“If those walls could talk” is a fairly commonly used saying. And it couldn’t be more fitting than when referring to the abandoned courthouse at the ghost town of Stiles Texas located in Reagan County.
This part of Texas was first explored in 1650 by Spanish explorers Hernan Martin and Diego del Castillo. They followed the Concho River and the Centralia Draw. It is possible that they camped a few nights at the Stiles location. In the 1830’s the Chihuahua Trail was cut as a short cut to the Santa Fe trail and crossed Centralia Draw at the future site of Stiles.
Reagan County Texas is located in west Texas. It was split off of Tom Green County in 1903 and named for Senator John Reagan who was the first Railroad Commissioner of Texas. The county nearly met an untimely death, however. According to Texas statute a petition signed by a certain percentage of the residents must be submitted to form a new county. The petition fell just two signatures short. At the last minute two final signatures “John Donohu” and “Bill Donohu” were added. None of the residents said anything, but John and Bill were the names of two hard working mules that had labored in the area since the early days. “Donohu” sounds a lot like “Do know who” and the locals all got a good laugh out of it. And so the county was formed. The center of all the action was Gordon Stiles mercantile and so the town was named.
Stiles was the only town in Reagan County at the time it was formed. It was named for William G. Stiles who had been granted a post office in 1894. It is located on the north side of the Centralia Draw that sheds water into the Concho River to the east. The town cemetery is located on the south side of the draw on the hill overlooking the town about a mile away. It is a stereotypical cemetery, in fact, it seems to be pulled right from a Spaghetti Western movie or the cheesy video game Oregon Trail. The graves are of people who died in cowboy accidents, shootings, dysentery, rattlesnake bites, and old age can be found there. There are also a number of headstones marking the graves of young children that were buried by grieving parents. The area was mostly used for both cattle and sheep ranching in those days. And in 1907 the small town even boasted a newspaper.
Henry Japson was the first sheriff of Reagan County. There was no jail, so offenders of the law were chained to a hitch rack outside the original courthouse. One particular resident said that he met the end of his drinking days chained to that hitch rack.
The original courthouse was a small wooden structure built on land sold to the county for $379.44. It was replaced in 1905 by a larger, yet unimpressive, wooden structure which became the center of town. And a stone vault with steel doors was built just to the east to hold court records in case of a fire. A bond election had raised $5000 for the second courthouse. Court records from 1905 document a county wide vote with the results of 14-11 for the eradication of “all prairie dogs within the boundaries of Reagan County”
But in 1911 a large stone structure was built to replace the wooden courthouse. A second bond election was held and $20,000 was raised to pay for the new magnificent courthouse. The contract was awarded William Martin of Comanche.
The beautiful new courthouse was built from native limestone quarried and hauled from about a half mile away. Wagons drawn with mules and donkeys were put to the task of transportation. In 9 months’ time the most beautiful courthouse in all of west Texas was complete. Stone spires rose from all four corners of the building. The entryways, one on each side, were beautifully crafted stone archways. The bottom floor plan was in the shape of a Greek cross with rooms at all 4 corners. The courtroom was located on the second floor. Both floors were made of wood the interior walls were plastered over the stone. The building even sported baseboards and window trim. There was a huge sense of pride by the town’s residents in their new courthouse upon completion.
But as is often the case, change comes a knockin’. In 1910, the Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railroad began to buy up land for a right of way in the area. They intended to lay tracks from San Angelo, to the east, to Ft. Stockton to the southwest. However, one large rancher would have nothing to do with it and would not sell some of his land to the railroad. So the railroad moved nearly twenty miles south and the town of Big Lake was formed. And that was the beginning of the end for Stiles and the glorious courthouse.
Big Lake flourished and with the discovery of oil ten miles or so to the west in 1923 it surpassed Stiles as the most populous town in the county. In 1925 the county seat was moved to Big Lake and the courthouse was emptied. It continued to be used as a community center since the spacious floor plan could accommodate parties, barbecues, and dances. The old courthouse even took on the role of school house for a year. And the Stiles Dance Club called it home for their monthly country dances.
Tragedy struck the courthouse in 1999 when an arsonist lit the building on fire. The wood parts of the structure, nearly 90 years old burned quickly before the rural volunteer fire department could extinguish the flames. The arsonist was caught and prosecuted after lighting a number of other fires in the area.
Now the courthouse sits abandoned with trees and shrubs growing up around it and through the floor. A Great Horned Owl has taken up residence and kept watch over me from a second story window while I visited. I am sure he keeps the hollow building free of mice and snakes. A fence around the building keeps the honest out, but unfortunately a few vandals still left their marks on the beautiful stone.
If the walls of this old courthouse could talk, I could only imagine what they would say.