A Mason man authorities say was angry at local judicial and law enforcement authorities was arrested outside Waco on Friday, one day after he allegedly set a Thursday night fire that severely damaged the stately 1909 Mason County Courthouse.
The same man allegedly set fire to a family home earlier Thursday night, beat and robbed a cafe owner, and broke into the town’s grocery store in search of ammunition before setting the courthouse fire and fleeing, according to Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden.
The sandstone courthouse appears to be a near-total loss. Its bell tower, clock tower, and third floor all collapsed through the second floor. Local authorities interviewed in the shadow of the blackened shell say they are determined to rebuild if structural engineers decide that is possible.
“It was a one-man crime spree, one that has broken this community’s heart,” said Mason County Judge Jerry Bearden, who has served in that office for 19 years. “Everything on the inside is burned and gone. The only thing this town has left are the four walls and columns.”
The courthouse was undergoing major restoration funded by the Texas Historical Commission (THC), and all of the occupants of the courthouse were relocated late last year to other buildings. All of the court records and historic records remain safely in storage in another county-owned building.
“Our commission and staff are in shock today as we consider the terrible damage caused to the landmark Mason County Courthouse in last night’s fire,” THC Executive Director Mark Wolfe said in a statement released Friday evening. “We offer our sincere condolences to Judge Jerry Bearden and his constituents across Mason County. A courthouse is the heart of its community, a focus for celebrations, and a symbol of democracy. The loss of a courthouse to fire is one of the most heartbreaking things a community can experience.”
The courthouse is a fine example of Classical Revival architecture, said San Antonio architect Brantley Hightower, the author of The Courthouses of Central Texas (University of Texas Press, 2015).
“But what made the Mason County Courthouse particularly memorable for me was how you approached it,” Hightower said. “US [Highway] 87 cuts through Mason at an angle and so as you drive into town, it would be sitting right there in front of you. Or at least that used to be the case until last night.”
Nicholas Miller, a Mason resident described by Bearden and other authorities as a local man with a troubled past and a record of misdemeanor drug convictions, was arrested on the outskirts of Waco in McLennan County on Friday afternoon. He livestreamed his own arrest before police ordered him to put down his cell phone.
Authorities said Miller was living alone at a house owned by his uncle, Jamail Jefferson, at 3434 Ranck St., just outside Mason. Jefferson is currently hospitalized in San Antonio, according to Bearden and others in Mason who know Jefferson.
Warning: This video contains multiple obscenities.
Media and onlookers from Mason and the surrounding counties filled the town square and stood on sidewalks to see and photograph the courthouse while a state fire marshal with a leashed dog trained to smell accelerants circled the structure.
“Let me tell you, I’ve lived here all my life and the people here are going to take this very personally, very personally,” said one man who identified himself as a local rancher with deep roots in Mason County. He spoke while observing the scene near a cluster of law enforcement officers from various state and area agencies. When asked for his name for this article, he replied, “I don’t care to see my name out there, thank you.” Pausing, he added, “If there is a trial I hope to be on the jury.”
This quaint Hill Country town of 2,265 built on Comanche Creek is located 42 miles north of Fredericksburg with a modest economy built on ranching, hunting, and tourism. More and more of the surrounding heritage ranches have been divided and sold in smaller pieces as second homes to urban dwellers seeking a Hill Country retreat.
Mason’s town square, dominated by the courthouse and its adjacent lawns and low stone walls, is surrounded by 19th and early 20th century stone buildings that house locally-owned shops, cafes, and other businesses. The tableau could serve as a movie set for the quintessential Central Texas historic town. Many of the buildings were built from stones originally used to build Fort Mason in 1851, established by the U.S. Army as a forward base in its fight against Comanche and other indigenous tribes, according to local residents. Robert E. Lee served as the commanding Union officer there until being recalled to the Army of Virginia on the eve of the Civil War, locals say.
With hunting season ended in early January, this is normally a relatively quiet time in town when waves of seasonal lease hunters disappear back to the big cities, and the town downshifts into local mode. Trump/Pence signs still stand on numerous lawns. It’s cliché, but many people do not lock their doors.
That changed around 10 p.m. Thursday.
“I’ve been county judge for 19 years, and we’ve never had a serious fire in Mason in all that time until now, and when I got the first emergency alert at 10 p.m. that a house was on fire I figured our fire department could handle that without me,” Bearden said.
