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Dressed in their Sunday best on a Saturday morning, 100 or so citizens of Parker County gathered to celebrate the building that has been an important landmark to them for as long as they can remember. For 119 years, the Parker County Courthouse has been the place where birth records are stored, scores are settled and death certificates ultimately are filed. Now the towering courthouse finally has been restored to its 1886 glory. At a cost of $5 million, workers refinished its hardwood floors, reproduced and replaced its light fixtures, repainted its walls to the original colors, did extensive renovations to the building’s enormous courtroom to make it the same as it was a century earlier. The restoration was completed in March of 2004. To make the rebirth official, the courthouse was rededicated on June 4 during an hour-long ceremony featuring a color guard, visiting dignitaries and speeches from local politicians. “These courthouses � they say a lot about you,” state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, told the crowd gathered at the courthouse. “If they look good, it makes you feel good.” There’s no doubt that the courthouse � a three-story limestone structure with a ruby red pressed tin roof and a clock tower that shoots toward the sky � looks good. The eye-catching building is one of the finest examples of Second Empire architecture anywhere in the state of Texas. But it is what’s inside the courthouse that really makes it special. The second-floor courtroom � all 4,500 square feet of it � is said to be the second largest in the state. Architect W.C. Dodson designed the courthouse, one of a handful he created in north and central Texas. Dodson favored courtrooms with second-story balconies. The Parker County Courthouse courtroom has two of them. Both are miniature balconies located on opposite sides of the courtroom. But the balconies � which feature a set of double doors � are better suited to assist with air ventilation inside the huge room rather than observing trials. The courtroom seems to be where most of the restoration grant money from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program was spent. Before the restoration started, the courtroom had undergone a remodeling in the 1950s that left it chopped into offices, with dull blond wood paneling and a lowered ceiling that allowed room to install air conditioning vents. “It was bad,” says Graham Quisenberry, judge of Parker County’s 415th District Court. Quisenberry chaired a committee that organized the courthouse restoration project, a job that started several years earlier when he was county court-at-law judge. When the restoration began, Quisenberry’s courtroom moved from the courthouse to a building down the street. He was eventually appointed to the district court bench by Gov. Rick Perry. Parker County’s two district courts will remain housed in a separate building off the town square that was once the old post office. The two county courts-at-law share the courtroom in the restored courthouse. Looking around the courtroom, which features extensive stenciling on the walls and ceiling, grand floor-to-ceiling windows, and long benches built from alternating stained wooden slats of walnut and oak, Quisenberry regrets that he will no longer be able to preside in the refurbished courtroom. “I think it’s some evidence that I’m not all that smart,” Quisenberry says. “I volunteered for the [restoration committee] job, and I can’t sit here.” Traffic and Taverns After the rededication ceremony concluded on June 4, veteran Parker County lawyers lingered in the courtroom to swap stories about the courthouse. One of them, Roy Grogan, began trying cases in the courthouse in 1955. When Grogan first stepped into the courthouse as a lawyer, it didn’t have air conditioning. The only way to cool off was to open the courtroom’s large windows, he says. And that posed a problem. In the 1940s, the Texas Highway Department built two highways � Texas Highway 180 and Texas Highway 59. Both of the highways intersect exactly where the Parker County Courthouse sits. So highway traffic flows in a tight circle around the courthouse. When the courtroom windows were open during a trial, lawyers could hardly hear because of the commotion going on outside, says Grogan, who is now retired. “We had to stop and let the trucks go by,” Grogan says. There was another unusual practice in the courthouse from decades earlier that is unheard of today, Grogan says. When the courtroom hosted a high-profile trial, jurors were sequestered inside the courthouse. Locals say that there was a back stairwell that led to a third-story room where jurors could spend the night. Jack Borden, who served as Parker County’s district attorney from 1939 until 1942, remembers the jury quarters well. Back then, jury service was restricted to men, he says, so unisex accommodations were not a concern. The quarters had 12 beds, one wash basin and one toilet. “And the fire escape was a rope. And it was tied to a pipe,” says Borden, a partner in Weatherford’s Borden & Westhoff. “Thankfully, there never was a fire. But that’s the way it was in the old days.” Grogan remembers a death penalty trial held in 1956 in which the jury was sequestered in the courthouse. During three days of voir dire, a troubled juror approached the judge with a concern, Grogan says. “He said, “Judge, I don’t want to spend the night in this courthouse,’ ” Grogan recalls. “The judge says, “That’s not your decision to make. You can spend it here or in the jail,’ ” Grogan recalls. The juror