Despite the presence of the military garrison Fort Griffin, Shackelford County hosted a volatile mix of humanity within its borders during the late 1800s. Organized in 1874, Shackelford provided a way station for rowdy cowboys along the Western Cattle Trail, a home for saloons and gambling halls like The Bee Hive, and a safe haven for conducting “business” by the likes of Lottie Deno and Big Nose Kate, local women catering to the transient bison hunters and the Fort’s adventurous soldiers. Without an established center for the dispensation of the rule of law, Shackelford County grew dependent on vigilante organizations like the Old Law Mob and the Tin Hat Band Brigade, groups intent on administering their own justice including executions. Local resident Edgar Rye wrote about the vigilantism in his 1909 autobiography:
“When it is understood that the honest, legitimate citizens were in the minority and scattered over a large area, while thieves, robbers and murderers were banded together and did not hesitate to testify falsely in court or waylay and kill witnesses to prevent conviction, the necessity to organize a Vigilance Committee to rid the community of these lawless characters when the law was impotent, at once becomes apparent.” Rye, who served Shackelford County as precinct justice, lawyer, and attorney, apparently shared an enthusiasm for this particular brand of justice with the local editor of the Fort Griffin Echo, G. W. Robson, who reported about the committee regularly and referred to a number of the committee’s verdicts – death by hanging – as “house cleaning”.
By 1875, Shackelford County had its first courthouse, removed from the influence of Fort Griffin and its surrounding community and located miles away in the new county seat of Albany. Considered a “flimsy” courthouse, however, the simple two-room picket structure was an easy mark for vandals who occasionally broke into the building. The new courthouse didn’t seem to deter the Vigilance Committee either as in 1878 they murdered John Lam, once county sheriff, while he was arrested and shackled for cattle rustling in the temporary county jail.
Improvements were slow but steady for the county and by 1883 a new courthouse was in order that perhaps fit the growing community’s need for a larger judicial presence. James Edward Flanders was selected to design the new edifice, a Dallas-based architect who had no formal training but had learned architectural design and construction through apprenticeships. Flanders is credited with fifteen courthouses including Shackelford’s, the only one designed by Flanders surviving from the 19th century.
Flanders’ Second Empire style courthouse required the use of native limestone hauled to the construction site by fourteen men and six teams of mules and wagons from a quarry just southwest of the courthouse square. Scottish stone masons comprised much of the rock crew and the impressive stonework is a testament to their superior craftsmanship.
The courthouse’s scored plasterwork is one of the building’s artistic highlights. During the courthouse’s restoration, completed in 2001 and financed by the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program, the repair to the stonework and interior plaster required some of the more unusual processes to replicate the historic technique. All new plaster incorporated an historic scoring pattern made to appear as stone. The interior scoring was accomplished using a short length of steel automotive brake tubing, cut at an angle to match the profile of the historic scoring lines. The job required scoring at least two thousand linear feet of lines. On the exterior, matching the historic tooling of existing stonework on new stone patches was accomplished with a pointed rock and a small stick. The completed patches are nearly indistinguishable from the courthouse’s original stonework. Another very unique feature is carpet in the District Courtroom with a pattern replicated from the original 1883 carpet found during the 2001 restoration.