Texas Courthouse Tour Part 1
By Dana Woods, Tatum, Texas
Pictures by Dana and Kelly Woods
This story begins July 16, 2003. For some time, my wife Kelly and I had been having conversations about how beautiful the old courthouses of Texas are. We had passed several in our travels on our 2001 Illusion Red GL1800 Goldwing. I mentioned to her the idea of one day starting a tour of all the counties in Texas, all 254 of them. We have always enjoyed Texas history and loved seeing the old courthouses as we passed. We had been going through some difficult times during this particular point in our lives and riding our beloved Goldwing was therapeutic for us. On July 16th, she surprised me by saying “Why don’t we just do it?” Whom else do you know that has done this? We had read of several people who had gone to all 254 counties, but how many had done it on a motorcycle. We knew of no one. That afternoon we sat down and, using a Texas Hunting and Fishing guidebook, we created an Excel spreadsheet of all the Texas counties and county seats. To prove we had been to each county we decided to take a picture of the courthouse with our bike in the picture. We also set a couple of rules. Rule 1: We both had to be there. Rule 2: One of us had to be in the picture with the bike. Kelly said we would stop by the courthouses as we passed by or near them on our travels and sometimes make a trip or two just to do courthouses. Boy was she naive, as you will see later. We agreed the purpose of the tour was to see the courthouses from the outside and not necessarily tour the inside, although if we saw one we liked we could. We would learn later that courthouses have clean restrooms and they are not crowded. She surprised me again by saying, “Let’s start tomorrow!” We would only ride close to home and tour five counties. No time frame was mentioned as to how long this statewide tour would take. On July 17, 2003, we began our Courthouse Tour – Texas Style.
A little background information before going any further, Texas has more counties than any other state. The next state with the most counties is Georgia with 159, but Texas has more pre-World War I courthouses then Georgia has counties. I guess one could say we are the Grand Daddy of Courthouses. The “Golden Age” of Texas courthouses was the last decade of the 1800’s. During this time, the counties were building elaborate houses of justice to entice people from the East to come to Texas. Many of these old masterpieces had started to deteriorate and some were demolished. In 2000, the Texas Historical Commission, with state and county funds, started restoring these older buildings to their original conditions. On our quest, we would see and photograph several courthouses in the process of restoration at the time of our visit. Afterwards, if we were near any that were finished we would return to take another picture with the scaffolding removed and see what the building looked like in its original condition.
In mid-July 2003, off we rode to five counties north of our home in Rusk County. Once we got to the first courthouse in Longview, Gregg County, we rode all the way around the building looking for the best place to park the bike and take our pictures. Rule 3: Ride completely around all courthouses. That was not hard to do in small towns, but turned out to be a challenge sometimes in some of the larger cities. We came home and started telling our friends and family what we had decided to do. Some thought it was a great idea, some looked at us as if we were crazy and asked “Do you realize how big Texas is and how many counties we have?”
Three weeks later, we took off again, this time going southwest of home, touring 14 counties in 2 days. Two days later, a late afternoon ride to a neighboring county added one more. The count was up to 20 and we’ve only been touring for three weeks. A month and a half go by and we decided to ride to San Antonio, and since we had never been to the Texas Hill Country on the bike, we might as well make it a courthouse trip. So in six days, 25 more counties were added to the list. We were now sitting at 45.
On this trip, while walking the streets of Fredericksburg, county seat of Gillespie County, we passed a bookstore window display with a book titled “The Courthouses of Texas” by Mavis P. Kelsey and Donald H. Dyal. We could not get into the store fast enough to purchase the book. In the front of the book, Mr. Kelsey and Mr. Dyal did a wonderful job of telling the history of Texas courthouses and the square that most sit on or used to sit on. The rest of the book had one page devoted to each county. It told how the county and county seat got their names, but what really got our attention was each page told how many courthouses each county ever had and how many were still standing. Rule 4: If a building was ever used as a courthouse, and still standing, we would ride to it also, but not sub-courthouses. Mr. Kelsey stated he had been to all the counties, but we wondered if he had been to all the retired courthouses. This added to the question we had when we started our tour. Had anyone ever been to every building that is or had ever been a courthouse, and did it on a motorcycle? I now had “courthouse fever” and Kelly was enjoying watching me go crazy with this tour. We were enjoying our time together, away from the pressures of work and the requirements of being an adult and raising a family. We were kids again, in an adult kind of way.
