Reagan County, Texas
History of Stiles Courthouse
Photos by Janice Rice 2009
By JOE MOSBY
January 26, 1964
Legends Recalled about Old Stiles Courthouse
Bleak and lonely on the wind-washed slopes of Centralia Draw, Reagan County's former courthouse is a classic history of the birth, prominence and death of a West Texas town. A violent and tragic gunfight is just one of its legends. The two-story stone building is at Stiles, some 55 miles south of Big Spring. Stiles has vanished from many maps and just three or four families make their home in the community now. But it was once a leading center of this area, Reagan's first county seat - and a harsh victim of the double-barreled barrage of rails and oil. The Stiles courthouse was the official seat of government for Reagan County just 14 years, not a long life as courthouses go. But the sturdy building has refused to die and drift away in a puff of dust like so many other landmarks of frontier history. After the 1925 death knell - when Big Lake won an election to move the courthouse away from Stiles the building continued as a community center and school. Then it eased into occasional use by the somewhat renowned Stiles Dance Club. Now it is used for storage by the county road department and as a residence for county worker R. B. Fox and his family. But still, several times a year the courthouse emits a faint reminder of the once-loud whir of wheels of government. Its second-floor courtroom is used as a voting precinct. The old stone building nestles in the vast Centralia Draw, so that it isn't seen from the north approach until you are almost upon it. From the south, motorists from Big Lake can pick it out readily, although the native rock of its walls tends to blend with the slope of the draw.
The story of the Stiles courthouse goes far back into the earliest beginnings of this region. In 1650, Spanish explorers Hernan Martin and Diego del Castillo came up the Concho River and Centralia Draw and spent a night or two at the Stiles location. Later, the Chihuahua Trail was cut from that Mexican City to the Missouri edges of civilization in 1839-40 as a short- cut to the Santa Fe Trail, and this crude road crossed Centralia Draw at Stiles. First Stiles settlers were Gordon Stiles and Gerome W, Shields, about 1890, and they were joined by P. H. Coates in 1894. Coates had visited the region as early as the 1880's and then built a sheep ranch, complete with the novel facilities of windmills and wire fencing. In 1903, the growing populace split away from Tom Green County, voted by a 40-1 count to form Reagan County and naturally put the courthouse at the infant settlement of Stiles, since there was no other village in the area.
The move for forming the new county had a brush with disaster, though. Texas statutes required that a petition for a new county had to be submitted bearing names of a percentage of residents of the area. Promoters of the petition for Reagan's formation fell two names short, and there was despair for a moment. But at the last minute the signatures reading "John Donohu" and "Bill Donohu" were added. No one said much, but John and Bill were the names of a pair of outstanding mules that had labored hard in the early days at Stiles. "Donohu" had a mighty similar sound to "Do Know Who" so the settlers later chuckled. Gordon Stiles' store was the center of activity so the town took the obvious one for its name. Stiles and Shields gave the land for the seat of Reagan's government, and the first court-house was a rough plank structure costing $379, complete with windmill. May 8 1903 was the official birthday of Reagan County, Officers installed in ceremonies of the day included Joseph J. Boyd, county judge; J. P. Lucas; county clerk: Henry Japson, sheriff and tax collector; Frank Ramsey, treasurer; W. C. Shamblin, surveyor: M. D. Sutherland, assessor; and commissioners John E. Gardner, W. C. Castlebury, A. J. Kerchville and G. F. Kirk. One other officer was installed, and his title alone entitles him to a tiny niche of fame. He was Sim Thorpe, hide and animal inspector.
In those early days at Stiles, there was no jail, so Sheriff Japson had to chain his prisoners to a hitchrack outside the little temporary courthouse. One later prominent citizen of the area vows that the end of his drinking days came right there at that hitchrack. In August 1903, the county officers called a bond election to raise for a permanent courthouse, jail and operating funds. The issue passed by the same 40-1 vote as had formed the county. Another frame building, but a much more substantial one, was constructed at Stiles for the courthouse. A staunch new jail also ended the dual usage of the hitchrack. In 1905, another election was held in the county on a rather grave matter, and qualified votes approved by a 14-11 margin the extermination of "all prairie dogs within the boundaries of Reagan County." But the county was growing fast, and the frame building was quickly outmoded. In 1911 the county fathers launched construction of a two-story building on the Stiles plaza. The old building was sold for $170 and moved away.
