Earlier this week I was having my morning coffee and reading the news when I came across something sad. According to the Macon news outlets, the historic Hancock County courthouse, just a few counties over from ours, had caught fire and burned to the ground, taking everything inside with it. The tragic fire took less than an hour to destroy a building that had stood for 130 years and which held over 200 years worth of Hancock County history, everything from birth and death certificates, land plats and deeds, voter registration records and minutes of countless meetings that in themselves chronicled the history of the county from the perspective of the local government.
I understand that the citizens of Hancock County affectionately called her “The Queen”, and the loss of this once-magnificent brick building, designed in the Second Empire style of architecture, is like the death of an old friend and a loss which they feel deeply. While a building can be replaced, the loss to the citizens of this Georgia county in terms of its history is incalculable.
Since then, it has made me think a lot about our own “Queen” and how much it has been a part of my life and that of the citizens of my own county. Even on days that I don’t drive by it, the watercolor print in my office is a constant and sure reminder of its beauty and symbolism to the people who live here. More than that, it’s very longevity makes it a truly unique building because it is one of the oldest structures in town and a bridge to a distant past that exists now only in faded old photographs and wrinkled documents. For well over a century, it has watched indifferently as the town around it has changed with the times.
As a child, it inspired awe. The sheer size and mass of the building was impressive enough on its own but then there was the monumental clock tower on its southeastern side, taller than anything else around and visible all over downtown Jackson. When Mom would take us shopping on “the square”, I always looked up at the clock tower, then with painted black clock faces, and I would envy the pigeons that often adorned the pediments above each clock, knowing that they had a view unlike any other.
My brother and I would watch from the front of Goff’s gifts or Deraney’s Department Store as the top of the hour approached and we listen for the sound of the tower bell strike the hour. Even at our home on Woodland Way, many blocks from downtown, you could hear the courthouse bell strike on cold nights if you happened to be outdoors. Some years later, they replaced the black clock dials with white ones made of translucent material and lit them from behind so you could see the time at night. Other than that, not much has changed since I was a child.
I paid my first speeding ticket there when I was 16 years old in the office of Judge Blue on the main floor. Two years later, I registered to vote and I registered for the draft. Each year I waited until the last minute to get my tag and stood in the long lines of others who had done the same, enjoying the relative coolness of the marble floored, high ceilinged hallway and wondering what was going on in the courtroom upstairs. It wasn’t unusual to see Judge Byron Smith, then the District Attorney, stopping to talk with voters who waited in the line and regaling us with funny stories that made the time pass more quickly. Years later, I would get my marriage license there too, in that same office where I had paid that first speeding ticket.
During fall festivals, the Courthouse grounds would swarm with people, buying and selling crafted items, listening to area musicians and eating food prepared by the Jaycees or the Exchange Club. Each Christmas, the windows would glow with the light of electric candles while the great Christmas tree shined from within the center of the building. As the annual Christmas parade wound its way around the square, it was the centerpiece to all the holiday pomp and pageantry.
As beautiful as it is and always has been, it’s not the easiest building to work with or work in. You have to make allowances for a grand dame such as our courthouse. I spent a number of years actually working in the building and while this only enhanced my appreciation for its unique architectural qualities, on a practical level I could not overlook its shortcomings.
It was built in 1898, designed by the venerated Atlanta firm of Bruce and Morgan, and other than a few badly executed exercises that I suppose passed for remodeling and updating, not much had changed since Judge Carmichael accepted the keys from the builder that year. The original architectural drawing on the left shows a flagpole and a weather vane that have long since disappeared but other than a few details, the building is pretty much the same as it has always been. Mr. Morgan was apparently a better architect than a speller too, since he misspelled the word “County” in the drawing.
You dressed warmly in the winter because it was never certain what the boiler was going to do but if it was working and working good, you might have to open the window in January. In the summer, each office had its own window air conditioning unit which worked well to cool the space but was rather noisy to work with. I suppose it could have been worse though…before the boiler was installed, each office had a fireplace to keep it warm in the winter and you opened the windows in the summer.
Each office opened up to the main hallway, separated in most cases from other offices. Mine was on the main level and had a nice view of Oak Street through tall windows that were probably eight feet tall. In my office was a large safe that had been bought for the building when it was new and had been brought in through one of the large windows while the building was under construction as there was no other way to have gotten it in there. Inside that safe were some of the treasures of our county history, the minutes of the county government, bound in large red leather books and dating back to the turn of the 20th century.
As County Clerk, I frequently had to venture into the safe to research records of meetings and to assist others with research and it was fascinating to see the history of the county recorded in mundane entries, all in longhand and with remarkable penmanship. One such entry, from 1932, recorded that “F.C. Littleton was unanimously voted General Road Superintendent and to him the use of the County Chevrolet car”.
