Two possible sites were selected for the Cooke County seat in August of 1850, two years after the Texas State Legislature established the county, naming it in honor of William G. Cooke, Quartermaster General of the Republic of Texas and veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto. One site, donated by county resident Mary E. Clark, sat just east of Elm Creek. The other, several miles away, was located along Wheeler Creek. Although the newly organized county intended to advertise an election for the final selection, it appears that Cooke County’s first judge, Chief Justice Bob Wheelock, resolved the issue himself by visiting the Wheeler Creek site carrying a jug of whiskey. The Judge approached a group of Wheelerites and announced “All in favor of putting the town here, come with me”, then proceeded to lead the crowd to the Mary E. Clark site. Three days later, the Clark site became the official county seat, named Gainesville in honor of General Edmund Pendleton Gaines, veteran of the War of 1812.
Cooke County’s first courthouse, built in 1850, stood on the south side of the present courthouse square. Journalist Charles De Morse, publisher of The Northern Standard in nearby Clarksville, described the courthouse as “…capacious as ever, and as well ventilated; has not yet a floor, or a door, or a window, but the light comes freely through between the logs, as the dust does when the wind is high”. De Morse describes the courthouse proceedings with similar wit: “The Grand Jury were unreasonable enough to find bills against two or three citizens for living with other men’s wives; a freedom of custom long licensed upon the Cross Timber Frontier; and the morality of Cooke is to be purged, puritanically, or at all events legally.”
The county’s first courthouse collapsed, however, after a steer wandered in for shelter and then tried to get out. According to Cooke County pioneer W. R. Strong, the steer “…ran against one corner of it and tore it down”. Two additional courthouses were constructed between 1853 and 1909, both destroyed by fire.
Perhaps making up for Cooke County’s disappointing courthouse past, the present courthouse completed in 1912 is considered one of the state’s grandest. Designed by Lang & Witchell, the venerated Dallas architectural firm responsible for national landmark buildings such as the Magnolia Building and the Hilton Hotel in Dallas as well as the Harris and Johnson County Courthouses, the Cooke County courthouse represents one of the firm’s more disciplined works. Lang & Witchell’s design blends the Neoclassical Ecole des Beaux-Arts style, the 19th century Parisian school of architecture, with a distinctly American invention – the Chicago School’s Prairie Style and the works of Louis Sullivan. The courthouse’s size and proportions, considered “heroic” and “monumental”, contribute to its position as the largest structure in downtown Gainesville today.
The three thousand pound cornerstone, dedicated on November 1, 1910, anchors three stories with a partial fourth accomplished by an above grade basement. Four massive pillars support a tower structure from the basement through all of the floors. The central building is seventy feet tall to the tower apex and is surrounded by two-story structures. Gainesville gray brick, stone, and masonry comprise the exterior and feature stylized eagle medallions, Ionic columns, and terra cotta shield crests displaying the symbolic motif of the Scale of Justice and a sword, elements that suggest the emerging Art Deco designs of the 1920’s and 30’s. The tower, capped with a copper dome and finial, is perhaps Lang & Witchell’s most direct nod to the Beaux Arts style among the building’s design elements. It features clockworks that, according to a century’s worth of Cooke County Commissioners Court minutes, required and received maintenance year-round. Today, with the assistance of three Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program grants, the entire courthouse has received a complete restoration including its clockworks, returning the building to its 1912 state, and culminating with a rededication in 2011.
Cooke County Courthouse
Monday - Friday 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.