‘It’s Like Losing a Member of the Family’
On Feb. 4 in the dark of night, Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden stood within 25 feet of the windows of his office where he has worked for the last 18 years and watched his historical desk and office in the county’s beloved 1910 iconic courthouse go up in flames.
By 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 5, smoldering outer rock wall and sandstone columns were all that was left of what Bearden described as the county’s “pride and joy.” Firefighters from multiple departments had responded to the blaze about 10 p.m. the night before, but they were unable to save the structure.
“The Mason County Courthouse is no more,” one observer said soberly as he shared a video of the catastrophic fire on social media.
No one was injured in the blaze, and all county records had been relocated several months ago as the building was being prepped for restoration.
Originally designed in a Beaux-Arts style, the courthouse featured a central dome and clock, which were destroyed along with antique furniture including the original desks, courtroom, and judge’s benches. The courthouse was a designated Texas Historic Landmark.
Investigators suspect arson in both the courthouse fire and a house fire that occurred around the same time about 1 mile away; a suspect is now in custody.
“To have your courthouse burn down right in front of your eyes is not something that we as elected officials ever expect to see,” Bearden shared in a note to fellow officials thanking them for their texts, calls, and prayers following the county’s heartbreaking loss. “I feel like I have lost a member of my family, and the people in my county are truly in a state of shock to see their beautiful, 111-year-old courthouse go up in flames.”
As Bearden shared news of the tragedy and responded to questions from the media, he spoke of the strength of Mason County.
“We will rebuild,” Bearden declared. “We will rise from the ashes.”
The Texas Historical Commission (THC) released a statement the day after the fire, which included the following: “It is a terrible irony that Mason County has experienced this tragedy. For more than a decade the county has worked toward the preservation of this precious building, and Judge Bearden has been a consistent and vocal advocate of the project. We recently awarded a grant of more than $4 million to the county for the building’s full restoration, and the dreams of many Mason County residents to see the courthouse returned to its original glory were about to come true.”
Mason County received a $350,000 planning grant in 2010 to help the county prepare for a full restoration of the courthouse, according to the THC. Another grant was awarded for $4.1 million in 2020 as part of a $25 million measure from the 2019 Texas Legislature. One of the projects included in the upcoming restoration was a fire detection system.
Bearden said an engineer will check the outer walls in hopes of eventually rebuilding.
Personal contributions to assist Mason County in going forward with the rebuilding process can be made to the Commercial Bank of Mason, P.O. Box 40, or the Mason Bank, P.O. Box 1789, zip code 76856.
By Julie Anderson