A month passed and I had refined our Excel spreadsheet to include the counties with multiple courthouses. I also printed out a map of Texas with the counties drawn on it. I then put a dot near the point of each county seat in relationship to the county lines. Now I could sort of connect the dots and save some miles by not going too far out of the way from one county seat to the other. Using Microsoft Streets & Trips I routed the trips we had already been on and routed the rest of the state. We had been on four trips already with only 22 more to go. The fever had really taken a hold of me and now Kelly was beginning to come down with it. Forget the part about doing the counties as we passed through or near them. We were in full blown courthouse tour mode. Would we ride anywhere else until this mission was completed? Remember in the beginning I mentioned Kelly was a little naive. Up to this time, all our trips had been during the Texas summer time and, if you have not ridden in Texas during the summer, most of the time it is HOT! Now it was autumn and much cooler so why not one more trip? Off we go again to the upper northeast corner of the state, 11 more counties. By the end of October 2003, we had been on five trips and traveled to 56 counties.
Being it is hot in Texas during the summer means many times we have good riding days in January and February. We took advantage of some nice days and made three day-trips to go to four neighboring counties in early 2004, up to 60 now, 194 to go. April rolled around, a great time to view the beautiful Texas Bluebonnets and other wild flowers. So we head southwest of home for a three-day wildflower / courthouse ride to Brenham, Washington County, and add 12 more to the list. We took a break in the summer of 2004; we do have to work and have a family to finish raising, but managed to take a couple of short rides to Oklahoma and Arkansas. With the onset of October and cooler temperatures, we might as well make one more Texas ride and add six more to our list as we ride to the New Braunfels, Comal County area. By the end of 2004, the number was up to 83.
As the spring of 2005 rolls around and the fever had not subsided in either of us we might as well get started since the weather was beautiful. This trip took us to the southeast corner of Texas all the way to the coast and we visit 12 more counties. We called this the Piney Woods tour since most of the three-day ride was in the tall pines of East Texas. The completion of this trip means we had covered every county along the Louisiana line and inward at least 2 – 5 counties deep. A couple of months later we had the weekend off and it was a good time to tackle downtown Houston. So off we go to spend the night in Galveston. Along the way, we stop at the two Harris County courthouses in Houston. Since it was a Saturday morning, the traffic was not too bad which was in our favor. This was handy when trying to get the bike in the right position for a good picture. We continue on to Galveston for some great seafood and a nice walk along the beach. We had fun feeding the seagulls with the loaf of bread we bought. The people in the Wal-Mart parking lot might not have liked it as well as we did when we rode through with Kelly throwing bread pieces to the gulls. They were just above our heads and never missed a piece thrown to them. The gulls were nice enough not to leave us a “present” on top of our helmets. This would be our last trip until October.
We have some longtime friends in Tucson, Arizona that we had visited in the summer along with two of our girls in the car and told Jim and Katy we would see them in October and would come on the bike. On this trip we drove south on US 191 which is called the Coronado Trail. It’s in eastern Arizona parallel to the New Mexico line and is Arizona’s version of the Dragon Tail that’s about 100 miles long. I can’t believe more is not written about it in the motorcycle magazines I receive. I kept telling Kelly we would ride this snake of a road in October on the Wing. Sadly, two weeks before our planned trip, Jim passed away. Katy asked that we still come and spend some time with her. That request could not be denied.
So on October 8, 2005 we headed west for Tucson but along the way there were many courthouses to pass. This sort of fit in with Kelly’s original plan of stopping by the courthouses on our way to/from other places. We knew this would be adding the largest number of counties we had ever done in one trip and had planned on it being 34 but didn’t know what would lay ahead of us.
