Atascosa County history reads like a grand American novel, unraveling in pages replete with intrigue, money, invention, and renewal. The county’s creation story alone deserves an entire chapter, born along a route of the historic Camino Real in a region threaded with waterways and acquiring the name “Atascosa” (Spanish for boggy) during Spain’s colonial escapades. Its land, first deeded to Jose Antonio Navarro in 1828 by the Mexican government, was again assigned to Navarro, a veteran of the war for Texas’ freedom and signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, by the Republic of Texas. In 1857, Navarro donated land for the first county seat, named Navatasco, inspiring the construction of the county’s first courthouse, a log structure along Atascosa Creek. Within a year however, prominent San Antonian John Bowen would wrestle the county seat from Navatascoans, moving it to his newly created Pleasanton nine miles away. With that act, Bowen would set in motion a series of controversies that would plague the county and its courthouses on and off throughout the following century.
Pleasanton, county seat until 1910, would see three courthouses, two basic wood structures and a final, red sandstone Italianate courthouse completed in 1885. During this period, the county would experience a period of relative growth rooted in agricultural practice, an arduous way of life that leaves little time for extraneous political maneuvers. But with the arrival of Dr. Charles F. Simmons, along with his money and his Artesian Belt Railroad, that wouldn’t last.
Simmons, a Tennessean, studied law and medicine, then practiced law while using the medical prefix of “Dr.” despite the lack of evidence of a completed law or medical degree. Simmons was son of Dr. M. A. Simmons, creator of Simmon’s Vegetable Liver Medicine. The “medicine”, a term used loosely in the era of draconian 19th century medical practices, was a patented herbal elixir of questionable effectiveness in which instructions for preparation included boiling a powder (comprised of dried ground herbs including, appropriately, “snakeroot”) then mixing in a half pint of “good” whiskey before consumption. Simmons the younger purchased the elixir business from his father, changed the name to Simmons Liver Regulator, and elevated the product into an extremely lucrative operation with nationwide distribution. Seeking out new business opportunities, Simmons arrived in Atascosa County a rich man and determined to transform the bucolic farming community into a personal financial windfall. After purchasing sizable tracks of land and, with a talent for influence and manipulation along with the county commissioners’ cooperation, Simmons managed to relocate the county seat once again, settling on a location of his own device – Jourdanton, brand new stop along his recently constructed railroad line. Perhaps sensing possible legal ramifications, Atascosa County Commissioners hired Judge C. C. Clamp, a successful San Antonio lawyer, to act as counsel during this period. In need of a courthouse, the county quickly established temporary quarters in Jourdanton, then organized an election to approve bonds for a permanent courthouse. With one hundred fifty-nine Jourdanton votes for courthouse financing and one hundred sixty-two Pleasanton votes against, the proposition failed so county commissioners levied a courthouse building tax. Jourdanton received its new courthouse in 1913, a handsome Mission Style design courtesy of Henry Tilman Phelps, architect of many of the stately Texas courthouses in service today and, without coincidence, son-in-law of Judge Clamp.
Phelps’ Atascosa County courthouse is not only the sixth and final one for the county, it is also the only surviving Mission Style designed courthouse in the state. The attractive edifice suffered a series of alterations over the decades, including a 1974 remodeling that would significantly alter its architectural character. Thanks to the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program and concerned Atascosa County citizens, the Mission Style edifice would be restored to its original 20th century charm in 2003. The project experienced few obstacles and proceeded without major intrigue, perhaps a first for the Atascosa County courthouse square.
Atascosa County Courthouse