By Dayna Worchel
TYLER — When Smith County Sheriff J.B. Smith lived on the sixth floor of the current Smith County courthouse in the mid-1970s with his 10-year-old son, they lived next door to the single-cell units that housed inmates with mental problems.
"They would bang their heads on the walls and you could hear them screaming," he said.
Smith explained that the job was so all-consuming in those days that he would sometimes rise at 3 a.m. to cook breakfast for the inmates because his jail cook had gotten drunk the night before. He said he would first cook bacon, then eggs in large skillets for more than 100 prisoners. "To this day, I can cook for huge numbers of people," he said.
The sheriff, who is leaving the office next month after a 36-year career, has numerous memories of the courthouse, dedicated in August 1955. Smith said there was no security at the time he lived there, and anyone could roam freely within the courthouse. And his fondest memories, he said, were of the years his office, along with most others in the courthouse, were in the basement.
"I enjoyed the camaraderie and knowing everyone in the courthouse — it was a community, like a family," Smith said.
He said during the time his office was housed in the basement, there was one probation officer for the entire county. The adult probation department now has 82 employees and 53 certified adult probation officers, Gerald Hayden, director of the Smith County Community Supervision and Corrections Department said. The courthouse also housed the first juvenile probation officer and first juvenile parole officer, he said.
When the $1.5 million structure opened, it had 80,000 square feet of space, a complete underground basement and six other floors, including a jail and mental ward facilities, plus confinement space for juveniles, according to the Tyler Morning Telegraph archives.
The entire building was air conditioned except for the maximum security jail, which was on the fifth and sixth floors, the article stated.
It replaced the courthouse constructed in 1909, which was torn down after the 1955 structure was built across from the older courthouse.
The new structure was built after a lengthy court battle ending in the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled that Smith County owned the courthouse square and could move the courthouse in any spot the county saw fit, according to the newspaper archives.
Some Tyler residents, who were opposed to the tearing down of the older structure, had filed the suit, alleging that the courthouse square belonged to the public. The Supreme Court then ruled that north and south Broadway could be joined without violating the court's ruling because the proposed street would be for use of the public.
Tyler banker Harold Stringer, who was the chairman of the committee created to study the feasibility of a new courthouse, pronounced the new structure to be "an example Smith County being able to keep up with progress" during the dedication.
When it opened, there were two district courtrooms, the 7th and the 114th, and one county court-at-law room. The 241st and the 321st were created in the 1970s, as was a second court of law, according to the newspaper archives.
Information from: Tyler Morning Telegraph, http://www.tylerpaper.com