A group of men in old-fashioned suits stand in front of a large ornate courthouse with barracades surrounding
Actors in Taylor Sheridan’s production about U.S. marshal Bass Reeves gather in downtown Waxahachie. Photo courtesy City of Waxahachie

Rona Hedges and Pam Poovey step out of Eubank Florist & Gifts, where they work, and light cigarettes before taking part in some good old-fashioned rubbernecking. Across the street, in the middle of Waxahachie’s historic square, commotion surrounds the Ellis County Historic Courthouse. Large lights on a crane, trucks with equipment, and dozens of people surround the structure. Completed in 1897 with nine stories of red limestone, pink granite, and red sandstone, the courthouse is used to being the main character in town, but on this early morning in February, it’s relegated to a background scene-setter.

Ellis County Historic Courthouse
101 W. Main St., Waxahachie.
972-825-5000; co.ellis.tx.us
Tours are available to the public Mon-Fri 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

Waxahachie is in the midst of getting the Taylor Sheridan treatment. The Texas native, with roots in Cranfills Gap and Fort Worth, has an impressive resume as an actor in the FX series Sons of Anarchy, writer of the movies Sicaro and Hell or High Water, and creator of the Paramount+ series Yellowstone. Sheridan returned to North Texas—he shot the Yellowstone prequel 1883 in Cowtown—for his latest production, Lawmen: Bass Reeves. The series follows the legendary lawman, who was formerly enslaved, in the late 19th century. Except for a stint in Paris, Reeves was actually a U.S. marshal in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Many believe he was the inspiration for the fictional Lone Ranger character.

“We love that they’re showcasing our history, even if it’s not really our history,” says Michelle Haye, executive director and curator of the Ellis County Museum.

David Oyelowo stars as Reeves, and the series features recurring roles from Donald Sutherland and native Texan Dennis Quaid. A few days before the courthouse shoot, Quaid’s name was added to the cast list and word spread.

“That’s why we’re out here,” Poovey says.

Hedges adds, “We ain’t seen Dennis yet!”

Filming takes place over two days in a courtroom on the first floor. Nothing could be seen from Hedges’ and Poovey’s vantage point. If anything, the equipment around the courthouse puts the historic structure on display to outsiders. Because when Hollywood comes to small town Texas, it often casts new light on old landmarks.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” Hedges says. “Be sure to check out the faces.”

She’s talking about the expressive carvings along the walls of the courthouse. Hedges isn’t sure of the true story behind them. But as the legend goes, Harry Herley, a stonemason from outside of town, was hired to carve designs into the courthouse’s exterior and, in the process, fell in love with Mabel Frame, the daughter of the woman who owned the house where he was staying. In some versions, the girl spurned his advances. In others, they had a nasty breakup. Either way, carvings of Frame’s face wrap around the courthouse. They start serene, and as you walk around to the other side, they transform into a grimace.

A large red boom truck moves filming equipment near an old brick courthouse
The Ellis County Historic Courthouse steals the scene on Lawmen: Bass Reeves. Photo courtesy City of Waxahachie

The carvings are just one chapter in the courthouse’s book. A century ago, a prisoner was given a gun by his girlfriend and a shootout occurred on the first floor—a bullet hole is still visible in the purchasing agent’s office. And in 1934, the news of the deaths of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the latter of whom was born in Ellis County, was the last public announcement proclaimed from the third-floor balcony.

Amy Borders, Waxahachie’s director of communications and marketing, started taking location scouts around town in the summer of 2022. She showed them the Rogers Hotel (rumored to have once housed Bonnie and Clyde), several houses, and pieces of land. “Our crown jewel ended up being the thing they chose,” Borders says.

Ellis County is no stranger to filming. Tender Mercies was shot there 40 years ago, but production crews have been visiting even longer than that. Robert Benton, a Waxahachie native, wrote the script for the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, and several North Texas locations were used to set the scene. In one shot, Faye Dunaway leaned out of a window of her mother’s house, a vacant two-story farmhouse on the northwest side of the county. Locals were intrigued by the Hollywood spectacle. From the Oct. 12, 1966, edition of the Waxahachie Light: “Everybody in Midlothian who has a minute to spare, rushes down to West Avenue F, where all the excitement is.”

Location Scouting

A collection of historical spots completes the big picture of Waxahachie

The Rogers Hotel
Built in 1912, this supposedly haunted building sits where Emory W. Rogers, the city’s founder, constructed his log cabin in 1847.

Gingerbread Trail Tour of Homes
This ticketed summer tour of historic homes and other points of interest benefits the Ellis County Museum. gingerbreadtrail.org

Farm Luck Soda Fountain & Dry Goods
The wood floors in the candy shop and penny tile in the restaurant are original to this late-19th-century building.

Benton returned to the area in the early ’80s for Places in the Heart, which earned Sally Fields an Oscar for Best Actress in 1984. But before that, she and other members of the cast spent six months in Ellis County. Borders was in elementary school at the time and remembers the actors becoming part of the community.

A historic photograph of a man wearing a checkered suit and bow tie

Bass Reeves is thought to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. Photo courtesy Wiki Commons

“Waxahachie was like the backlot of Texas,” Borders says. “There were more movies filmed here than anywhere else in Texas.”

Waxahachie is chosen for period pieces because of its well-preserved historic downtown, Haye says. There are historic design guidelines about what materials can be used to repair buildings so they remain authentic. When the courthouse was completed in 1897, the wood used for the interior was old-growth, longleaf Southern pine. Because of deforestation and other human interference, that type of wood is no longer available. So, during renovations in the 1990s, the county had to use wood taken from other buildings constructed during the late 19th century.

“You can’t replicate history like this on a set,” Haye says. “You can’t get the same feel.”

While the interior courtroom scene was shot in Waxahachie, exterior scenes will be shot in Stephenville around the Erath County Courthouse. Buildings in Fort Worth will also be used, like when Sheridan’s 1883 was filmed in and around the Stockyards. In 2022, dirt was laid in the streets and modern-day signs were taken down. Hooker’s Grill, a walk-up window burger joint, was turned into a gambling den. The owners have kept the facade, and visitors can now eat a burger on the porch or inside by entering around the back of the open-air building.

In Strawn, west of Weatherford, the Bass Reeves production team has built an entire Western town near Mary’s Café, a place known for its chicken-fried steak. Locals have been eating there just to get a gander at what’s going on down the street. And production members are spending their money at local businesses as they hop around North Texas. “They’re putting Texans to work, and they’re spending their money in Texas,” Borders says. “That’s so important.”

It’s clear Sheridan is good business for Texas. In Feb., Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick came away from a dinner with Sheridan saying, “My goal is for Taylor to move all of his TV and movie production to Texas.”

From the August 2023 issue

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