During a major restoration of the Mills County courthouse, the 1913 Neoclassical edifice gracing Goldthwaite’s town center, faint evidence of murals decorating the basement walls of the men’s restroom were discovered beneath the peeling paint and behind the porcelain fixtures. A careful reconstruction of the original basement layout revealed that the walls were once part of a room serving a different purpose altogether and the murals, advertisements for bail bondsmen, bankers and barbers (all services required by offenders set to go to trial), suggested that the location served as a waiting room for defendants anticipating their escort to the courtrooms above.
Mills County was already all too familiar with the criminal element by the time the 1913 courthouse was completed. Cattle rustlers, horse thieves, murderers, army deserters, and scofflaws plagued the county throughout the last half of the 19th century. The county experienced a general lawlessness that accompanied many regions of the Texas frontier and its citizens attempted to mitigate their circumstances by forming their own vigilante groups. But vigilantes simply added to the chaos. It would take the Texas Rangers to restore a sense of peace to Mills County, terminating the vigilante system by 1897.
Not surprising, the jail, completed in 1888, was the first government building financed by the county. The structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The first courthouse, however, wasn’t so lucky. Built in 1890, it burned down twenty-two years later under suspicious circumstances.
"Fire originating under the west stairway of the Goldthwaite courthouse at 11:30 o'clock last night,” announced the front page of the Brownwood Bulletin in May of 1912, “destroyed the structure and burned most of the contents of the building except for the records that were locked in the vaults. Among the most valuable papers destroyed are the assessments made this year by Tax Assessor A. R. Evans. He had those in the vault in his office but for some reason the door was not shut and they were destroyed. The fire was evidently of incendiary origin.”
County Commissioners quickly proceeded to build a second courthouse, employing the meager insurance money collected from the destruction of the first and funds from a controversial bond issue, and commissioned San Antonio architect Henry T. Phelps to design the turn-of-the-century Neoclassical/Classical Revival structure. The building featured cast stone decorative columns and a brick veneer with copper and sandstone details along the structural lines between the tops of the columns and the roof. Inside, Georgia marble, terrazzo floors, and plaster walls highlighted a miniature rotunda lit by natural light courtesy of a skylight. The courtroom featured coffered plaster ceiling beams and a spectator balcony with cast iron seating, all now restored to their original state.
Upon completion of the Mills County courthouse, Phelps probably read critics’ complaints that the courthouse seemed too big for the current functions of the County, commentary that appeared in an article written under the Goldthwaite Eagle banner. But in all likelihood, he would have been more apt to agree with the article’s conclusion, an observation as true today as it was in 1913, that the building was worth the price paid despite critics and “was decidedly creditable to the county”.
Mills County Courthouse