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Courthouse Proceedings

Mason County rallies to rebuild courthouse gutted by nighttime blaze

Illustration by Stephanie Dalton Cowan

Most nights pass quietly in Mason, a Hill Country community of about 2,300 residents. So when sirens wailed after 10 p.m. last February 4, Misty Martin texted a friend and learned a house had caught fire. Then more sirens blared. Curious, Martin stepped outside in her pajamas. What she saw from her front yard made her gasp.

“Flames were coming out of our courthouse,” she recalls. In a flash Martin jumped into her car and picked up her friend. On the square the women joined other distressed onlookers, many dressed in pajamas and robes, as massive flames engulfed their historic courthouse.

“We knew that county records and some furnishings had been moved out around Christmas for renovations,” says Martin, a fourth-generation Mason native. “We wondered if maybe it was an electrical fire.”

Within minutes the roof and its octagonal dome with a bell and four clock faces collapsed. Firefighters from nearby communities also responded to the scene, but the inferno was too intense. Once the smoke cleared, only the building’s charred outer sandstone walls, concrete second floor, concrete columns and seven chimneys remained.

Heartbroken but resilient, residents that night vowed they’d rebuild their grand centerpiece. Built in 1909, the Classical Revival-style edifice designed by architect Edward C. Hosford was the third Mason County courthouse (fire destroyed the first one in 1877).

For generations it housed the comings and goings of residents. Within its walls, attorneys argued court cases, couples signed marriage licenses (and divorce decrees), parents celebrated adoptions and properties exchanged hands. Children played on its grassy lawn beneath towering pecan trees, and families lined up along the low stone fence that encircles the courthouse to watch parades pass.

“The county originally paid nearly $40,000 to build our courthouse,” says Jerry Bearden, the Mason County judge of nearly two decades and a Central Texas Electric Cooperative member. “We’re looking at a projected $21 million to rebuild it.”

More than half that amount had been earmarked by June. As part of its Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, the Texas Historical Commission in 2020 awarded Mason County a $4.1 million restoration grant, Bearden says. Some funds had already gone toward architectural work, leaving $3.7 million for rebuilding. Additionally, the Texas Legislature allocated $6 million for the courthouse, and insurance money from the Texas Association of Counties could contribute up to $12.7 million. For its part, Mason County will be responsible for more than $3.3 million.

Providing those funds is the mission of Friends of the Courthouse, a nonprofit founded in April 2021. Contributions may be made via the group’s website and three local banks. This spring the organization will host a benefit concert and live auction on the courthouse square.

“Raising enough money will be a marathon, not a sprint,” says Curtis Donaldson, board vice president and vice president of lending and business development at the Commercial Bank. “We’ll also be applying for private grants and hosting more fundraisers.”

Structural engineers examined the courthouse’s surviving walls and second-level floor soon after the fire. Their analysis found the century-old bones to be structurally sound for use in rebuilding. From there, demolition crews cleaned up debris and hauled off hazardous materials. CPM Texas, which oversaw the 1990s restoration of the Texas Capitol, was hired to manage the reconstruction project.

“We’re hoping to have construction complete by March 2023,” says Bearden, who’s been officing with county staff in a nearby annex. “It’s real hard to understand why this happened to our courthouse.”

What happened was a suspected arsonist allegedly first set fire to a family member’s house that night. Then he allegedly broke into the courthouse through the north doors, and on the second floor, it’s believed he poured gasoline in the courtroom and offices of the district judge and adult probation officer. Nicholas Miller of Mason was caught the next day after a chase south of Waco. Felony charges against him include two for arson.

Meanwhile, townspeople in Mason held fundraisers to help the family rebuild their burned home.

“We take care of each other here in Mason,” Martin says. “They’re a good family, and it’s not their fault. It still hurts that we lost our courthouse. She was the heart of our town. But really, it’s the people who are the true heart. We will rebuild and move on.”