Someone asked me recently why I like visiting Texas county courthouses and taking pictures of them. In the first place, Texas’ county courthouses tend to have been built in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Most of the older ones have been renovated and restored, but still contain elements that reflect their builders and their towns and counties from a hundred years ago or more. To see them is to view a window into what they valued, to peek into the past and understand our forbears a bit better.
Another thing to note: most of the courthouses have had annexes built in later years as the counties grew. This is a reflection of how increasingly complicated it has become to run even a small county. More offices, more employees, more government doing things. It’s nice to think about the type of government that would fit into a single building like the ones we see in the town squares of the county seats, before we allowed government to try to solve all the things, rather than do it ourselves.
County courthouses and town squares also represent something else to me, something even small towns can struggle with: community. In past years, the county courthouse was the place where public notices were posted, where people sought justice, where the county business was done and where people could see and talk to their local elected officials. Local government was accessible government; and, they also believed, responsive government.
Further, people met and gathered at the courthouse for various reasons. Other than church and the market, it might be the only location where a farmer or rancher could see his neighbors and discuss the state of affairs in his county, to talk politics or weather or business or agriculture. Fairs or market days or festivals might be held close to the courthouse, and local businesses clustered around it to serve the people coming to town. That’s a very different life from our current one. Visiting these old courthouses, you can sense the resignation in certain towns when their downtown businesses have failed and left the surrounding buildings empty. You can hear the sigh of failure, of loss, and of slow decay.
I’m as isolated as anyone these days. Though I know my neighbors to wave to or briefly chat with, I am not known. I have not allowed myself to be. I’m far more comfortable discussing life online than with the people next door. I choose the isolation, the segregation from the people in my community, whether by habit or antisocial tendencies or whatever. I might not always like it very much, but its the way I am, the way I have allowed myself to become.
But a courthouse reminds me that life wasn’t always this way. It reminds me there was a time when we weren’t so mobile, when we had to stick it where we were planted for the most part. And while that might have grated on many a free spirit, and while I do appreciate the relative freedom we have now due to our increased mobility, there’s a part of me that appreciates that rich and meaningful community was formed in those circumstances. There’s an acknowledgment that people who built the places we live and drive through knew better how to make do, knew better how to get along with others (even the difficult ones), and just plain knew each other better.
And there’s a part of me that misses that, even though I’ve never really had it.