Then stone was quarried from the nearby north side of Centralia Draw for the building. It went up quickly and was a source of pride for all the area. Nowhere else in West Texas was there a courthouse in 1911 to match this one in attractiveness and in values$25,000. M. A. (Bronc) Wilson, later to become Reagan's leading light in the field of journalism, drove the mules that worked an elevator to hoist the heavy fieldstone up to the top portions of the building. There were well over a hundred homes at Stiles then. Someone motored a two-cylinder chain-drive Buick to Stiles that same year and residents gawked at this mechanical marvel. Wayne Coates opened the Coates telephone Exchange at Stiles, and lines were strung on fence posts and two-by-fours to Midland, Garden City, Big Spring and San Angelo. The Stiles Journal flourished under the editorship of Rupert Ricker, now of Big Spring, who later worked for the Garden City Gazettethe "Gaz zoot" to oldtimers. The new courthouse was completed In 1911, but almost immediately there was a dark harbinger of future ill times.
In 1912 the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad sought to run up Centralia Draw from San Angelo through Stiles to Fort Stockton and Toyahville. But a leading landowner in Reagan refused to grant a right of way. So the line swung to the south and passed by a big lake 20 miles from Stiles that abounded with wild stories of prodigious catfish and alligators. Born in 1912, Big Lake grew and just about caught up in size with Stiles in 1919. Big Lakers wanted the courthouse but they fought a losing battle, for six more years. In 1923 the second blast hit Stiles, the famed Santa Rita well was brought in near Texon, west of Big Lake and near the railroad. Big Lake boomed, and a 1925 vote for moving the courthouse to Big Lake was passed by 292-94. The courthouse moved and Stiles slowly died. Utilized as a community center, the still attractive and roomy building became the home of the Stiles Dance Club, and its social events are still talked about today including the many prominent West Texans who had extreme difficulty and who had extreme difficulty navigating the winding stairs to the second floor during the dances' latter stages. The Stiles courthouse's most outstanding single event, however, was in 1917. Sheriff Japson had served since the county's birth, he was also a prominent rancher and one of his closest friends was James Belcher, another of Reagan's biggest ranchers. In the courthouse that fateful day in 1917, Japson and Belcher disagreed gently over a cattle deal. The argument grew hotter, then tempers broke. Gunshots blasted through the corridors and Belcher fell dead. Stunned and horror-stricken at the death of his friend, Sheriff Japson slowly walked into his office, smoking gun in hand. He shut the door and seconds later one last shot rang out. Japson had taken his own life. [Big Spring Daily Herald | Big Spring, Texas | Sunday, January 26, 1964]
A tragedy which ended in gunshots in the old Stiles courthouse in Reagan County 46 years ago continues to echo. Mrs. John Patterson, reading a recent feature story about the picturesque courthouse, says that the account of the death of her father, James Belcher, is not entirely complete. Mrs. Patterson was born Susan Belcher and has lived all but three years of her life on part of the ranch established by her father. Her father was shot to death in February of 1918 by Henry Japson, who had been the first and only sheriff of Reagan County. Information in the story indicated that the two men, who had been fast friends, had disagreed aver a cattle deal and the shooting ensued. Actually, the trouble was over financial matters, according to Mrs. Patterson. Mr. Belcher had been named a representative for the Drovers Cattle Loan Company of Kansas City, a post Mr. Japson had held. There had been an incident at the Bank of Big Lake the day before. Mr. Belcher was in the clerk's office talking with County Clerk Jim P. Lucas and W. E. McDermott when the sheriff entered the building. Mr. Belcher stepped into the hall, several shots rang out and Mr. Belcher lay dead. Sheriff Japson went to his car, then returned to the office, pulled the door almost shut and fired a shot into his brain. Japson and Belcher were friends and business associates of long standing, and they apparently had been on the best of terms untill very recently, when disagreement between them over financial matters is understood to have caused strained relations said the San Angelo Standard in reporting the event. Mrs. Patterson said that her father was a native Englishman; his brother, Charles, had been a member of Scotland Yard who arrived in Texas with 10 cents in his pocket. He worked his way to Luling, and finally to San Saba where he split wood for 50 cents a day to earn a small stake which he built into one of the largest holdings in the area before his death at age 54. Four of his daughters still live on parts of the ranch, Mrs. W. H. Dickson [sic**], Mrs. Joe Elliott, Mrs. Clarence Hamm and Mrs. Patterson, who lives a mile and a half up Centralla Draw from the old courthouse. [Big Spring Daily Herald | Big Spring, Texas | Thursday, February 13, 1964 | Page 19]
**01/09/2014 - Note from Greg Dixon - Our family name is DIXON, not Dickson. James Belcher was my Great Grandfather, Octavia and W, Harvey Dixon was my grand parents.
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