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Herman: Courthouse fire is a big loss for a small town

Ken Herman
Austin American-Statesman

MASON — There’s something special about old county courthouses. A something so special that it makes old county courthouse fires so horrific, so emotionally draining. And, in the case of the Mason County Courthouse, so hard to explain.

Mason is a town of about 2,100 people. Mason County has about 4,300. It’s about 100 miles west of Austin and, to some, somewhere on the other side of one of Texas’ ill-defined boundaries, this one the one that divides Central Texas from West Texas.

As in many small towns, the courthouse is the center of things, geographically and otherwise. Mason County's wonderful courthouse was built in 1909. On the night of Feb. 4, it caught fire, or, it seems, was set afire.

Drone footage from the State Fire Marshal's Office shows the results of a devastating Feb. 4 fire inside the Mason County Courthouse.

The town has a vibrant courthouse square, modern but still small-town enough to have death notices clipped to front doors. COVID-19 has taken a toll here. Lots of stores are open, but the marquee on the historic, restored Odeon theater reads: “We’ll be back! Eventually.”

At Market Square, the courthouse square store she’s run for 29 years, former Austinite Wendy Hudson has been looking at the old courthouse for many years. Somehow, all was well — or at least better — whenever she saw it. “I looked out the door every day just to get sort of peace,” she said. “It was so peaceful.”

Hudson lives nearby and somehow slept through the sirens that filled the square sometime after the fire broke out late on the night of Feb. 4. The next morning. she saw the charred and ruined building. “I just started crying,” she told me. “It just was a heartbreak.”

“Oh gosh. You can’t imagine how many people love this town and love that courthouse,” she said, adding she’d heard from an Austin friend who said his great-grandparents were married there.

Her son Treg Hudson is a local justice of the peace and, until the courthouse recently was cleared out for a major renovation, he had an office there and sometimes she’d pop in to see him. "It was so unnecessary,” she said of the fire. “It’s going to bother me till it’s fixed."

Word spread quickly in the small town, both about the fire and who started it.

“We pretty much knew who had done it, and the pieces fell in place fast because we have a fabulous sheriff.” Hudson said, filling in some details on what folks here seem to know.

A historic marker stands in front of Mason County Courthouse, which suffered massive damage in a Feb. 4 blaze.

A few doors down at the Commercial Bank, Curtis Donaldson, a vice president, was busy raising money — including $100,000 from his bank — for the courthouse rehab or replacement. “There’s my office,” he told me, pointing to a corner office with courthouse-facing windows. “So you see my view.”

“I looked at it pretty much every day,” Donaldson said of the courthouse. “I’d stare at it a few days. But I looked at it every day.”

In the early morning hours of the night of the fire, Donaldson headed downtown from his home 8 miles away. By then, local firefighters and those from nearby towns had done what they could and the stunned locals were left to ponder. Donaldson connected with Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden: “It was just he and I. So we kind of had a moment, visited about it and hugged.”

The small-town banker and the small-county judge. Predawn, hugging as their beloved courthouse, the anchor of their community, smoldered.

“I could see the resilience in his eyes to rebuild,” Donaldson recalled. “And that’s kind of what I needed to see. It helped me to visit with him. I think I helped him, too, but I think it helped me more to see ... that resiliency in his face and that we’re going to get this thing done.”  

Like lots of folks, he has heard talk of the motive.

“It’s not really anything I can comprehend,” Donaldson said. “From what I’ve understood, there was a lot of support and a support system in place for this young man.”

Brent and Monica Hinckley were in the bank. They’re the only people who live on the courthouse square, have done so for 25 years in an apartment at what's now their Red Door B&B Inn. He served 15 years as mayor until retiring last November.

“That’s my front yard,” he said of the courthouse, adding that guests always “love sitting on the balcony in good weather and just looking at this courthouse.”

From their website: "Come sit on the porch, soak in the historic square, and let your cares melt away."

Investigators work at the burned-out Mason County Courthouse, where a Feb. 4 fire is believed to have caused by arson.

On Feb. 4, a late-night phone call alerted them there was a fire. “It was just a gut punch,” he said. “I sat on the balcony till 2 o’clock in the morning just watching. The firefighters did all they could, but it was a totally helpless feeling.”

“I sit on the balcony now with the same feeling … as in church when my 100-year-old grandmother was dead in the casket,” he said. “You’re looking and you know that it’s going to be OK. But you’re just devastated at that moment.”

Moments earlier in the bank, Brent Hinckley, as president of a community foundation, had brought a $20,000 check from money raised at its nearby store on the square. The ex-mayor has a degree in architecture, and his wife has one in electrical engineering. So they know something about the challenge ahead.

“If they can salvage the walls, then a lot is very possible," he said. "The real issue is the mortar between the stones. The mortar there crumbles in heat and water. And without that mortar, the structure is not sound.”

I asked if they knew the guy who folks say set the fire.

“He was in my son’s class in high school,” Monica said.

Later Monday, Bearden, the county judge, toured the building with investigators. Afterward, we headed across the street to the temporary office into which he moved in December after the courthouse was closed to prepare for the major renovation planned long before the fire.

Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden discusses plans for rebuilding the county courthouse that was heavily damaged by the Feb. 4 fire.

He’s in his 19th year as county judge after 32 years teaching ag at Mason High School. His longtime office was in the northwest corner of the old courthouse. As the local emergency management coordinator, he gets notices of all the fire and EMS calls. Late on Feb. 4, he got one about a house fire, which investigators now believe was ignited by the same man suspected in connection with the courthouse blaze.

