It's time to rebuild the courthouse

Last fall our local daily newspaper, The Beaumont Enterprise, published a wonderful and award-winning feature about my small hometown. “Glory Days,” as it was called, chronicled a day in the life of Newton, Texas, on a Friday in which the local high school Eagles would play football.

What was so great about the feature is that it showed how a small community with so much working against it had its local football team to exhibit the town’s heart and soul. Now you might say, a football team isn’t much. Well bite your tongue because this is Texas! But it is really a thing of beauty when a community — only removed by 15 miles from but not the of heartbreak of Jasper, Texas — can come together on anything.

But for two or so hours a night, almost two centuries of racial strife disappear. Like I think someone said in the feature but am not sure, “There is no black and white, only purple and white,” talking of the small school’s colors.

But football only lasts a couple of months, usually a little longer for Newton, who most pick to win state this year. Something that is a more year-round example of the community’s soul sits like a prisoner behind a chain-link fence. That would be Newton County’s 102-year-old courthouse.

A fire in its bell tower in August 2000 gutted the wonderful old local seat of government. The courthouse will be rebuilt, as this blurb from the Texas Historical Commission states:

“Built by Martin & Moodie, this 1903 Second Empire courthouse represents a style popular in the 19th century. Built of unfired local brick, the courthouse was the victim of a devastating fire in August 2000, which left only exterior and first floor masonry walls intact. Restoration will include the reconstruction of the unusual truncated tower and the bracketed balustrade balconies at each entry. The decorative metal ceilings and double wood staircase will also be replicated. The reconstruction will include the historic courtroom configuration with balcony and full accessibility. Additionally, a geo-thermal system will be employed instead of a standard heating and cooling system, taking advantage of the area’s high water table and moisture level. Work should be completed by summer 2005.”

But alas, it is summer 2005 and the work has yet to begin. The reason includes blown deadlines and problems with engineers, according to the Beaumont Enterprise. The latest word is that rebuilding could start as early as the end of this year. I sure hope so.

So why care about an old courthouse in a little town most everyone outside of the town has never heard of? Memories. The courthouse was the focal point of my childhood. It was the center of town, plus my mother worked there for a number of years. I experienced some interesting sights there. Included was this convicted murderer who would yell about Jesus at the top of his lungs all day long. Or a marijuana plant that the local sheriff’s department had confiscated in a raid and sat out in front of the courthouse, I guess, to grow into evidence. The plant was nothing but a twig after awhile, what with people walking by and snatching them off a leaf. Elections, now so fractious and bitter in this country, used to be a celebration on the courthouse square where people would gather to watch the returns put up on a gazebo blackboard.

While a stupid high school kid some friends and I decided to bombard the jail, which was at the front of the courthouse, one night about midnight with bottle rockets. The prisoners were none too happy as we could tell by their shouts. I’m sure we would not have been welcomed beside them in the slammer. The town’s policeman, a very portly man who used to pin his badge upon his dirty T-shirt, came running out and jumped into his car to pursue us. We all split up in opposite directions and we were not apprehended, thankfully.

That is a memory only for a short period of years. Just think of the memories of thousands of people over more than a century. Yep, it’s time to get that courthouse rebuilt.

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