101 Courthouse Square
Cotulla, TX 78014
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Community celebrates ten years in the Main Street Program, looks to further improvements
By Marc Robertson

When she looks east to an empty piece of land from her office along Cotulla’s historic Front Street today, Main Street Program Manager Patsy Leigh sees more than crumbled asphalt and weeds.

She sees opportunity.

The 1931 La Salle County Courthouse is the fourth courthouse built on this square since the county was created in 1858. The Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program awarded the county two multi-million dollar grants for restoration of both the exterior and interior, and the courthouse was rededicated January 26, 2013.

The grand thoroughfare at the heart of the historic district in the La Salle County seat, halfway between San Antonio and Laredo along one of the nation’s busiest interstate corridors, is lined on one side by vintage buildings that date to the earliest development of trade and industry in the Brush Country, and along the other side by the vital artery that brought those businessmen and tradespeople to South Texas: the railroad

Cotulla’s Main Street Program is marking its tenth anniversary this year, and although most residents fondly recall the day on which the city was decked in bunting and the high school Mariachi band turned out in its finest for Texas First Lady Anita Perry, everyone knew then that it would be years before the community could take any real action in reaching its goals for the ambitious project. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, Cotulla had suffered economic blows that were exacerbated by a decaying municipal infrastructure, the gradual disappearance of family-owned businesses, and the “brain drain” of able-bodied and business-minded young people departing to find success in bigger cities. Added to this, promises of a new oil boom faltered, and the short-term relief brought on by the development of so-called horizontal drilling from 1989-1991 resulted in projects half finished, a population only intermittently employed, and new burdens on city utility services. Housing remained in short supply, water lines ruptured daily, and streets deteriorated further.

True relief for Cotulla came only when hydraulic fracturing processes were developed for oil and gas in South Texas, coinciding by remarkable happenstance with the inauguration of the Main Street Program. Within a few years, city leaders and business owners alike had begun to realize the economic potential that the new boom would offer. More than twenty new hotels sprang up beside the interstate almost overnight, the city’s population doubled, sales tax revenues reached unprecedented heights, and there was employment to be had. Cotulla could repair its vital utilities, pave its streets, and spare some funds to pay for a Main Street Program that would begin to reach the lofty goals that it had promised.

Why Cotulla?

Because Cotulla has meant something to the growth of South Texas for more than a century.

Because even before Independence and Statehood, long before modern settlement, today’s La Salle County seat was positioned at the crossroads of the vital trade routes that fed the Missions, that supplied the armies and that linked the outposts of the ancient empires.

Because the fabled Camino Real (“King’s Highway”) passed through present-day Cotulla on its way from the Gulf Coast to the ancient capitals.

Because Santa Anna rode through the Brush Country with his Mexican army on their way to a date with destiny.

Because a Polish immigrant set out into the unforgiving landscape and dug the first artesian well that would feed new crops for generations.

Because the iron horse brought technology, investment, agriculture, and new settlers down the rails from San Antonio, and carried away fresh harvests and newly discovered oil.

Because the Pan-American Highway was dedicated here on its long and dusty way up the North American continent.

Because a young, eager and fresh-faced rookie teacher called Lyndon Baines Johnson taught the local youngsters how to read and write, and used his paychecks to buy them shoes and sports gear; and returned when he was President of the United States to herald his landmark Education Bill.

Because the interstate highway became the life-giving artery that channels today’s heavy freight traffic from one of America’s biggest and busiest inland ports to all points north, and provides the trade that turns the wheels of the local economy.

Because La Salle County lies above one of the wealthiest oil and gas reserves in North America, tapped now through hydraulic fracturing and bringing refineries, pipelines, service facilities and commercial traffic to the area, reviving the economy through employment and property development.

And because the ranching and farming families that still call Cotulla home, the residents who came to run new businesses, the Border Patrol officers and Highway Patrolmen and sheriff’s deputies, and the new generation of young adults who have stayed to live and work in their hometown, decided that this place was worth saving, its history worth preserving, and its lessons worth passing down. In many ways, Cotulla stands at the crossroads of Texas history, and its historic Front Street is at the very center. 

“What we set out to do ten years ago was to bring Cotulla’s history to people’s attention,” Leigh says of the work her office has done. “We knew that by reminding the public of the historic significance of our city, we would draw attention to the buildings that played a part in the development of South Texas, and this would help boost tourism and encourage new interest in establishing businesses in the historic district.”

It may have taken ten years for the Cotulla Main Street Program to reach the first of its goals, but the results represent a transformation of the downtown historic district. The city’s original business quarter, Front Street, which faces the Union Pacific Railroad line and where all of La Salle County’s trade was focused in the first half of the 20th Century, has been beautified through sidewalk reconstruction, landscaping, façade improvements, and the placement of new gaslights that are supplied by the city’s own fuel. Business owners have been offered cash incentives to repair their building fronts and improve their signage, and one of Cotulla’s most historic structures has been restored and reoccupied.

