This gal cain’t keep her mouth shut!

Exploring The Denton County Courthouse

Courthouse Denton County
Looking at our beautiful courthouse on the square, it’s almost impossible not to want to investigate every nook and cranny of it. How exciting it would be to climb all the way up to that clock tower! I want to have a picnic on that balcony at the top. Unfortunately, that activity is not allowed.

There are no tours that explore the upper floors of the courthouse and take tourists to the tower. Let me repeat that, just in case you didn’t get it the first go-round: the county does not give tours of the upper floors of the building. Visitors may wander somewhat freely in the basement, on the first floor (where the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum is located), on the second floor, and even on the third floor. Some of it is restricted because it’s office space for Heaven’s sake. We can’t just be barging in on county commissioners while they work.

Authorized Personnel only
However, that’s the extent of it. A chain blocks the spiral staircase that leads to the upper floors, with a sign that says “Authorized Personnel Only.”

That sign tells the public not to go futher (sorry, when faced with deciphering the proper English usage between “farther” and “further” I opt for the Texan —“futher”) and it means exactly what it says! I’ve heard some folks say, “One day I’m just going to step over that chain and climb up there.” I urge you not to do it.

First, you could get arrested. Yes, you really could. And second, there is more than one darned good reason that the public isn’t allowed up there. It’s dangerous. Folks could damage the courthouse or themselves! Some unscrupulous scalawags have even defaced that lovely edifice with graffiti. And, it’s dangerous (didn’t I already tell you that?).

Nope. The public doesn’t get to see the mysteries of the upper floors of the courthouse. That said, I got to take a tour of it! Yes, moi! It’s not that I’m particularly special, although I will admit that I’m a legend in my own mind. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I got an invite to climb those stairs, and I jumped at the chance.

If you aren’t familiar with our courthouse (the third courthouse built in the town), the brochure for the walking tour of Denton describes it this way: “Denton County Courthouse On the Square was built between 1895 and 1897, using locally quarried limestone, gray sandstone from Mineral Wells, and Burnet County red granite for the columns.” That doesn’t quite do it justice, but it will have to do for the moment. Suffice to say it is magnificent.

You want to see what I did, don’t you? Yes, I knew you would. As a friend said, it’s like getting to see the Pope’s bathroom or Antarctica. It’s something that you probably won’t ever get to do, but you can at least experience it vicariously.

I’ve put together a few pictures for you, although I won’t bore you with all of them. I just want you to get a chance to see what is behind those walls. Click on the first picture below and you can view a slide show.

No, that isn’t all of the pictures I took, but it should give you an idea of the mysteries beyond that chained gate.

While I am immensely grateful to have gotten the opportunity to see it, I’m not sure I would climb up there again. At least, I wouldn’t go all the way to the clock tower. I really balked at the stairs for the last two flights … after all, I’m a little old lady and I’m not an athlete. However, I had bragged about the fact that I was going up there! If I backed away from the challenge, it would be like a ten-year-old walking away from a triple-dog-dare.

I would have loved to show you the bell, but I was too afraid to take my hands from the ladder rungs. And, I hoped to video the clock moving when it struck the hour … but, duh, I forgot to press the button to make it record. Still, I hope you enjoyed the virtual tour, since you probably won’t ever get to take one. Remember, the county does not offer tours of the upper floor of the courthouse (sheesh, I hope that satisfies the powers that be!).

It’s Always 9:11

digital clock

During a recent Ghosts of Denton tour, a young girl wanted to tell me a ghost story. She was bouncing up and down the whole tour waiting to get to tell me her tale. After the tour was over, I invited the other guests to remain, if they would like, so that this child could have an audience. Everyone stayed and they were glad they did! The girl was only about nine years old, and already had the makings of a good storyteller. Her story was short, sweet, and spine-tingling.

For the sake of her anonymity, I’ll call her “Danielle.”

“I’m named for my uncle,” Danielle told us. “But, I never met him. He was murdered when he was a teenager. I wasn’t born yet.”

Danielle explained that on the night her “Uncle Danny” was being attacked, he tried to call 911 for help. The call never went through, and the results were tragic.

“My Mom and Danny were very close,” she said. “After he was killed, my mother missed him so much that she dreamed about him all the time. Usually she dreamed about the night he was killed, and she dreamed she was trying to help him. Every time she had one of those dreams, she woke up all sweaty. Every time, when she looked at the clock beside her bed, it was flashing red numbers. It was always 9:11.”

