Real, Untold Stories of the Decatur Courthouse

There is so much more to the Wise County Courthouse than “just a pretty face.” Any building that was erected in 1896 and still in operation today must harbor some secrets. A recent tour through covert doors and up winding staircases turned up these little known facts:

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  • County Court Law #1 has only had three Judges – EVER
  • A trustee from Mineral Wells served his eight year sentence performing carpentry work in the Courthouse. He matched all the woodwork in County Court Law #1 to the original 1896 window frames. What he was able to achieve is simply amazing. The Trustee built everything in the room except the chairs around the table. He even constructed a wall clock.
  • The original second floor steel doors that fended off attacks from marauding Indians are still housed in the attic.
  • Three people have died in the building.
  • The original crank that wound the tower clock remains in a safe within the building.
  • The steel beams are still labeled and numbered. The beams are bolted as no welding equipment existed in 1896.
  • The original lightning rod survives in the attic.
  • The doors in the basement are all rounded so as to provide more protection. For this reason, the basement is used as a shelter. Pamphlets regarding survival from a nuclear fallout were found in one of the closets.
  • The Courthouse leaks like the Titanic when it rains.
  • A tunnel once existed from the Courthouse to the jail.
  • Up until twenty years ago, all former records were stored in the attic of the Courthouse. A firm was hired to go through all the documents and determine what needed to be kept. Ultimately almost everything was sent down a chute from a window on the second floor to a shredder below.
  • Pigeons love our Courthouse, and they poop – A LOT

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As I made my way on uncertain paths weaving between past and present, I came across history and intrigue. What I found most enjoyable, however, was listening to the passion of the tour guide as he lovingly tells the stories of this beautiful, old building. I am reminded that without a caretaker, the treasures will not survive. Wise County owes a debt of gratitude to those that care deeply for and make every effort to preserve our magnificent courthouse.

The Greathouse Hotel

Old places have a soul. ~Sarah Anderson


Only when you see the peeling paint, thread-bare carpet runners, scuff marks and stained tin ceilings can you truly get a sense of a building’s history. How can you not appreciate all that has gone on inside the limestone walls? Each scar has a story to tell.

The Greathouse Hotel came into being in 1922 during a period when train travel and horseback were the mode of transportation. Decatur had the unique geographical position that made it an excellent stopping place. The hotel mainly catered to traveling salesmen. As large manufacturing companies grew, more men left their families for extended
periods of time in order to achieve the American dream. They would travel about the country creating desire and demand for many new products. The men would stay in well located hotels where they could reach the maximum number of contacts. The Greathouse Hotel offered spacious rooms to weary travelers.


Today, entering through a door that seemingly leads nowhere, a time capsule emerges. Guest rooms line both sides of the hall. Original screen doors (some with a dish towel hung for privacy) and large transom windows speak of a time before central air.

Tin ceilings added a touch of style. A closet full of original heaters occupies one end of the hall. An exhausted salesman can be imagined huddled in front of one after a long day of chasing sales. The original claw foot tubs are in each bathroom.

Simple iron beds and a wooden wardrobe were the only embellishments. A communal lounge with windows opening over the rooftop occupies a large corner at the far end of the building. Pictures of guests gathering to listen to the radio or for companionship while away from families unfold.

greathouse-3With a turn to the left a separate, smaller section of the hotel comes into view. Who stayed here?  Cattle-ranching was big business, and the cowboy was integral to the operation. The trail ride was long and hard with constant threat from weather and Indians. The end of the ride was the time the cowboy got paid and could let down and be rowdy. Such activity mostly entailed drinking and practical jokes. As a result, they were considered the “lower class” citizens of the hotel and housed in a discrete area…hence the “Cowboy Hotel”. If you squint down the impossibly long hallway with light streaming in from floor to ceiling windows you can see shadows of cowboys collapsing from a night of hard drinking. There is not much of a bathroom, because they really did not deserve it. They were dirty and gamey. Was it noisy in this section of the hotel or just the rumbling snores of those sleeping off a hard ride? If only these walls could talk. Single, naked light bulbs hang from original knob and tube wiring. A few scuff marks from spurs are still visible.

Today’s Legacy

greathouse9Time has passed the beautiful hotel by. It has been decades since its most famous visitor, Amelia Earhart stayed. It is hard to believe the hotel operated past 1940. However, the doors stayed open until 1974. The building is still owned by the third generation of a family that purchased it in the 1930’s.

When all is new and modern, the nondescript building proudly and staunchly holds on to its original character and intent giving a glimpse of an era that exists for many only in novels.


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