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The History of Trinity County Courthouses and County Seats

The Austin architectural firm of C.H. Page and Brothers designed the 1914 Trinity County Courthouse in the county seat of Groveton to answer the urgent needs of the county government. The new courthouse was ordered to incorporate in a seamless design, the records storage vault that was designed, by L.S. Green and built in 1908.  In 1939 the Work Projects Administration (WPA) under the New Deal, sponsored by the federal government to help revive the area, built a new Jail and Agriculture and Library Building (more commonly known as the Rock Building) to answer the needs of the growing community.  The Courthouse, Jail and Rock Building play a pivotal role in county politics and therefore meet Criterion A in the area of Politics/Government at the local level of significance.  The 1914 Trinity County Courthouse is an excellent example of an early 20th century Beaux Arts style courthouse in a rural Texas County, while the Jail and Rock Building are also significant for their modest, yet strong architectural appearance on the property. All three buildings meet Criterion C in the area of Architecture at the local level of significance and retain a high degree of architectural and historical integrity. 

Trinity County-Geographical Features

Trinity County is located in the midst of the East Texas Timberlands. It is 30 miles long and 25 miles wide and covers and area of 453,608 acres or 707.2 square miles.[1]  It is bordered at the southeast by the Trinity River, for which it was named.  The Neches River forms its northeast boundary.  Altitudes range from 150 to 400 feet above sea level.  The major lake is Livingston Reservoir, which is located at the southeast corner of the county.  It was established in the 1960s.  The soil is rich and varies from course sandy uplands to rich alluvial bottomlands.  Other soil types include loams and fine sand.  Minerals include stone, clay, gas, volcanic ash and lignite.

The major source of revenue is timber.  The dominant tree in the county forest is the loblolly pine.  The virgin forest was cleared out in the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, due to reforestation efforts during the middle 1900’s much of the forest resources have been replenished and the timber business in Trinity County continues to prosper.  Cattle ranching and farming began to prosper early in the county’s history due to the ebb and flow of the lumber business when people sought other means of income and clear-cut property became abundant for sales. 

The population of Trinity County in 1860 was 4,392; in 1900 it had grown to 10,976.  It reached 13,705 by 1940 and remains much the same with the 2000 Census population at 13,799.

Trinity County-Early County Seats and Courthouses

In 1837 the Congress of the Republic of Texas established Houston County, which included all of present Trinity County.  On February 11, 1850, the Texas legislature established Trinity County and designated Sumpter, a small village, as it’s county seat.[2]  The Sumpter site is located five miles east of Groveton, Texas in central Trinity County.  The small wooden courthouse that had been built to serve the newly established Trinity County Seat burned on November 2, 1872.  Today only a cemetery and a Texas Historical Marker (identifying Sumpter as the first County Seat), placed there in 1985, identifies where the once booming frontier town existed. When the early railroad systems by-passed the village of Sumpter the residents quickly moved out of the area to Trinity Station, where the Houston and Great Northern Railroad had built a station.[3] Trinity Station, named after the Trinity River, changed to Trinity City and finally to Trinity.  In 1873 Trinity was elected to become Trinity County’s second County Seat.  It is not known if the county ever had a courthouse in Trinity, and within a year residents voted to move the county seat to Pennington.  Pennington is located in northwestern Trinity County on the Trinity-Houston County Line.  It was established in 1858 and grew as people migrated to the new county seat.  A two-story courthouse and jail were built.[4]  But on February 28, 1878 the courthouse was destroyed by fire.  Little is known about the temporary structure that was used after the fire.  Many of the County’s records were destroyed in the fire and only the court indictments and survey records were saved.  Pennington had plans and promises of a railroad but it never came to fruition.  In 1882 the Trinity and Sabine Pass land and Timber Company, which was located in Groveton, Texas, offered Lots 9 and 10 to the county if the seat of justice was moved to Groveton.  They also offered to build a temporary courthouse until a new one could be built on the donated land.  An election took place on October 7, 1882 and Groveton was elected to become Trinity County’s fourth County Seat.[5]  As promised the Trinity County and Sabine Pass Land and Timber Company built a temporary two-story frame structure like the courthouse that had burned in Pennington.[6]  It was located on the corner of Sloan (now Main Street) and First Street.  The Trinity County and Sabine Pass Land and Railroad Company director, William S. Peters, proposed the name Grovetown because of a stand of blackjack trees that stood between the mill and the town; residents immediately shortened it to Groveton.[7]  The town plat was filed on November 14, 1882.[8]  The first Commissioner’s Court was held in Groveton on November 13, 1882.[9]  The temporary structure was used until 1884. 

