Wise County, Texas was officially established in 1856. Named after Henry A. Wise, a U.S. Senator from Virginia who supported Texas annexation, Wise was later governor and a Confederate States of America General. Wise County was one of the Texas counties that voted against secession from the United States. In 1862, with most of the male population fighting in the Civil War, Wise County became a refugee camp.
The first courthouse was a small structure, sixteen feet square. It was originally erected by Henry Martin, on a location that would eventually become Decatur Baptist College. When the small town of
Taylorsville (Decatur's original name) began being platted by Colonel Absolom Bishop, the father of Decatur, he patterned it after the City of McKinney in Collin County. The small building was moved to the northeast corner of the square and was the first house on the hill.
The second courthouse, built on the square, was a large two-story building. On the night of November 26, 1881, the building burned; it was thought to be arson.
The third courthouse was built on the northwest corner of the square, at a cost of $50,000. It was never clear why the courthouse was not built on the square. For many years, a guard was posted to "get the records out" in case of fire, but by January 8, 1895, the guards had long since been dispensed with and the courthouse burned again. According to legend, this was also arson.
The present courthouse was completed in 1896 at a cost of $110,000 (an amount thought by many to be extravagant. The officials approving the construction were not re-elected).
Colonel Absolom Bishop raised a flag on the hill where the courthouse now stands, boasting that his choice for the courthouse had won the recent election. Disillusioned with then President Taylor, he changed the city's name to Decatur, after naval hero Stephen Decatur. Bonds were issued on May 16, 1895. The stone was precut and each piece numbered and then shipped from Burnet County, Texas. The stones were raised by a windlass pulled by donkeys walking in a circle. The building is constructed of pink granite with interior of Vermont marble; it has been pronounced
On May 14, 1896, bids for the clock were opened, and E Howard and Company received the contract for
1 Hour Strike Clock, $952; with bell for same, 2,000 pounds, $388; total cost, $1,340.
All indebtedness was paid off in 1945, and the building was modernized in the 1960's. The outdoor mercury vapor lamps were installed in 1968. In 1975, the second County Jail was erected on the site where the original courthouse stood. It is now the County Clerk's Office.
For years, the delight of youngsters was to go to the top of the Courthouse, up the winding metal stairs, up the steep wooden steps, then around the bell, up another flight of winding steps to the very top where the pigeons roost! The first set of winding stairs were removed to make room for the elevator.