“When I was born, my Mom named me for my uncle,” Danielle continued. She said her mother didn’t have the dreams quite so often after that. “But,” she said, “I think that Uncle Danny is trying to let me know that he is with me. Every day when I am in school I always just happen to look at the clock in the morning. It’s always 9:11.”

Survivor of Goliad Came to Denton, Texas

Andrew Jackson Hitchcock graveI woke up this morning thinking of Andrew Jackson Hitchcock (I fell in love with that name the moment I saw it). Although he is just a footnote in the history of Denton, Texas, he was a hero of the Texas War of Independence. Few people think of him these days, and he lies forgotten under the sod of the I.O.O.F. Cemetery, beneath a towering monument. Today, March 27th, would have been a day etched into his memory; it was a day the horrors of which A.J. Hitchcock would have liked to forget.

Hitchcock came to Texas in 1836, with a battle regiment from Georgia, to fight with the Texians in their quest for independence from Mexico. He had the great misfortune of fighting under Colonel James Fannin.

You might not know much about Colonel Fannin, or Texas history for that matter. It’s OK. If you didn’t grow up here, then you never had a history teacher who extolled the virtues of the men who fought for Texas independence with all the fervor of a preacher at a tent revival. The Texian battle cries of “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” were pounded into my pea-brain; they were the cries that spurred the Texians to victory in their battle for independence from Mexico.

You probably remember the Alamo? Hey, John Wayne was in a movie about it … surely you remember that! That tragedy of Texas history happened on March 6th. I will never forget the anniversary of The Alamo, because it’s my birthday (and you should remember that I like gifts of chocolate or coffee!).

Certainly Colonel Fannin remembered The Alamo later that month. He found that his troops were in a dire predicament against an overwhelming number of Mexican troops. Rather than risk another senseless slaughter of soldiers, on March 20th, 1836 Colonel Fannin surrendered his troops to General José Urrea near La Bahia (Goliad). Fannin and Urrea had a “Gentleman’s Agreement” that the men would be turned over to the United States Government as prisoners of war. Well, that didn’t happen.

The men, along with other Texians who had been captured by the Mexicans, were imprisoned at Fort Goliad. Though General Urrea wanted to honor his agreement with Fannin, it wasn’t his decision to make. The President of Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, ordered them executed.

On Palm Sunday, March 27th, the men were marched out of the fort. Thinking that perhaps they were being released, the approximately 350 men were docile prisoners. After marching about a half-mile from the fort, the Mexican soldiers turned and fired on the men. Most of the men fell with the first volley, but a few were left standing.

Andrew Jackson Hitchcock was one of them!

As the Mexican soldier began clubbing and knifing the survivors near them, Hitchcock (and perhaps as many as 30 other men who were not killed) turned and ran like hell.

When the war was won, Hitchcock was given land grants, as were all of the veterans of the war. His life after that read like a ten cent novel. He was a wealthy plantation owner in Louisiana for a time until his wife and children died of a fever. He went to Argentina, thinking to become a rancher, but decided he liked The States better. In his old age, he wound up right here in Denton, Texas, but he wasn’t living the high life.

Hitchcock lived at a boarding house which was grandly called, “The James Hotel.” He shared a room with another boarder. Quite often, he visited with local family members and told them the tales of his harrowing escape from Goliad. One of his kin, Dr. W. N. Rowell, later wrote the story (you can find it at the Emily Fowler Library). Unfortunately, the life of Andrew Jackson Hitchcock ended in tragedy.

On August 25, 1887, A.J. Hitchcock retired to his rooms with two bags of gold known to be on his person. A suspicious fire broke out at the James Hotel that night. It burned to the ground, and only one person died — A.J. Hitchcock. His charred body was downstairs, but the gold he possessed never was discovered; only a single gold collar button from his shirt was found. It was a mystery that was never solved.

I’ve spent months trying to discover where the James Hotel was located, and finally have. If the story interests you, I tell more about it sometimes on the Ghosts of Denton tour (Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00). Make reservations to take a walk around the square with me, ask for his story, and I’ll take you to the spot where he died to tell you the full tale.

Today, however, I just want to raise my glass to Andrew Jackson Hitchcock. He was at the Massacre at Goliad and lived to tell the tale.