The Town That Disappeared

About a month ago Papa Bear and I were driving home from a long weekend spent in Texas Hill Country.  We were about eighteen miles north of Big Lake on State Highway 137 when we spotted this strange sight in the middle of nowhere. 

Curiosity getting the best of us, we turned left onto the narrow dirt road leading to the structure which had obviously been gutted by fire. Getting out of the truck, we walked around and through the ruins, amazed at the size of the building.  Its ornate design was clearly well-constructed and seemed oddly out of place on the windswept plains. 

Locating a nearby historical plaque and doing further research on the Internet, we learned that this building once stood in the center of a small ranching community named Stiles.  The town, originally settled in the 1890's along the Butterfield Trail, was named for Gordon Stiles, who donated land for the town site and whose store was the center of activity.

 Being the only town in Reagan County, Stiles was established as the county seat in 1903.  By 1910 the town had a population of 191 and a wood-frame courthouse.  The new courthouse, which also housed the county jail, was built in 1911 out of limestone that was quarried from a hillside near the town at a cost of $20,000 - which was a tremendous sum of money in those days. 

In 1911 the railroad came through, but ended up bypassing Stiles in favor of nearby Big Lake when one of the area ranchers refused to grant the railroad access to his land.  The population of Stiles began to decline after the discovery of oil near Big Lake in 1923.   The county seat was relocated to Big Lake shortly thereafter.  By 1925 the population of Stiles had fallen to seventy-five, and in 1939 the Stiles Post Office was officially closed.

As folks died or moved away the population of Stiles dwindled. Abandoned wooden buildings were gradually worn away by the relentless West Texas wind,  and eventually the town disappeared altogether, with the exception of the old courthouse and Stiles Cemetery a mile down the road. 

For several decades thereafter the courthouse was utilized for temporary classrooms, a voting place, square dance club meetings, and a storage facility, then boarded up and looking like this in its final years...

On Christmas Eve in 1999, an arsonist set fire to the courthouse.  Arrested and charged with the crime, he was known by police for two previous attempts to burn the building down, and for having set other buildings in the county on fire. 

All that now remains of this once beautiful building are its crumbling limestone walls. The land surrounding the courthouse has reverted to pasture, with only a small section of sidewalk remaining in front of the courthouse to remind us of the busy place it once was.   Even in the bright sunshine of a warm Texas afternoon, the building has an eerie feel to it.  It is not a place I would care to visit at night. 

Standing on the vacant ground in this desolate place, silent except for the wind, I could not help but think about the little town that once existed here... the people who carried out their daily lives, attended school and church, and held picnics on the courthouse lawn, some of whom lost their lives to sickness or injury long before old-age overtook them... the townsfolk who filled the second-story courtroom to capacity to observe trials as they took place... and the criminals who spent time within the stone walls of the county jail, including some who were surely hanged for their crimes.  Nothing is left now to tell us their story.  Yet I would not be surprised if on a dark night one might still encounter the spirits of some of those for whom Stiles, Texas was once a place called home.


  1. Loved this piece. The building, even in its current state is still quite remarkable. I'm a fan of older architecture, old farm houses, old court houses, old anything really. I will walk through them and annoy my companions as I ramble on about the beauty of the structure.

    My other thought, just from seeing the first photo, was that it would be an excellent backdrop for a ghost story.

    1. I love old buildings too, Monkey, the architecture and what they can teach us about life at that time. I always think about the people who lived there. This place was awesome, moreso because it stood there all alone, like a mirage in the hot Texas sun. You would have loved it! And yes, the feeling of spirits present clung to the gutted rooms, and it would indeed be an ideal place for ghost stories... both real and imagined.

  2. If there is that eerie feeling then it must be haunted. Our bodies can sense that stuff. Chills, mood swings, or just an uneasy feeling is a red flag that you are not alone.

    You can tell just from looking at that first picture that the building has a history that needs to be told.

    1. So true, Dan, one can sense residual memories of life there, how I wish those walls could talk! It would be the perfect place for a ghostly encounter, but I'm not going to join that late night investigation. There are some good reports online about the construction and use of the courthouse, it has a rich history. It is hard standing there to imagine it as the center of a once busy little town. The streets are gone, the houses are gone, the people are gone... only those resting in the cemetary remain.

  3. What a wonderful adventure. I enjoy history and have just recently discovered, I know this is strange but, I can "feel" the history in things.

    That may be something you want to try next time you visit.

    1. It truly was fun, Gail, the perfect ending to an wonderful weekend away! I love history as it relates to the people who settled our country, coming from pioneer stock myself. This building played a main role in the community and the county, as much as social center as a place for administering justice and overseeing county business. If I close my eyes I can imagine a glimpse of life then, but I've never felt what you speak of. I would love to take you there to see what you pick up!


Your comments are always appreciated... they make me smile! :-)