Saturday, October 13, 2012

Oldest Courthouse/Cullen Baker

"Lone Star Historian" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College ( in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published almost 40 books, half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine.

The oldest courthouse in Texas that still is used as the seat of county government stands with antebellum grace in Linden. The stately appearance of this venerable building has been enhanced by a $4.4 million grant presented in 2008  by the Texas Historical Commission. The 1861 structure was rededicated in February 2012, although interior work still is in progress, and joins the list of restored historical courthouses in Texas. 

Restored Cass County courthouse. Note the CSA monument.

Cass County was organized in 1846 with Jefferson, a thriving port city, as county seat. In 1852 the seat of county government was moved to a more central location, the small community of Linden, while Jefferson resumed its county seat role when Marion County was created from Cass County in 1860. A two-story frame structure was built on Linden's courthouse square.

Texas was the fastest-growing state in the Union during the 1850s. The population nearly tripled, from 212,592 in 1850 to 604,215 in 1860. Infrastructure of the frontier state was primitive in 1850, but there was an infusion of $17,750,000 in federal funds ($10,000,000 from the Compromise of 1850, and $7,750,000 to settle damage claims from the War with Mexico), paid in annual installments during the decade. In Austin a State Capitol and the Governor's Mansion were built, along with a State Insane Asylum. Roads and bridges were improved. And funds allotted to each county produced the first substantial courthouses, usually two-story brick structures.

The vault was installed in 1888.

In 1859 Cass County sold the frame courthouse, which was moved. Construction began on a two-story Greek Revival courthouse with a hipped roof and a small cupola in the center of the roof. The principal building material was bricks fired near Linden. The courthouse was completed in 1861 at a cost of $9,877.

The building was enlarged in 1900, but in 1908 a tornado swept away the cupola and inflicted other damage. In 1917 the courthouse was expanded again and redesigned. A third story was added to the east and west wings. In 1933 a fire caused considerable damage. During the subsequent reconstruction the third story was extended across the center. An addition to the west side added space for the building's first elevator.

The recent multi-million dollar renovation removed some of the additions and restored the appearance as much to the 1930s as to the 1860s. But the structure remains the only antebellum courthouse still standing.

By the time the new Cass County courthouse opened in Linden, Civil War had erupted. At Linden Company I of the Fifteenth Texas Cavalry was organized, and in February 1862 Cullen Montgomery Baker - a notorious desperado - enlisted in the troop. At the age of four in 1839 Cullen had moved with his family from Tennessee to the Republic of Texas, and his father received a land grant in Cass County. Cullen grew up to be quarrelsome and hard drinking, and in 1854 he killed his first man. By the time the Civil War began, Cullen had murdered another victim.

At Jefferson in November 1861 Baker joined Company G of Morgan's Regimental Cavalry, but he deserted a few months later. Soon he joined Company I of the Fifteenth in Linden, but in August 1863, he returned home, pleading illness. In February 1863, one year after his enlistment, Baker was discharged due to disability. Baker then rode with a gang of guerilla bandits.

 Baker's young wife died in 1860. He remarried in 1862, but his second wife died four years later. Within two months he proposed to her 16-year-old sister - and was stiffly rebuffed by her parents. Perhaps depressed by his martial losses, Baker resumed his career as an outlaw. He pumped four slugs into a Cass County merchant to whom he owed money. Baker and his men killed at least two Freedman's Bureau agents, as well as several freed slaves. North of Linden Baker held up a government supply wagon. Rewards were posted and there were pursuits by citizens and by Reconstruction soldiers. Baker was wounded twice during altercations, and his gang disbanded in December 1868.

The gang had operated frequently in Arkansas, but soon Baker returned to Cass County. On January 6, 1869, Baker and a companion were killed by citizens at Bloomburg, a rural community near the Arkansas border. On Baker's corpse were found a shotgun, four revolvers, three derringers, and six pocketknives. The two bodies were taken to an army camp at Jefferson and placed on public display. Baker was buried at Jefferson's Oakwood Cemetery.

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