If you’ve read Top Barbecue Restaurants in Lockhart, Texas, you might have the feeling that Lockhart, a small town southeast of Austin, has little more to offer visitors than smoked slabs of meat. Not true, I say. There are Mexican food restaurants, too. (See Top Mexican Food Restaurants in Lockhart, Texas.)
But seriously, Lockhart offers visitors much more than food. This little town on the old Chisholm Trail of cattle drives past offers tourists who see its historic landmarks a glimpse into Texas’ past.
Caldwell County Courthouse
The historic landmark that people picture first when they think of Lockhart is the beautiful Caldwell County Courthouse, which presides over the town square and serves as the backdrop for many community events. It has also been in background shots of some of the many movies filmed in Lockhart, including “Stop-Loss,” the working title of a film starring Ryan Phillipe and directed by Kimberly Peirce that was filmed in Lockhart in summer 2006.
The Caldwell County Courthouse, completed in 1884, is a three-story building constructed of Muldoon limestone with Red Pecos sandstone trim. It has one tower that rises up from the center of the roof that houses a Seth Thomas clock you can see from all four sides of the courthouse.
Inside, the courthouse is almost the way it was in the 1880s. Of course, now it has indoor plumbing. What were originally broom closets are now restrooms. According to local legend, after the courthouse restrooms were added and the county judge received the courthouse’s first water bill, he was so upset about the high cost that he locked the restrooms. The cost of progress is high.
Completely restored between 1990 and 2000, the Caldwell County Courthouse was rededicated in April 2000.
Visitors can stroll the grounds and take photographs of the courthouse any day of the year. To go inside, you’ll have to visit during the regular business hours of the county offices housed within the courthouse.
Dr. Eugene Clark Library
Perhaps the most historically significant building in Lockhart is the Dr. Eugene Clark Library, which is the oldest continuously operating public library in Texas. The library was built in 1899 thanks to a $10,000 bequest from Dr. Eugene Clark, a Texas physician who lived and practiced in Lockhart for 13 years.
The library was built in classical revival style from red brick with limestone trim. Its features include many stained glass windows and beautiful woodwork. Two metal spiral staircases lead to a balcony and loft. Below, there is a stage where U.S. President William Howard Taft, in office during the early 1900s, once spoke. Auditorium-style seating originally surrounded the stage and filled the balcony area, but that was removed in 1956 to make room for more books.
The Eugene Clark Library opens for business Monday-Saturday at 9 a.m. The entrance is now via an annex next door to the original structure on Main Street. The original library building is on the corner of Main and Prairie Lea streets.
Caldwell County Museum
The “newest” historic landmark in Lockhart is the building that now houses the Caldwell County Museum. It was built in 1908 and 1909 to serve as the county jail. It was erected on the same site as the county’s first log jail, which existed there between 1855 and 1858, when it burned down.
It is a four-story, redbrick building in the Norman style, an architectural style that originated in Normandy and is used to describe many castles and fortresses built in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The prisoners were housed in the upper three floors, including one private cell that is in the building’s tower (the fourth floor). The first floor was once home to the county sheriff and his family. (Talk about sleeping with one eye open.)
The county used this building as the jail until 1983. It was turned into the county museum in 1986. Some people say that the ghosts of some its former inhabitants haunt the building. On a recent visit, I didn’t see any ghosts, but I did get a rather eerie feeling as I walked through the floors that housed the prisoners.
Most of the cells, divided by heavy steel bars, are small and dark. The only light and air circulation in the cells comes in through the windows, which could be closed by guards if they chose to do so. The gallows have been gone from the site for years, making the place a little less creepy than it could be. But this building is still not one in which I would ever hope to spend much time, especially not at night. It was an interesting and educational day tour, however.
If you are interested in touring the old jail, you can do so any weekend. The Caldwell County Historical Commission opens the museum, located one block east of Highway 183 on Market Street, for tours on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. The first floor is the actual museum; it contains many historical artifacts that tell the story of Caldwell County.
In addition to the Caldwell County Courthouse, Dr. Eugene Clark Library and the museum building that once housed the Caldwell County Jail, there are many other historic buildings in downtown Lockhart. Most of these buildings, which surround the courthouse to create the town square, are still being used by local businesses. Any day of the week, you can visit downtown Lockhart for a taste of Texas history.