“But they didn’t ask me to come and see" the house fire, Bearden said. “So I figured we were OK. And that’s a few blocks from here. And then, less than eight minutes later, I got another call from the dispatch at the sheriff’s telling me. ‘Judge, the courthouse is on fire.’ This was about 10:15. So I jump up, put my boots on, (get) into the pickup. Run people off the road nearly. Parked on the north side.”

Bearden made sure the electricity was cut off. Did everything he could, which was not much other than watch the flames. “I guess the hardest thing for me to take was my office in the northwest corner was the last office in that building to catch on fire," he said. "And I had to sit there and watch my desk and other things burn up.”

The only positive, if any, was that the building, save for some furnishings, had been emptied for the renovation. No records were lost. No lives were lost. No injuries. Just a building. Just a building that’s a big loss for a small town.

Bearden told me how, by mistake, he’d left one fire alarm in the courthouse when he was supposed to have taken all of them to the temporary building. New ones were to be put in the courthouse.

“And that was the alarm that went off,” he said. “I left it right there where the fire started. But, Ken, it was like losing, and it still is, like losing a member of your family. That courthouse is the center of this community.”

There’s insurance to be sorted out, but, Bearden said, “Everybody knows you never really insure a historical building at its replacement value. You can’t afford that.” The original cost of the courthouse: $39,786.

The finances are to be determined, but any and all help will be appreciated. “We’re not begging,” the judge said, “but we want to get that thing back together.”

There's a GoFundMe page set up by banker Donaldson.

I asked Bearden about the man he'd refer to only as “the suspect.” Nicholas Jarret Miller, 41, was arrested Friday in McLennan County after a slow-speed chase. He’s being held on several charges, including arson and evading arrest.

“This young man, we knew his family forever,” Bearden said. “He went to school with my daughter. Same age. He had a lot more advantages than some of the kids had. They had some issues with the family. And we had a family here in Mason take him in. … For three years he lived with them. He had everything that you would want.

“But you can’t really blame it on his upbringing, because he had the opportunity to be a success,” the judge said. “But he went down the wrong path somewhere.”

He referred to a live video the suspect had on Facebook during the chase. “It’s a shame that he took out his anger on our courthouse,” Bearden said. “But you can’t explain those things.”

He tried, saying the suspect’s “anger over a pending child custody case initiated this outburst.” Whatever it was, that part of this tragedy now is in prosecutors’ hands. Bearden is focused on the courthouse.

Soon, experts will determine if the exterior sandstone walls are sound enough to support a rebuilding of the courthouse. That’s Plan A. Plan B, according to Bearden, would be to try to shore up the walls and “do something like a metal building inside with offices and everything but still have the same appearance on the outside.”

“The last thing I want to do, and the absolute last thing, and the thing that I want to fight tooth and nail until they've dragged me kicking out of here, is to tear it down and build a modern structure there. I'll leave first,” he said.

Just too much history, he said.

“They brought those (courthouse) columns to Brady, Texas, on the train. And then they put those columns on wagons and brought them to Mason with mules. And then they set them up,” he said. “Those people did all of that without cranes. They took all those rocks up there without cranes. They didn’t have those. They did lifts with muscle."

“I've been so busy that I haven't had a whole lot of time to just really slow down and let it soak in,” he said of the days since the fire. “But when I have to look across the street and see that grand old lady looking like it is now, it breaks my heart.”

“I’m 74 years old,” he said. “I’ve ranched and taught and farmed. But let me tell you what, I can cry with the best of them when I have to. I’ve had tears on this one, and I’m not ashamed to say it.”

In a city boy’s effort to lighten the moment, I told Bearden that if I put in the paper that he cried he might never get elected again. Cowboys don’t cry, I told him.

“Cowboys don’t cry,” Bearden acknowledged, “but I’m not running again. In fact, I was going to retire and go back to doing some ranching and stuff at the end of September. And then we heard about getting the grant to restore (the courthouse), and then, of course, the COVID deal was going on.”

Now, this.

“I’m not going to leave now and leave the people in the county that I love in the lurch,” he said.

There’s just something special about old courthouses. On this sunny Monday afternoon, Janis Richter, with husband John, had driven from Georgetown to gaze at this charred one and think about another one that burned.

“It was in Austin County, Texas. Bellville, the county seat. And it was 1960. And it was a beautiful castle courthouse,” she told me. “And it burned late at night. And where we were, it looked like the whole town" was ablaze.

She was 12. Her family lived about a block from the courthouse square. Close enough that her family hosed down their roof to protect against embers. It was an accidental fire. But the building was destroyed and a new, boring one replaced it.

“It was Bellville,” she said of the destroyed courthouse. “I mean it was our traditions there. At Christmas, they hung the lights from it. It looked like a big Christmas tree. It’s just tradition.”

Now, all these years later, she remembers what it means to a small town when its courthouse burns.

The historic Mason County Courthouse, built in 1909, as it stood in April 2020.

“I do hope they rebuild it to as much of the original look,” she said, lamenting the replacement courthouse in her long-ago hometown, “Have you been to Austin County? It’s a gray cement block.”

So why was she standing near Mason County’s destroyed courthouse?

“I just felt the loss again from our courthouse,” she said. “When I heard about this, I knew the feeling that these people in Mason County were feeling.”