There’s an important local anniversary coming up and it’s detailed in a recently released proclamation from the Henderson County Commissioners Court. This begins: "On April 27, 1846 the Texas Legislature formed Henderson County from parts of Nacogdoches and Houston Counties....”
An important anniversary of course and it has an interesting “back-story” and we can learn that in J.J. Faulk’s 1929 “History of Henderson County.”
Because he came to the area when still young and later was state senator, county official and long-term practicing lawyer, Judge Faulk offers personal observation to the early events.
The Henderson County area established by the Texas Legislature decree in 1846 was actually much larger than it is today. Then in 1848 t two new counties, Kaufman and Van Zandt, were created from the original Henderson County and by 1850 the county had assumed its present shape. And how many people lived there at the time? Faulk estimated: "Soon after the establishment of the county in 1846 I find there were 250 poll taxpayers; perhaps half were not married and the others married with families. Putting five to the family would make 750 to 1000 people living in this vast territory."
So how did Athens become the county seat? Because it was required at the time that a county seat be located in the center of the county, Henderson County provided for that by appointing several local men to determine the proper location. After their first meeting in July, 1850 the location was designated and then approved in an election.
The next task was to have the same surveyor who had established the county seat location determine the location for a “seat of justice” – or a courthouse. He was instructed to “... lay out the 160 acres including the center, into a public square and 112 lots adjoining the same with necessary streets and alleys...”
When elections were held to establish the new county precincts Judge Faulk reported that there were probably about 250 votes cast. He related: "The County was sparsely settled then and the population was then 1250 people..." He estimated from that figure that there were possibly 200 eligible voters in the new county. (Of course that didn't include black people or women).
Judge Faulk then continued: "At said meeting of the commissioners court, about the 16th of October 1850 they also accepted the report of the commissioners ...ordered that the map made by Huffer [the surveyor] be recorded in the Deed Records of the county, and ordered the 112 lots be offered for sale at public auction on the 31st day of October, 1850.. .John Loop built the first court house in Athens and turned it over at a cost of sixty-five dollars on November 19, 1860... the house cost fifty dollars and a stick and dirt chimney cost fifteen dollars. So we had a $50 courthouse with a $15 chimney. .."
Then when the first term of the district court was held in October, 1850, the court house was not yet available. So Judge Oran M. Roberts “... left a memorandum on the minutes of the court as follows, ' This court is held in the woods under the shade of an oak tree, near the center of the public square of Athens, which the public authorities of Athens are requested to preserve as a memorial of the habits of the early Texans...’"
That tree, according to the author, ".. was well preserved and taken care of for nearly forty years and until it was killed by fire when the court house burned in the year 1886." But there was one final gesture as Faulk described what happened: “A few patriotic citizens had a nice cane made of the wood of this old tree, gold and silver mounted, and I was chosen to go to Austin and present it to Judge Roberts...]Who was at that time Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and later was elected Texas Governor].” Judge Faulk continued, “There is nothing left now of the old red Oak tree, except the cane, which is now among the state relics at Austin, having been given to the state by Gov. Roberts at his death."
He completed his account: "So I think we may safely say that this $65 court house was the first house built in Athens."