Walk through Burnet County history on the square
By Alecia Ormsby
Take a stroll around the Burnet County Courthouse square for a time-traveling trip through the history of this Highland Lakes community.
In the center of the historic square sits the county’s third courthouse. Completed in 1937, the two-story courthouse was built in a modern style of architecture for its time. It features a pink granite veneer with a relief depicting Burnet County’s heritage and economy at the main doors on the east side of the building. On the west side is a poignant memorial to American soldiers.
Across from the military memorial sits the Herman Brown Free Library, in which the name “Free” was incorporated in 1948. That year, the county approved a new constitution to establish the library as free to anyone who wanted to use it, regardless of residence. In the past, the library had charged money to borrow books. The story behind the name of the library plays a part in presidential history as well as local lore.
Facing the courthouse from 200 E. Washington St. is the old Burnet County Jail. The front yard features a bronze statue of Sheriff Wallace Riddell, who served in that position for nearly four decades from 1939 to 1978. He was the longest-serving sheriff in Texas history until his record was broken several years ago.
The jail was built in 1884 of hand-hewn rock. It included an apartment for the sheriff and his family. While Sheriff Riddell ran law enforcement, his wife ran the jail, even cooking and feeding the prisoners.
In addition, the second floor of the jail served as the Burnet County library. The sheriff’s daughter, Vonnie Riddell Fox, tells of her life growing up in the jail in The Picayune Magazine, a local publication that has served the area for 30-plus years.
Next door is the red brick Burnet Presbyterian Church, established in 1874. Like the courthouse, the church is now in its third building, which was completed in 1957. The church shares the alleyway with First Baptist Church of Burnet, founded in 1877. The church is famous for its annual reenactment of the birth of Jesus at its Main Street Bethlehem site next door. Main Street Bethlehem is a life-size replica of the streets and markets of the Biblical city.
Another notable location, which has had a variety of tenants in its past, is Wedding Creek Winery, open for tastings or rental for a romantic wedding. Known as the Badger Building, it was completed in 1883 and has housed a drugstore, a hardware store, a bank, and the Burnet Rural Telephone Company. In addition, it’s been the location of the State Parks Board, the post office, and a youth and community center.
Although you can drive to Burnet, or even fly into its municipal airport on a charter plane, the most historic way to visit is by rails. The train depot for the Hill Country Flyer is just two blocks off the square, bringing visitors on day trips for Old West adventures. Just down the street from the depot is the Wild West Gunfight arena, where you can watch an action-packed reenactment of a saloon shootout during certain times of the year.
More modern accommodations exist for when you get hungry. You’ll find a bakery, a coffee shop, a winery, and a restaurant on the square. The city also includes a complete culinary mix of eateries just minutes from the square.
During your stroll through history, don’t forget to stop and shop. You’ll also find boutiques, a jewelry store, and gift shops.
Bordered by U.S. 281 to the west, the railroad to the east, and churches, small businesses, and quaint homes on the north and south, the Burnet County Courthouse square is a walk back through early Texas history.