On May 15, 1883 the Trinity County Commissioner’s Court authorized the construction of a permanent brick courthouse and jail.[10]  Architect Eugene T. Heines was contracted to draw plans and specifications for the courthouse and jail and Darling and Myers were the contractors.[11]  T. J. Pauly and Bros. of St. Louis, Missouri were hired to build the jail.[12]  The courthouse was constructed quickly and over the years began to spread.  The courthouse continued to fail and more space was needed to properly serve the county.  The County Commissioners found that “…a great and pressing necessity now exists for the erection of a building suitable for the protection and preservation of said records” and in 1908, the construction of the records vault building was ordered to be built just to the east of the courthouse.  The Trinity County Commissioners liked the records vault that Polk County, Texas had built in 1905 and so, on July 29, 1908, ordered “…that the plans, the same as for the records vault in Livingston, Polk County, Texas be adopted by this court as the plan for the erection of record vault in Groveton, Trinity County, Texas and that L. S. Green of Houston, Texas be employed as Architect to prepare plans and specifications recordingly [sic].”[13]  W. A Norris was chosen as contractor on July 13, 1908.[14]  As an exact copy of the Polk County vault building, Trinity’s new vault was sited on the courthouse square in a location that would accommodate a new and yet unplanned courthouse.  The vault building was completed in 1908.  Today the marble dedication plaque for it hangs in the County Clerk’s Office.[15]  In 1913 the County Commissioners hired architect, C. H. Page and Bros. to design a new courthouse that would incorporate the existing vault building, in a seamless Beaux Arts Style.[16]  The court accepted Jopling and Williams bid for the building construction and J. L. Martins bid for heating, plumbing and wiring.[17]  The final cost of the new courthouse was $44,248.05.[18]  The courthouse was remodeled in 1961 for the price of $199,552.[19]  The most significant alterations occurred in 1961 when the courtroom was reconfigured and the dropped ceilings were installed.  It is believed that Harold E. Kaemmerling of Lufkin, Texas was the architect responsible for this work and an elevator study done in the 1970’s.  Unfortunately, no Commissioners’ Court minutes of these projects could be located, with the exception of several payments for unspecified work made to Harold E. Kaemmerling.

The Jail and Rock Building are two of four buildings in Groveton constructed in the late 1930’s as part of the Works Projects Administration under President Roosevelt.  The Jail was constructed to replace the original wood jail that once stood on the site.  Ben L. Richards was hired on October 12, 1936, as Architect to supervise the WPA jail construction.[20]  The Rock Building was originally a one-story building designed to serve the county as The Agriculture & Library Building.  On February 13, 1939, the Commissioners’ Court hired O. L. Hazelwood to be the Architect for the WPA Rock Building project.[21]  In the last 15-20 years the attic space was opened for additional office space and dormers were added to allow in sunlight.  The Courthouse Square buildings are still serving the pivotal rolls in their intended purpose for the Trinity County Government and therefore are nominated under Criterion C in the area of Architecture at the local level of significance.

Significance, Integrity and Preservation Plans

Due to the abundant timber industry, Trinity County was thriving in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  The courthouse stood as a proud symbol of the success of the constituents.  The courthouse square was a gathering place for the seat of justice as well as many community functions and celebrations.  Horse-trading took place on the front lawn of the courthouse around the turn of the century[22].  The final hanging in the county took place on the West Lawn of the courthouse on March 11, 1916.  A sea of people gathered to witness the execution of Mr. Jernagan.[23]  On July 26, 1918, the Democrats of Precinct I, a crowd of about sixty voters, held a political rally to endorse the current U. S. President, Woodrow Wilson and Texas Governor W. P. Hobby[24].  

The citizens of Trinity County were quite patriotic.  Several gatherings were assembled at the courthouse to honor servicemen from the community.  A large group came to the courthouse on November 11, 1918, to celebrate Armistice Day[25].  One of the largest celebrations occurred on November 22, 1945[26].  A Thanksgiving parade and feast greeted World War II servicemen from overseas.  Several wash pots of coffee were distributed and everyone joined to visit and enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner, complete with dressed turkey[27].  The courthouse was a popular site for photographing local servicemen.  There are several photos of citizens who served in the war from the Civil War to World War II.

During 1974, the courthouse and the jail were used as background during the filming of the ABC’s award winning television movie “Attack on Terror: The FBI Versus the Ku Klux Klan”, a fact-based account of the four-year FBI investigation that tied the KKK to the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.  The first telecast took place on February 20, 1975, and is based on Don Whitehead’s book of the same title[28].  The three Trinity County Courthouse buildings play pivotal roles in county politics and therefore meet Criterion A in the area of Politics/Government at the local level of Significance.

Trinity County Preservation Plans

In the year 2000, the County government hired the firm of Michael Gaertner and Associates to create a Master Plan for the preservation of the courthouse, jail and rock buildings and begin the application process for a grant through the Texas Historical Commission’s Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program.  All three of the courthouse square buildings are very worthy of restoration and preservation.  The Trinity County Courthouse, Jail and Rock Building continues to provide the focal point of political activities in the county and therefore nominated under Criterion A at the local level of significance in the area of Politics/Government.  Courthouses are historic and architectural treasures bestowed by previous generations. 

