Category Archives: Montague

The Montague County Courthouse

From the earliest days of statehood, Texas county courthouses were often damaged or destroyed.  The main cause of destruction was usually fire, although sever weather often took a toll on these architectural beauties as well.  Cooke County’s first courthouse, a small log structure was leveled by a bull.  The nosy bovine found his way into the building leaving nothing but  topple logs and a trampled mess in his wake.  Montague County’s courthouse did not escape the courthouse curse.  disaster struck the county seat on more than one occasion.

The Montague County Courthouse as it stands today.

The first courthouse was a log building that was erected shortly after the county formed in 1858.  It was used until the end of the War Between the States.  This structure may have met a fiery doom, but there are no remaining records that resolutely prove what became of the first courthouse.

Montague County's second courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1873. Photo courtesy of the Montague County Historical Commission

A second courthouse was a frame structure that succumbed to fire in February of 1873.  During the time between the fire and the construction of the third courthouse, the county found temporary accommodations in which to conduct business,  They first rented a house from D S Hagler,  later, they purchased the Covington Saloon and converted it into a working courthouse.

Montague County's thrid courthouse, the first to sport a domed top. Photo courtesy of the Montague County Historical Commission.

By 1879, an impressive two story domed, native sandstone structure graced the county square.  The stately building met its demise at the hands of arsonists in March of 1884.  Three men, William and Frank Clark and Landy Howell doused the building with coal oil and struck the match that caused the irreplaceable loss of everything that was not stored in the vaults.  The arsonists were apprehended and placed in the Montague County jail.  Notations in the jail log books indicate that a mob broke the Clarks, Howell and eight or nine other prisoners out of jail.  They were eventually recaptured.  Due to the outrage in the county, their trials received a change of venue to Cooke County.  Howell,s case was dismissed, the Clark brothers each received a sentence of 10 years.

The fourth courthouse came close to not being built in Montague.  After the courthouse was destroyed in 1884, the citizens of Bowie tried to have the county seat transferred to Bowie from Montague.  The results of the poll were in Bowie’s favor, but did not meet the 2/3 majority required by law.

Montague County’s fourth courthouse. Photo courtesy of the Montague County Historical Commission

This courthouse was also built from native stone and sported a beautiful domed clock tower.  While this courthouse did not meet a fiery death, it was no match for Mother Nature.  On July 5, 1905, a tornado ripped through norther and central portions of Montague COunty.  The deadly storm claimed sixteen lives and leveled several churches and homes.  The clock tower was damaged beyond repair and was removed.  In April of 1912 another storm struck the courthouse tearing off large sections of the roof and breaking out several windows.

At this point the county commissioners deemed the county in need of a new courthouse.  In order to dodge another war for the county seat they took quick action.  The old courthouse was demolished and construction began on the new one during the spring of 1912, just weeks after the debilitating storm.

The last courthouse built in Montague County. Still in use today. This photo shows the building before the dome was removed. Photo courtesy of the Montague County Historical Commission,

This building is still in use today.  The grand structure originally had a dome.  The dome suffered structural damage in a storm in 1939 and was removed.

Today a grassroots campaign is in the works to raise the funds needed to replace the dome.  If anyone is interested in helping with this effort,  please contact me for more information.

A few other fun facts about the courthouse:

The fourth floor held the county jail until the new jail was erected in 1927.  The Masonic Lodge met in the vacated jail for a time.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Dr Ernest Johnson housed his doctor’s office in the basement of the courthouse.

At least one baby is known to have been born in the courthouse.

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The Old Jail and Outlaws

On November 26, 1927 Montague County commissioners contracted with Southern Prison Company to build a new jail building, the third such building for the county.  At a cost of $34,000, the building was completed July 11, 1927.  The building stands on the southeast corner of the courthouse square.  For 53 years it served as the county jail.  After the new jailhouse was built in 1980, this old building was seldom used except for storage.  In 1996, the Montague County Historical Commission gained permission to use the building as the group’s meeting place.  It is now opened to the public as a museum.

Old Jail. Photo courtesy of Max Brown.