Mason’s volunteer fire department has 25 to 30 active members and adequate equipment, said Bearden, who lives three miles out of town. “We have to be able to take care of ourselves way out here, and we do.
“Then my phone alarm went off again less than a half hour later, and the dispatcher called and said, ‘Judge, I see fire coming out of the second floor of the courthouse.’ About right then I told myself it was time to go to town.”
By the time he arrived, Bearden said, he suspected arson.
“When I arrived, flames were shooting out of the courthouse roof, and in the next 30 minutes the clock tower collapsed, and then the bell tower collapsed, and then the third floor collapsed.”
Asked if he thought the home fire was set to divert the attention of local enforcement from the courthouse, Bearden replied, “That’s exactly what we think.” Bearden said the suspect would be returned to Mason sometime in the coming days as a county grand jury considers indictments. He declined to identify Miller, whose name was provided by multiple other sources prior to his arrest.
“I will say we got onto him pretty quickly because of whose house burned down and because he apparently was on Facebook bragging about his exploits,” Bearden said.
Volunteer firefighters from nearby London, Llano, Melvin, and Brady all responded with trucks to fight the fire, but at that point it was a question of containment rather than preservation.
“There were hundreds of townspeople on the Square watching the fire,” Bearden said. “It was the saddest thing you could possibly imagine. We finally put the fire out around 3 a.m. I haven’t even slept.”
One woman who gave her name only as Margaret said she had come with family members Thursday night as word spread through town, and people standing outside their homes could see the night sky lighting with the flash of fire.
“I just wanted to see it in daylight,” she said. “I cried all my tears last night.”
Gerry Gamel, who served as the editor and lead columnist of the Mason County News, the town’s weekly newspaper, for more than 20 years until he retired last month, said the townspeople, many of whom trace their heritage to German immigrant pioneers who settled here in the mid-1800s, are resilient and will rebuild.
“For many years, the courthouse has stood proudly as an enduring symbol of Mason County, but its loss does not detract from the character, resolve, and strength of the people of this community,” Gamel said. “We will rebuild, as we are so much more than a symbol, we are a proud community of people that handles any adversity that may come into our lives.”
If the Mason County Courthouse can be rebuilt, even after the $4.1 million THC grant to restore the building was cut short by catastrophe, it will undoubtedly be thanks to the burning of another historic Texas courthouse.
“The reason so many Texas courthouses have been preserved as well as they have is in part because of a catastrophic fire that destroyed the Hill County Courthouse in 1993,” Hightower said. “Like the Mason County Courthouse, all that was left was the masonry walls, but the community rallied behind the project and it was completely rebuilt. It was incredibly difficult. The Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program was established to provide counties with the technical and financial resources they would need to preserve these buildings.”
Bearden and other local officials hope the insurance policy the county holds as well as the THC program can lead to a ground-up, historic restoration, or if necessary, construction of a new county courthouse.
The first county courthouse and a jail were built in 1869. That courthouse burned down in 1877. Bearden said that occurred as the town endured what became known as the Hoodoo War, when returning Confederate soldiers waged a war of terror against German settlers, who were pro-Union and anti-slavery.
The entire north side of the square and all the buildings on it burned down in 1900. The second courthouse also burned down. The courthouse that was set afire Thursday was built in 1909 and is the town’s third courthouse. Interested readers can read more about Mason’s history on the Texas State Historical Association website.
“At the end of the day, a county courthouse is a mixed-use government office building, but 100 years ago, they were understood to be important symbols of our democracy,” Hightower said. “Those ideals were something worth celebrating, and so counties would build literal temples of justice as a way of communicating that pride and the ambitions they had for their community. We don’t view government that way anymore. And so we don’t build courthouses like this anymore either.
“I’m not a citizen of Mason County, but my view is they should definitely rebuild it. As a Texan, these courthouses represent an important part of our shared heritage,” Hightower added. “That’s why it’s so important that they all be preserved. That’s why it’s so important that this one be rebuilt.”
Bearden said both town banks have established accounts to collect private donations to help fund the rebuilding effort.
“We are a poor county, but we are a proud and great county,” Beardon said as he welcomed McCulloch County Sheriff Matt Andrews from Brady, 29 miles northwest of Mason. “We don’t have any industry, just ranching and tourism, so we will take everything we can get from folks who want to help.”
Individuals interested in making a donation can contact Bearden’s office at firstname.lastname@example.org.