MASON, Texas — Six months ago, the entire interior of the Mason County Courthouse burned down. Weeks after, investigators determined the walls and foundation were still intact.
"I try to check on it at least twice a week," Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden said.
Bearden has overseen the courthouse for nearly 20 years, but has memories that go back further than that. On a hot August summer day, he strolls to his favorite room: the district courtroom.
"We've had trials. We've had civil suits, criminal suits. We've had adoptions of children. I've done marriages up here," Bearden said. "Then I usually go to my old office, and I'll spend some time looking around in there. Every now and then I'll find something that, 'Golly, this didn't burn up!' or something of this nature."
The fire burned the entire roof, melted steel beams and destroyed the entire third floor.
"All the old metal rafters and beams ... it was so much heat that they were twisted like spaghetti," Bearden said. "Just so much heat that they twisted and I'm talking about 10-inch I-beams."
After rain comes through, water leaks from the remaining concrete floor at the second level down to the first floor which is mostly made of wood. Because the building doesn't have a roof, the county installed industrial box fans to continue pushing air through to try and dry everything quickly.
This courthouse has stood since 1911, and is the third constructed in Mason County. According to Bearden, the first one built in Mason County also burned down. The second one, rumored to burn down, was replaced with what stood until February.
Because the walls and foundation are able to support the building, the State brought in Dave Stauch, from CPM Austin, to reconstruct the courthouse. The plan will to make the building look exactly like it did.
The Texas Historic Commission provided $6 million to restore the building, including keeping the red concrete and small square tiles that welcome Mason residents, visitors, and workers to the building. Some of that can still be seen among the rubble. Most of the debris has already been removed.
"Everything that you got out of here had to be sacked by hand with people with masks, taken and put in dumpsters and taken to a special landfill in San Antonio because they had asbestos in it," Bearden said.
"I was concerned that we would have much more repair work to do on the exterior stone walls, which candidly would have would have added time to the schedule," Stauch said.
Stauch, who has done historic reconstruction work on other county courthouses and the Texas State Capitol, said everything is on schedule, so far.
"There been no impact, as a result of the supply chains problems," Stauch said. "That has played a role in the planning of this project. ... We're trying to manage around that problem."
The entire project will cost around $20 million. The county has already secured most of that funding through county coffers, state dollars, and private donations and fundraisers.
Members of the Mason County community came together to form "Friends of the Mason County Courthouse," which has been working to raise $4 million of the total cost.
"The courthouse is our heartbeat," Curtis Donaldson, a member of the fundraising group, said.
While reconstruction is on schedule, the first step will be putting a roof on the building to make sure everything stays dry. Stauch's timeline assures the building should be completed sometime in the spring of 2023.
"I still walk in here and I remember all the good times we had here," Bearden said. "The people that worked in this building for one hundred years, the memories they had. ... The courthouse belong to the people in the county."
Right now, police suspect Nicholas Miller for starting the fire on purpose, but have not officially announced any motive for Miller's alleged actions.
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