decided he’d spend the night in the courthouse after all, Grogan says. Another bit of courthouse lore was uncovered during its restoration. While workers cleaned up the north side of the building, they noticed that the dirt near the courthouse was starting to cave in, says Parker County Judge Mark Riley. Upon further investigation, the workers discovered a tunnel that started in the courthouse’s basement, Riley says. Workers considered excavating the tunnel to see where it went, but the highway department told them not to, Riley says. The highway department feared that opening the tunnel would cause the roads surrounding the courthouse to cave in. So the tunnel’s exact destination remains a mystery, Riley says. But there are plenty of theories about where it leads. One is that the tunnel was once a secret passageway to a place some forefathers of Parker County didn’t want to be seen entering. “People told me there used to be a tavern underneath what was the Texas Bank” which was located across the street from the courthouse, Riley says. “And the story is people came in the courthouse to go to the tavern,” Riley says. “If you wanted to go to the tavern and not be seen, you go to the courthouse, through the basement and through the tunnel.” Look Both Ways If there is one downside about the Parker County Courthouse, it lies about 200 feet from the courthouse. The two intersecting highways that circle the courthouse are a safety concern. Entering the courthouse means dodging heavy traffic, including huge trucks hauling rocks from nearby quarries and random motorists who stare at the remarkable courthouse instead of the road. Auto and pedestrian accidents have become so common that the two county court-at-law judges who share the courthouse’s courtroom regularly warn jurors to watch out for traffic while entering and exiting the building. “I tell them they’ve already survived the worst part of jury duty, they’ve made it across,” says Ben Akers, judge of Parker County Court-at-Law No. 2. “Now they’ve got to make it back.” Akers knows of what he speaks. About 13 years ago while in private practice, Akers had a close call while entering the courthouse. “I just started across the street,” Akers says, “and this guy in a Bronco just didn’t stop for the light and hit me head over heels.” “Nothing life-threatening,” Akers says of the accident. “But I was really banged up and scraped up. I headed down the pavement quite a ways.” Parker County officials hope that in a few years the highways can be redirected to make the pedestrian crossing near the courthouse safer and restore the downtown town-square feel in Weatherford. But in the meantime, there is some local flavor that can be absorbed by watching the passing traffic that circles the courthouse, says Debra Dupont, judge of Parker County Court-at-Law No. 1. “We’re the cutting-horse capital of Texas. And all day long horse trailers go by with horse heads hanging out,” Dupont says. “It’s so western.” Visions of Home Of all the Parker County residents who admire their courthouse, its biggest fan may have been Willard Thomas. Although not a lawyer, Thomas claimed a connection to the courthouse that is deeper and more spiritual than most. Thomas died last year. But his son, Randy Thomas, a Stephenville solo, says his father loved to tell a story about his connection to Parker County’s hall of justice. Randy Thomas has heard the story so many times, he knows it by heart. And it goes like this: In 1942, Lt. Willard Thomas was a young bomber pilot stationed in Europe during World War II. During his second mission over occupied France, Thomas was attempting to bomb a German submarine dock when anti-aircraft fire hit his B-17 nicknamed “Up And At ‘Em.” Five of the crewman couldn’t get out of the smoking B-17 and died. Five others, including Thomas, escaped the plane and opened their parachutes. But Thomas was still far from safety. “He said it was common for the German fighters to circle the bailing-out airmen and shoot them,” says Randy Thomas. Sure enough, a squadron of German fighter planes circled the surviving “Up And At ‘Em” crew as they floated to the ground. One of the fighters headed straight toward his father, Randy Thomas says. His father’s mind did what often happens in times of trauma, Randy Thomas says. Willard Thomas focused on memories that were important to him. “It was like his life passing in front of him,” Randy Thomas says. “And what he saw clearly was that old courthouse.” The German fighter pilot didn’t fire on his father, Thomas says. “He passed by him and smiled at him and waved,” Thomas says. His father was captured and spent two years in a German prison camp, Thomas says. And when Willard Thomas returned home to Parker County to work on the family dairy farm at the end of the war, his parents allowed him to build a home on the family’s hilly land in the north part of Weatherford. He picked a spot that faced downtown Weatherford. “My dad specifically took this site on a hill [where] you can look down into Weatherford,” Randy Thomas says. “One of the specific reasons was so every morning he could get up and see that courthouse.” Willard Thomas went on to serve as Weatherford’s postmaster for 30 years in a building just down the street from the courthouse. “He was in love with that courthouse, even though he wasn’t a lawyer,” Randy Thomas says. “He was absolutely 100 percent Parker County, Texas, American,” Thomas says. “It’s no surprise to me that that landmark meant that much to him. And that’s why he built his house there.”

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