Our first two stops were Dallas and Tarrant Counties, Dallas and Ft. Worth respectfully. Again, this was two large cities on a Saturday so the traffic was not bad. From there we traveled a straight line on US 180 to the New Mexico state line. The next morning a very dark cloud starting approaching us from the west. So we went south for one county and then east for a few miles to Midland, county seat of Midland County. When we went to exit I-20 in Odessa, Ector County, we both noticed the bike felt funny as we leaned onto the exit ramp. I immediately pulled over and discovered we had a flat back tire. Here it was on a Sunday afternoon in West Texas on the side of an exit ramp, and Kelly began to get the “deer in the headlights” look. I assured her we had the Gold Book (a benefit of being a member of the Goldwing Road Riders Association, this book list all GWRRA members worldwide willing to help members in need of help) and although we had never used it I read each month in Wing World (the magazine of GWRRA) that it works. We called three numbers before someone answered and soon help was on the way. But that’s another story in itself. I would like to say thank you again to Russell King. Russell was the manager to a local motorcycle shop about 6 miles away and within 3 hours we were on the way again. The black cloud finally caught up with us in Monahans, Ward County, so a two hour layover in Pizza Hut was necessary to avoid the flood that was passing through. While there, the first couple that helped us with the flat tire, Jerry and Marilee Treadwell, called and invited us to spend the night with them and wait out the rain. We thanked them but the rain was almost finished and we continued along our way to Pecos in Reeves County. We awoke to clear skies and took off toward El Paso and El Paso County. In three days we had been to 22 counties and were now in New Mexico. I stopped our Texas mileage at the state line and would resume again when we got back into the state after our Arizona and New Mexico ride. I had decided early on that we would keep up with the total miles we would travel in Texas on our Courthouse Tour.
On our way back home we entered the state one county above where we had hit the New Mexico line several days earlier. This is a good place to point out that the counties west of Dallas all the way to New Mexico and then north all the way up the Panhandle to Oklahoma are in the shape of squares with the county seats for the most part being close to the center of the square. We had planned on traveling in a straight line from New Mexico along US 380 all the way to Denton in Denton County and arrive home on October 18. However, my birthday was the next day and our three daughters had something planned at home and informed us we needed to stay away for one more day. Lesson here: don’t tempt Mom and Dad with another day of riding. We’ll fall for that every time. Or were they stalling for one more day to make sure the house was clean before Mom and Dad got there. So our plan turned into a zig- zag pattern for one full day and managed to get 11 counties in one day. This was the most we had been to in one day at that point. The next day we returned home to a surprise birthday party and a clean house. We were gone 12 days and had ridden 3,444 total miles in three states with 2,352 miles in Texas and been to 42 counties. This would be the most counties we would see in one trip. We now had 144 under our belts with 110 left to go. We were now over the halfway point. At this time I think our family and friends starting thinking they just might finish this crazy idea of theirs. When someone would ask how far have you two been, our answer would be “all the way to El Paso”. They knew El Paso was completely across the state from our house.
By now we considered ourselves pros at doing this. We had circled many courthouse buildings and had gotten good at finding the courthouse without having to look up the address or ask for directions. We learned to go to the older part of town and look for trees along the street, flags rising above the buildings or a communication tower that would usually be close to the sheriff’s office. A couple of times come to mind where we had to finally ask for help. One time was in the city of Orange in Orange County. Orange is not a tiny town like so many we had been to. At the time it had a population of about 18,500. We knew we were close but just could not find the courthouse. We came to a stop sign and turned left. As it turned out, directly behind us now was a big building with the words “Orange County Courthouse” plain as day on the front of it. We just failed to notice it. At that particular time we didn’t feel like pros. Another time was on a Sunday morning in the small town of Menard, county seat of Menard County. This should be easy. Turn down the main street that paralleled the railroad tracks and it should be across from the tracks right. Well yes and no. When we got to the pecan trees where the courthouse should be there was a public swimming pool. We turned beside the pool and saw a large building but no words could be seen and it had a sidewalk leading to the pool. Just behind it was a school so that must be the administration building for the school. After several minutes of riding and looking we finally stopped at the only open gas station and asked for help. The nice lady told us exactly where it was, between the pool and the school. It was the only courthouse we found that had a sidewalk leading from the front door to a swimming pool. Another event that made us laugh was in the small town of Benjamin, county seat of Knox County. It was late on a Tuesday afternoon and all the small businesses around the large square were already closed for the day. There was not a single vehicle on the square except us circling the building to see what would be the best side to photograph. As we went to park on the front side, a pickup truck pulled into the middle of one of the intersections and stopped dead center of the intersection in a diagonal directional. An elderly gentleman got out and leaned on the hood of his truck and watched us until we took our photos and drove away. We laughed into our headsets and surmised that he was going to make sure that those motorcycle people were not going to do any wrong doings on his courthouse square.