Even the general register, which recorded all disbursements of the County was interesting, a virtual “who’s who” of local area businesses at the time. Today we buy motor graders from Caterpillar but then we bought mules for road work.
As grand as the exterior was with its pyramidal clock tower steeple, roman pilasters and dentiled cornices, the courtroom was equally impressive. Two stories tall, the large, open space was well-lit by large windows on the east and west sides with original stain glass fan windows to add a splash of color. Beautifully carved oak wood details decorated the judge’s bench and the room was designed to impress the country folk who ventured in to see the trials of the day, one of the greatest forms of entertainment in the old days of small Georgia towns.
I realized one of my wishes in 1998, when the building exterior was undergoing its first major renovation. Scaffolding had been placed all the way up the courthouse tower to the level of the clock and one day Sheriff Gene Pope and I had this wild idea to climb it to the top and see what the view was like from there. We realized fairly quickly that climbing a ladder at a slant is a lot easier than climbing one straight up and we also realized that in modern terms, that tower was about seven stories tall. By the time we got up to the top, we were pretty tired but the view was worth every bit of the effort.
Here, we were up higher than all the trees in town and we could see for miles. I quickly found the water tank in Stark, about five miles away, and the one in Jenkinsburg also about five miles north. We stayed up there a long time, partly because of the scenery and partly because we were dreading the climb back down. As it was, we took a shortcut through the belfry this time, and climbed the rickety, 100-year-old wooden ladder back down through the tower and came out by the old courtroom balcony which had been closed ever since air conditioners had been installed there.
I’ve been lucky to see parts of the courthouse that most people have never seen, such as the upper parts of the tower and even the attic over the courtroom, full of all kinds of interesting things such as old law books from the 1890’s, broken furniture and the detritus of over a century of use. The Seth Thomas clock mechanism, original to the building, still controls the time and the bell, although it often gets off track at times and sometimes the bell-ringer gets stuck. It used to be run with weights but was converted at some point to an electric motor but it is still fascinating to watch it in action.
I write all this simply to say that our courthouse is more than just a building but a treasured window into our past. The large, red brick building that we see and often take for granted today was designed for a different time, when the courthouse was the center of activity in a community, a place where not only justice was dispensed but where people met to transact business, exchange stories and swap gossip.
It was built at a time when small counties were aspiring to greatness with the advent of the railroads. Railroads meant prosperity and a county without a grand courthouse wasn’t going to cut it. They dreamed big and they realized their dreams in constructs of brick, mortar, stone and slate. For most, the prosperity never arrived in measures equal to their dreams but the symbol of their optimism and vision remained, central to the town and as much the heart of it as anything.
Over time, many of them have disappeared from the landscape and they exist only in memory and photographs. Fires and in some cases, tornadoes claimed a number of the old county courthouses, most of which were replaced with serviceable buildings but lacking in the character and history of their predecessors. This week, another grand lady joined those that are no longer here and a community now realizes what that loss truly means to them. They are living history and when they die, part of the community dies with them.
As much as I treasure the memories I have of our own courthouse, I treasure the fact that it is still here even more. It is real and I can visit it whenever I want to and still be inspired by the vision of my ancestors and many others now long gone. Whether driving through town or walking out the doors of the Clerk of Court’s office on the square, the side which shows it to its best advantage, I still marvel at its beauty, grandeur and its sheer presence. It still lives with history and I along with thousands of others have been a part of that history. I hope it lasts another hundred years for there will surely never be another like it.
Author’s note: The records that I wrote of in this article were moved in 2006 to safer quarters in fireproof vaults at the new administration building where they are preserved for posterity.
Carolyn Floyd Beck said:
This is very near and dear to my heart. My families have been in original Henry County since early 1822. Some came through Hancock County on their way to Henry. As you may know the metro counties came from original Henry as laid out on May 15, 1821. I enjoyed this article very much.
Barbara Andrews Jenkins said:
I’m absolutely distraught over the loss of ,my family’s historic Hancock County Court House in Sparta, GA. The Hunt family have a great lineage, and were able to trace their historic roots back to the 1600s based on records held within the walls and vaults of this iconic structure.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciated your final comment about your county’s records having been moved and cared for. After many years working in California archives and knowing the damage to the historical record that fire can do, I say thank heavens that care has been taken! So often there’s one copy of a record and that’s it. Of course this is separate from the wonderful building and its architecture and its place in the heart of the residents.
Lauren Tillapaugh said:
Dear Mr. Brewer, Thank you for this excellent piece. I am writing to see if I might be able to get permission to use your photograph of the courthouse fire on our website? I work for the company that the current clerk, LaShauna Jackson, uses to electronically back up her records, and we are producing a new website using Hancock county’s story as a case study (with Ms. Jackson’s permission). Please let me know if you have any questions about how we will use it and thank you in advance for your reply.
Vice President of Business and Finance, Millennium Information Tek
J. M. Brewer said: