Wheeler County, one of fifty-four counties created in 1876 out of the Bexar and Young Territories, established its first county government three years later, selecting the community of Mobeetie (known then as Sweetwater) as county seat. It was the first county organized in the Texas Panhandle, a remote frontier in far northern Texas during the 1870’s where the presence of regional Native American tribes remained strong. An indication of conditions can be found in the commissioners court minutes of June 5, 1879 in which the county judge “made complaint of the manner in which hostile Indians are allowed to invade the frontier, citing the recent Pawnee excitement and enclosed a copy of the pass found in the possession of the Indians.” The county’s first courthouse, constructed in 1880 of locally quarried stone by Irish stonemasons, served for eight years until condemned. A lack of reinforcement pins in the masonry doomed the courthouse to demolition.
The county’s isolation would continue until the first decade of the twentieth century when a new community, the city of Wheeler, was elected as county seat and the demolished stone courthouse’s replacement, a small wooden structure, was moved to the new courthouse square. County business had also expanded, dominating social life in Wheeler County as well as the regional justice system. Shortly before the 1908 move, the Court had canvassed votes for a special election to prohibit the sale of “intoxicating liquors”. With ninety-one votes in favor of the prohibition and thirty-three against, Wheeler County was designated a “dry” county, a status it maintained into the 21st century.
Despite the addition of a separate building to house the growing needs of county business, officials determined a new, larger courthouse was needed after the move, holding a bond election in 1925 to set aside funds for a new courthouse. Once construction began, the old wooden courthouse was sold to Wheeler County sheriff Riley Price who moved it to the west side of the courthouse square, hired workers, and tore the structure down. Price salvaged the lumber to build barns and outbuildings on his ranch east of town. According to county records, Sheriff Price told his workers “the only thing I want left is the sound of hammers.”
The 1925 Wheeler County Courthouse was designed by Texas architect E. H. Eads in the Classical Revival style popular during the period. The courthouse features a concrete frame structure with a brick veneer façade and cast stone window sills and capitals, and eight dramatic Ionic columns. Shortly after completion, the court ordered a “$ 5.00 fine for anyone found guilty of spitting on the floors, walls, or any part of the new courthouse.”
The county completed a thorough restoration of the Classical Revival courthouse in 2004, returning the Texas Historic Landmark to its original state courtesy of a grant from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. Among the many structural repairs made, the eight Doric Ionic column capitals were replaced, cast from molds made of the existing capitals. The columns were stripped of lead-based paint and painted to match the original historic color. In addition, five safes in the courthouse were restored; three walk-in safes and two freestanding. Many layers of overlay paint were removed to reveal beautiful gold leafing and hand-painted artwork.
Although purchasing of alcoholic beverages is now allowed but limited in the county, spitting on the courthouse floor is still prohibited.
Wheeler County Courthouse