Milam County Historical Commission
Milam County, Texas
Old City Hall: History, basketball and a ghost
Mike Brown - Editor
Rockdale Reporter - March 31. 2016
Now that there’s a site selected for Rockdale’s new police station, it seems to be a good time to reflect on the history of the old one.
Plans are to preserve the old building, which was Rockdale’s City Hall for 107 years and that’s good.
It literally reeks of history. Cue the spooky music.
For some reason there seems to be some misinformation about when it was built. I’ve heard the year 1902 mentioned. That’s old all right, but our former City Hall is seven years older than that.
Construction began in 1895 during the term of Mayor B. A. Coffield.
That date is on the building’s cornerstone, which is almost hidden by a bush on the northeast corner of Cameron and Burleson.
It’s also on the Texas Historical Commission plaque located in front of City, uh, the police station.
(Confession: I still slip and call it “City Hall” every once in a while even though it hasn’t served in that capacity for 14 years.)
Pictures of the structure in the early 20th Century show it was a massive, three towered-and-turreted structure with a much taller central tower which soared maybe another 20 feet above the rest of the building.
That central tower contained Rockdale’s only fire alarm in the very early days. Two ropes hung down from the bell tower and the first person there alerted the fire department by pulling on the ropes.
Just FYI, our fire department is even older, dating from the 1880s.
It was more than a seat of government. City Hall also contained a large auditorium on the second floor, which was the site of many a meeting and speech.
That second floor auditorium doubled as a basketball court. Yep, Rockdale teams played their basketball games there until the “new” gym on Bowser was completed in 1936.
As you might expect, there was very little room for spectators, but those who were able to crowd inside were pretty lively.
I’ve talked to a few old-timers who remember playing there and one told me she was afraid several times “when they all got to yelling and stomping” the floor was going to collapse.
The auditorium-gym was removed and most of the second floor reconfigured, probably in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
Something else happened in the late 1930s that’s become a part of Old City Hall lore.
In that era the Rockdale City Secretary was an elected position and was the most powerful job in the city government.
For eight years that position had been filled by J. Branch Lewis.
On the night of Feb. 19, 1938, Night Watchman C. H. Landis found Lewis dead in his office, downstairs at City Hall, one shot to the head from a .45 pistol recovered at the scene.
Justice of the Peace Leo Harris ruled suicide. An audit of city books had turned up discrepancies between receipts and deposits.
It was a Friday night. The election to replace him was held on Tuesday.
I started working at The Reporter in 1974 and there were still people at City Hall who talked about Branch’s “ghost.”
It was mostly in jest.
Mostly, that is. I was told there were people who did not like to be in the building at night.
And, of course, every creak and shudder—old buildings do that—was attributed to Branch Lewis.
Branch had mailed a letter to Mayor E. A. Camp. It was delivered the day after Lewis’s death.
Everyone wondered what it said, if it would explain why Branch did it.
It only contained instructions to give some of his tools to the high school ag department. He said they were a fine group.
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