At the corner of Front and Center streets, the Gallman Building has served as a bank, a boarding house and a car parts store but stood empty for years before it was bought, gutted and renovated throughout by a developer with a keen eye for business. Furnished with a custom-built Western-style bar and a grand new staircase, its windows replaced with wood-frame replicas of the originals, and its walls and floors exposed to reveal original finishes, the building has been given new life as a saloon and restaurant.

It may have taken 10 years for the Cotulla Main Street Program to reach the first of its goals, but the results represent a transformation of the downtown historic district. The Gallman Building (left) was restored, and sidewalks have been beautified with new landscaping and gaslights (middle image). Redevelopment of a long-vacant garage (right) will become the new Cotulla City Hall.

The Gallman Building (also once known as Cotulla State Bank) has other claims to fame, as well. Listed as the only remaining structure in town made of original Cotulla brick – with clay and sand dredged from the Nueces River basin – the site served as backdrop in 1886 to a brutal shoot-out in which the man who had assassinated Sheriff Charlie McKinney was himself ambushed and gunned down in the street. That incident and others like it contributed in the 1880s to Cotulla’s reputation as a lawless and dangerous “Wild West” town; legends persist of railroad conductors cautioning their passengers, “Next stop, Cotulla. Get your guns out.”

Behind the Gallman Building, at the corner of Center and Main streets, the onetime Model Market (and later Bill’s Dollar Store) has been lovingly converted into a dance hall and saloon and may yet see other uses, as its occupants and the community’s needs change. Wooden floors have been exposed, and the building’s façade has been returned to its original grandeur.

The exterior wall of the Model Market facing Main Street and the downtown park was adorned last year with the Main Street Program’s newest masterpiece, a mural by Laredo artist Gil Rocha depicting the history of the county, including Joseph Cotulla’s artesian well, LBJ’s teaching career, a succession of courthouses, oil drilling, the railroad, and cattle ranching. A new bronze of Joseph Cotulla by renowned sculptor Armando Hinojosa takes pride of place in the park on top of a replica artesian well, landscaped with indigenous plants.

Cotulla’s mural by Laredo artist Gil Rocha depicts the history of the county, including Joseph Cotulla’s artesian well, LBJ’s teaching career, a succession of courthouses, oil drilling, the railroad, and cattle ranching.

Of particular interest to the people of the city and importance to municipal government is this year’s redevelopment of a long-vacant garage at the corner of Carrizo and Main streets, a large building whose vintage service-station façade has been preserved and inside which the new Cotulla City Hall is now being built with a funding combination of USDA grants and loans. The garage and others like it from different decades of the 20th Century serve as reminders of the vital role that Old Hwy 81 (present-day Main St. and Business IH-35) played in the community’s economy.

By far the biggest event of the year for downtown Cotulla is the annual Independence Day festival held at Veterans Park in the very center of the city. It takes place at the foot of the immaculately preserved La Salle County Courthouse, built in 1931 and recently restored to its original Henry Phelps design with a multimillion-dollar fund injection from the Texas Historical Commission. The festival and the courthouse backdrop help recall an earlier time of community patriotism and family-friendly celebration. Today’s July 4 events are firmly rooted in the traditional style of which La Salle County was so proud in the 1940s, when all its residents turned out for parades, rodeos, outdoor cooking, children’s games, and dances late into the starry night.


Cotulla’s namesake founder, Joseph Cotulla, was a Polish immigrant who established a large ranching operation in the area. He is honored with a full-size bronze statue in Veterans’ Park dedicated in July 2015. He stands above a water feature reimiscent of the first artesian well dug in La Salle County.

Patsy Leigh looks to the railroad line and envisions new opportunities for the city, including a replica of the classic railroad depot building that served passenger trains as well as agriculture, livestock and the oil industry. The land on which the original stood may be empty now, but it is a space that begs to be filled, not only for the sake of tourism or for future business potential, but because it’s the one structure without which so much would have been impossible. Cotulla owes it to history and to its new generations to put back the buildings that played a part in giving life to the Brush Country.

“I believe we have begun to restore community pride,” Leigh says. “The results of our work are tangible. More people enjoy our outdoor spaces today, and more people are interested in the history of their city. I believe that when you beautify a city, encourage development and help boost tourism and economic activity, you are giving the people a town that they can be proud to call home, and in whose preservation they will take a more active role.”

Cotulla’s downtown skyline may be dominated by the courthouse, the adjacent water tower dating from 1915, and the silhouette of the Front Street stores, but the city map is sprinkled with historic and architectural gems, from the Methodist Church (also 1915) to the tiniest jewel of a gas station on the main road, and from the weathered signage of the old businesses to the Camino Real marker at the intersection of Front Street, Highway 97 and the Union Pacific Railroad. Visitors will continue spotting little pieces of the past that have stood the test of time and which surely deserve to be brought back to their shine and significance, if only to remind us and future generations of what it took to build the city and make it thrive, and what critical historic landmarks it bears, at the crossroads of the centuries.

(This article originally appeared in the Texas Historical Commission's November 2017 edition of the Main Street Matters publication.)