The outside dimensions of the building are approximately 39 feet long by 28 feet wide.   The layout of the jail consisted of jail cells upstairs and living quarters downstairs.  throughout its use, the Sheriff and family occupied the downstairs portion as their home.  The living area contained two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen.  There was one other room that was used as an additional bedroom or dining room, depending on the size of the family.   Four adult and two juvenile cells made up the jail portion.  The adult cells were nine by eight feet in size, each having four metal bunks bolted to the walls.  The juvenile cells measured eight by eleven feet, each with two bunks.  A total of sixteen adults and four juvenile offenders could be housed at any given time.

Jail cell photo courtesy of Max Brown

At least eleven sheriffs and their families made the jail their home during their terms.  These sheriffs were John W Wales, R T Anderson, Lee A Husband, Herman Chandler, Kate Chandler, Dick Lawrence, Bedford Henley, Helen Henley, J L Jameson, J T Lindsey, Howard Middleton and W F Conway.  Both Kate Chandler and Helen Henley finished their husband’s term when they died while still holding office.
The Old Jail is certainly one of those “if these walls could talk” buildings.  Oh, the stories they could tell.  These sturdy cells held criminals that had committed crimes ranging from drunkenness to murder.  Other  offenses included theft, bootlegging, forgery, and insanity. Some notorious outlaws called the Old Jail home, even men associated with the Barrow gang of Bonnie and Clyde fame.

Floyd Hamilton (left) and Ted Walters (right) Photo courtesy of Frank Ballinger

In 1938, known associates of the Barrow gang, Floyd Hamilton and Ted Walters were arrested in Montague County for burglarizing the W W Gilmore drugstore in Ringgold.  The duo had stolen about a hundred dollars in inventory and $15 in cash.  They were incarcerated along with horse thief Ervin Goodspeed.  Together these three plotted a jail break on April 30, 1938.  On that night the only jailer on duty was the twenty-three old son of Sheriff Kate Chandler, Kenneth Chandler.  When Kenneth went upstairs to the jail cells to deliver cheese and crackers to the inmates, he was ambushed.  Goodspeed had managed to cut his cell bars and was waiting for the jailer as he approached.  He stabbed Kenneth in the leg with a pair of scissors.  It is believed that Goodspeed stole the scissors from the barber when he visited to the jail to give the inmates haircuts.  After stabbing the jailer, Goodspeed unlocked the cells of Hamilton and Walters.  Once downstairs, the trio offered to dress the jailer’s wound, but he refused.  They then helped themselves to jail’s arsenal, taking three shotguns and two pistols and disappeared into the night.  Goodspeed was caught in Nocona within a couple of days.  After stealing a car, Hamilton and Walters led law enforcement across a tri-state area on a massive man hunt.  They were both eventually captured in August of 1938.  Hamilton was eventually  sent to Alcatraz.  He survived a botched escape attempt from the famous island prison.  He was released in the late 1950s and live the life of a model citizen in the Dallas area until his death in 1986.  Walters spent the next few years in and out of prison.  He apparently managed to skip by under the radar of the law enforcement until he is shot and killed by a Texas Ranger in 1971.

Ervin Goodspeed (center)

Another jail escape occurred in 1941.  Rex Beard, Jr found himself housed within the confines of the Montague County jail for robbing the  banks in Nocona and in Bowie.  Due to his method of carrying  a paper sack into the bank with which to conceal his weapon as well as to  carry out his stolen loot, he became known as the Paper Sack Bandit.  He escaped from the Old Jail, but was caught in Wichita Falls after another robbery.  Beard was responsible for robberies across the state including theaters, banks, department stores and liquor stores.  One newspaper article described his antics as “the Paper Sack Bandit has so many prison sentences officers are not certain how long it would take him to serve them.”  While waiting sentencing in Abilene he attempted another escape.  In the process, he killed Deputy Sheriff Wade Willis.  During the gunfight, Beard was critically injured.  He survived these injuries, but was given the death sentence for his crime.  He was executed by the State of Texas in  September of 1943.
Today the Old Jail stands a memorial to all of those in law enforcement that served Montague County with pride.  It is now known as the Old Jail Museum.  It is opened Fridays from 12:00 – 5:00 pm and on Saturday from 9:00 am – 3:00 pm.
There is more to the stories of Hamilton, Walters, Goodspeed and Beard.  I hope to add more posts this week under the ‘More of the Story’ section.  To learn more about the Barrow gang and Bonnie and Clyde, visit Frank Ballinger’s website.