Trinity County Courthouse Master Plan

Statement of Goals and Purpose

Prepared by Michael Gaertner and Associates

The purpose of the Master Plan is to establish a philosophy and provide a framework to guide Trinity County in the preservation and rehabilitation of the historic courthouse, and Courthouse Square.  The Master Plan is a dynamic instrument, designed to be flexible to accommodate the changing needs of the County while maintaining the historic integrity of the Courthouse Square.  The Trinity County Courthouse Master Plan was developed to provide for long range planning and to comply with the requirements of the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Project. 

The governing principles of the Master Plan are threefold:

·        To compile historical information pertaining to the property

·        To analyze current building conditions and space use and prioritize needs accordingly

·        To establish an implementation plan that will preserve and sustain the building over time and accommodate the future needs of Trinity County

The Master Plan charts the past, present and future of the county’s public buildings.  Through the creation of the Master Plan, the county has been afforded a unique opportunity to document the history of Trinity County Courthouse and Courthouse Square, document their current condition and use this information to ensure the longevity of their historic buildings.  The Master Plan takes a holistic approach to preserving the courthouse by considering the needs of the building, its occupants and the county.  Since Trinity County has not viewed their Courthouse Square in this way before, the county has developed a new approach and philosophy.

Immediate goals of the Master Plan are as follows:

·        To provide appropriate stewardship of public property, the building and its records

·        To comply with Texas Accessibility Standards and improve access and convenience to the public

·        To update all building systems such as electrical, mechanical, plumbing and lighting

·        To relieve overcrowding in county offices by allocating space more efficiently


[1] Hensley, Patricia B. and Hensley, Joseph B., Eds.  Trinity  County Beginnings (Groveton, Texas: Trinity County Book Committee, 1986): 16

[2] Leffler, John and Long, Christopher, The Handbook of Texas Online: Trinity County, Texas http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/TT/hct9.html

[3] Connell, Sidney, The Handbook of Texas Online: Trinity, Texas http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/TT/hjt10.html

[4] Hensley, Patricia B. and Hensley, Joseph B., Eds.  Trinity  County Beginnings (Groveton, Texas: Trinity County Book Committee, 1986): 61

[5] Hensley, Patricia B., The Handbook of Texas Online: Trinity County, Texas

http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/GG/hjg11.html

[6] Groveton Ex-Students Association, Journey to Jubilee Groveton, Texas USA (Groveton, Texas, 1980): 5

[7] Hensley, Patricia B. and Hensley, Joseph B., Eds.  Trinity  County Beginnings (Groveton, Texas: Trinity County Book Committee, 1986): 65

[8] Trinity County Deed Records, Book F.: 277

[9] Hensley, Patricia B. and Hensley, Joseph B., Eds.  Trinity  County Beginnings (Groveton, Texas: Trinity County Book Committee, 1986): 66

[10] Commissioners’ Court Minutes, Book B, 1879-1885: 310

[11] Commissioners’ Court Minutes, Book B, 1879-1885: 310

[12] Commissioners’ Court Minutes, Book B, 1879-1885: 310

[13] Commissioners’ Court Minutes, Book F.: 206-207

[14] Commissioners’ Court Minutes, Book F.: 209-214

[15] Photo: Vault Building Dedication Plaque

[16] Commissioners’ Court Minutes, Book G.: 220

[17] Commissioners’ Court Minutes, Book G.: 220

[18] Letter to C.H Page and Bros. From Trinity County Clerk, August 5, 1914

[19] Welch, June.  The Texas Courthouse, p. 324.

[20] Commissioners’ Court Minutes, Vol. J.: 112

[21] Commissioners’ Court Minutes, Vol. J.: 342   

[22] Hensley, Patricia B. and Hensley, Joseph B., Eds.  Trinity  County Beginnings (Groveton, Texas: Trinity County Book Committee, 1986): 42

[23] Hensley, Patricia B. and Hensley, Joseph B., Eds.  Trinity  County Beginnings (Groveton, Texas: Trinity County Book Committee, 1986): 42

[24] Groveton Ex-Students Association, Journey to Jubilee Groveton, Texas USA (Groveton, Texas, 1980): 50

[25] Hensley, Patricia B. and Hensley, Joseph B., Eds.  Trinity  County Beginnings (Groveton, Texas: Trinity County Book Committee, 1986): 107 

[26] Hensley, Patricia B. and Hensley, Joseph B., Eds.  Trinity  County Beginnings (Groveton, Texas: Trinity County Book Committee, 1986): 79

[27] Hensley, Patricia B. and Hensley, Joseph B., Eds.  Trinity  County Beginnings (Groveton, Texas: Trinity County Book Committee, 1986): 79

[28] Attack on Terror: The FBI Versus the Ku Klux Klan was first telecast February 1975 based on book by Don Whitehead Attack on Terror: The FBI Versus the Ku Klux Klan New York, Funk & Wagnall’s, 1970.