building and the county’s checkered past.

In the courthouse’s rotunda, Ross points out a sign on the wall tucked behind a spiral staircase. “These seats for janitors only,” it reads.

“We don’t know what seats used to be there or who the janitors were or who was after their seats,” Ross said, before pointing out that the lettering on the sign matches the lettering on similar signs that designated which people could drink from which fountains.

The signs were painted over in the mid-1960s. The two water fountains remain lodged in the rotunda walls.

Ross tells a story about a school board member in the 1960s whose daughter went into the courthouse for a drink.

The board member waited outside for her in his car, and after a while realized she had been gone for an unusual amount of time. He went inside to find she had been detained by an officer in the building for drinking out of the wrong fountain.

Ross said children she tells that story to today do not understand why the girl was in trouble. Segregation of the courthouse water fountains ended in 1965.

“It is still a part of our history and evident with those fountains,” Ross said.

Upstairs, a glass case holds the heads of terra cotta angels, which commissioners had torn from the building in what became known as the “Massacre of 1966.”

After one of the courthouse’s outside balusters collapsed, commissioners decided to rid the building of the decorative terra cotta flair that adorned its outer edges, in fear of more damage. Most of the terra cotta was tossed into the San Gabriel River.

“It cost more to jackhammer off than to repair,” Ross said. “Hindsight’s 20/20.”

Most of the 26th District courtroom remains as it was in 1923, when the county’s district attorney at the time, Dan Moody, became the first attorney in the country to successfully prosecute a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

“It feels like you’re in the setting of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,'” Ross said.

In the 1920s, most counties had at least one elected official who was a member of the Klan. Not a single Klan member was elected in Texas after the trial, Ross said.

“The county has a reputation of being ‘tough on crime.’ I believe it goes back to then,” Ross said.

Papers from that trial, and three subsequent trials through 1934, were recently taken by the Texas Court Records Preservation Task Force, a group organized by the Texas Supreme Court to preserve items that will help interpret the history of the state.

Once the task force is finished with them, the documents will be returned to the county and will be available for public viewing in the district clerk’s office in the Williamson County Justice Center, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. St. in Georgetown.