Leading By Example: Preservation in Fayette County

By Madeline Clites, Program Specialist for CHC Outreach Program

April is National County Government Month, so we're taking this opportunity to express our appreciation to county officials and their staff for supporting historic preservation in the Lone Star State! The Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) programs work with counties on a daily basis to improve the livelihood of communities across Texas. This article is part of a blog series that highlights how counties value preservation.

The Fayette County Historical Commission (CHC) works closely with the county judge on many projects to educate residents and visitors on local history. Together, the CHC and the judge have completed an inventory of cemeteries in the county, celebrated the county’s 175th anniversary, and continue to publish a weekly article highlighting the people and places of Fayette County’s past. We interviewed Judge Ed Janecka to learn more about his passion for history, support of the CHC, and future preservation goals.

Will you tell me about your interest in history?

My interest in history started when I was 18 years old, working on a HemisFair exhibit in San Antonio. That was back in 1968, and I was working on the Czech exhibit with folks from Fayette County. But history has always fascinated me; I was one of those kids who sat around with some of the old guys and listened to stories about life in the 1920s.

One of my passions is a little town called Dubina, which is where I grew up, and it’s the first Czech settlement in Texas. I collect photos of Dubina, and I have written a book on the schools there. I was also involved with renovating the church there. I have been blessed to be involved with two restorations; one at the church in Dubina, and the other at the courthouse here in La Grange. 

Will you tell me more about your involvement with the church in Dubina?

The church in Dubina is one of a small number of painted churches in Texas. Thousands of people come through every year to see the church. Originally built in 1877, the church was knocked down by a hurricane in 1909. The church was rebuilt in 1911. When the church was rebuilt, they hired an itinerant painter who painted the ceiling with designs of angels and stars. Then in 1952, they painted over everything.

After years of being away, I returned to Dubina. That's when I noticed that the church needed repairs. I suggested that the congregation restore the interior to the way it was originally. Church leaders agreed, but the work fell on me. I had a picture of the original paintings, so I knew where to look for the original stencil. We put up scaffolding after Mass every Sunday and started to reveal the original stencil. Through this work, we discovered about 12 different sets of stencils, and we were able to put everything back to the way it was. We are very proud of the church!

Why is sharing the history of Fayette County important to you?

It’s extremely important to know where we came from. People who have forgotten their past really have no future. Our heritage is what makes us so interesting—it’s what makes our country so interesting, and what makes this county so interesting. It’s important that we know our heritage, because if we don’t know our heritage, we don’t know who we are. I try to share our history with people because I am so proud of what this county is and what we have accomplished here.

What role does the Fayette County Historical Commission play in the county?

They are the go-to people in the county. Whenever I have a question, or when I need validation, I can go to the commission. We have many great members, and they are so knowledgeable about so many different areas of county history. So whenever I need something done, or I need a question answered, those are the folks that I go to.

Do you meet regularly with the CHC?

Yes, I try to meet as often as I can. Our next meeting is going to be here in May, and it’s going to include a tour of the courthouse, which is fun because I know all the ins and outs since I work here, and I was here when the building was being restored.

How do you and the other county commissioners support the CHC?

We support them in many ways. We give them encouragement, and we give them financial support, which allows them to go to different seminars and erect historical markers. They have an office in one of our county buildings, and we have also purchased computer and oral history equipment for their use.

Is it true that you started the weekly news article about Fayette County history known as Footprints of Fayette? Will you tell me more about this initiative?

Yes, that’s true. I came up with the idea years ago, because there are incredible stories about our county’s history. I talked with the County Historical Commission and we set the parameters for the initiative. Every week, someone from the County Historical Commission emails my office with a new Footprints of Fayette article, and my secretary sends it out to all the newspapers across the county. It has been fantastic! People have really enjoyed reading the articles and have learned about history. The best part is that now these stories are on record!  

Will you please describe the 175th anniversary of the county celebration?

We celebrated the anniversary of the county on a Saturday with history-related activities like horseshoe making and grinding corn. People were dressed in period costume; we also had a beard growing contest, sidewalk chalk artists, and four or five different bands. Our legislators came from Austin and made speeches. All of it right here on the courthouse square.  

I heard that you were in costume for the 175th anniversary?

Yes, that’s true. I also grew a beard, which I shaved off that night, by the way!

Fayette County participated in the THC’s Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. Why was it important to you that the historic courthouse continue to be used as the seat for county government?

The most important thing was keeping the historic courthouse the courthouse of record. I remember sitting in the office over 15 years ago, and someone commenting on how great it would be to bring the center atrium back. I said it would never happen. So be careful, when you say never!

When I decided to go for the grant, people told me I was crazy and committing political suicide, but I felt like it was the right thing to do. It was a challenge, because we had to move everyone out of the courthouse, and it was going to cost the county $2 million to complete the project. I would have been derelict in my duties if I didn’t take the opportunity to accept $4 million dollars in grant funding to restore a wonderful building. We were truly blessed to receive the courthouse grant.

It has really transformed the square. When you have a new suit of clothes on, everyone else wants a new suit of clothes! The courthouse square has really been spruced up. Surrounding buildings are being renovated, and people from all around the country come here for tours. It’s been a really positive thing for the county. I want to make sure that this building continues to be the courthouse of record. We don’t want it to be a museum. We want it to be a working courthouse.

What projects are you currently working on with the Fayette CHC?

We have always focused on cemeteries. We have over 250 cemeteries in the county—it’s an old county. Old cemeteries are dotted all around the county, some may only have 15 graves, while others have 50, and many are abandoned.

We completed a project to identify every cemetery we have in the county. We documented the location with GPS coordinates. Now, we are trying to start a program to clean up and assign stewards to each cemetery. First, we plan to identify the top ten most endangered cemeteries, clean up the cemetery, and find someone who will adopt it. It might be a family or just one person who will go there twice a year and help clean up the weeds and check on things.

I am also working on my second book about Dubina, which has been a lot of fun but also taxing. 

How will the next generation of Fayette County residents benefit from your efforts to preserve the history of the county?

I hope that they will appreciate the work that we’ve done. I feel good about what we’ve done, specifically with the courthouse. I have a fiduciary responsibility to take care of this courthouse, and at least now the courthouse will be intact for the next several generations. I think that’s extremely important.

I also hope that the things we have done and the buildings we have preserved will continue to inspire the next generation to appreciate their history.

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