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Echoes of the past
'New' courthouse was hotly debated 120 years ago
A courthouse that is too small and in bad repair.
A grand jury that calls for a new courthouse facility.
A debate over the need for a new courthouse and where it should be located.
Controversy about how to pay for a new courthouse.
If those seem like recent local headlines, they are - but they are also the headlines from 122 years ago when debate began over what would later lead to the current Jackson County courthouse.
If history indeed repeats itself, then there is no better example than the issue over new courthouses in Jackson County. Just as is being done today, citizens complained 122 years ago about cramped and uncomfortable conditions in what was then the county court facility. Records were piled asunder, just as they are today. A debate about the need for a new courthouse ensued, just as it has done today. The location of the new facility was controversial, just as it is today. And a controversy over how to pay for the facility was heated, just as it is today.
Public debate over the Jackson County courthouse began in 1877 with a grand jury report that recommended a new court facility be established. The grand jury said "the Court House we find to be in bad repairs and too small for the accommodation and comfort of the people of this county" and it went on to recommend that materials from the old courthouse plus $6,000 be spent on a new facility. The grand jury further said the new facility should be paid for by issuing bonds.
But an unusual "minority report" was also included in the grand jury presentments by a small number of that group who called for a public vote on whether a new courthouse should be built, where it should be built and how it should be paid for if built.
Following the grand jury report, a withering letter to the editor in The Forest News, forerunner of The Jackson Herald, argued strongly for a new courthouse. Said the writer: "It is altogether unnecessary to argue to a man who has eyes, ears, nose and sense of comfort, about the absolute necessity of some improvements in our present - Sweat Box, shall I call it? It is a fact conceded by all, and at once evident to the meanest comprehension, that we need something better in the way of a Court House than the edifice which we at present dignify with that name."
The writer, identified only as an "Attenuated Survivor," went on to say that simply repairing or adding onto the old facility wasn't enough and if another court week passed, "his Honor will quietly melt away."
No action was taken on the grand jury report, and in March 1878 another grand jury called for a new courthouse.
"It is wholly unsuited for the transaction of the business that comes before the Superior Court of the County," read the grand jury report. "We do, therefore, recommend the building of a new one on a more eligible and appropriate site than where the present one now stands. We further recommend that the new Court House be built in a style corresponding to the wealth and dignity of the county; and that the work be done as soon as it is possible...."
In a letter to the editor on March 16, 1878, one writer called for a new courthouse to be paid for with bonds and predicted that county citizens would approve a bond referendum.
"The present building is not only a disgrace to the county, but is extremely unsafe, and when filled with crowds during court, is in greater danger of falling."
In mid-April 1878, a lengthy letter to the editor outlined in detail why a new courthouse was needed. That article put the old courthouse at being 50 years old, having been built in 1828.
"The present Court House was always too small; too hot in summer and too cold in winter; and never had any conveniences, either for the Court, attorneys, witnesses, parties, or spectators. No good book cases, desks or other safe arrangement, has ever been provided to preserve the records and papers of the various Courts, and no suitable rooms for the Clerk, Sheriff and Ordinary have been provided in the present building; and the jury, on retiring to deliberate in each case, has to go down stairs, through the crowd, and are liable to be tampered with while in their room in the lower story of the house. ..Record books and papers on file have been, many of them, almost destroyed by rats and mice, because no proper place has been provided in the various offices for their protection. All of which could be done, if a better and larger house was constructed."
Saying that the business of the court needed better attention, the writer outlined further problems: "The attorneys should have ample room to pass about the Court room, and not have to crawl or stumble over a half dozen men in passing from one side of the house to the other, as one has to do now."
Apparently, the old court facility didn't have seats for witnesses or bystanders.
"The parties and witnesses, when called into Court, should have seats, so that they could be at ease and out of the way of other persons; and the people and spectators outside of the bar should be seated for two reasons: first, because they should be comfortable when they come to Court... and secondly, because if they have no seats, they will become weary of standing and will be continually moving about and making a noise, and disturbing the Court...."
The county ordinary, Judge H.W. Bell, was the county official in charge of public buildings and he paid heed to the call. In early May 1878, a bond vote was held for a courthouse. The vote was for 20-year bonds in the amount of $10,000. It failed.
The issue dragged on and with no action in sight,Superior Court Judge A.S. Erwin ordered to build a new courthouse in February, 1879.
Another bond vote was held in April, 1879 on the matter to vote whether the courthouse should be paid for by bonds or a direct tax. Voters were supposed to write "direct tax" or "bonds" on their ballot.
Voters favored bonds by a 327-142 vote.
"The size of the vote was attributed to the fact that as a general thing, the people were indifferent as to the result and consequently took no hand in it," read an editorial the following week. "Again, they were busy with their crops and did not care to take that much time."
In August, 1879, the Georgia Legislature threw out those results apparently because the bond vote hadn't been held correctly. The county was forced to call yet another election on the bond issue to be held in September, 1879.
Meanwhile, work on the courthouse had already been put in motion. In June, 1879, Judge Bell published a notice for bids for a new courthouse, calling for the building to be finished by January, 1880. On July 1, 1879, the bid for a new courthouse was let to M.B. McGinty of Athens, the only bidder on the project at $10,900. The architect was W.W. Thomas.
But in the background a controversy ensued over exactly where to build the facility. A committee established by Judge Bell recommended that it be built in the center of the county according to a survey.
At the time, Barrow County had not been created and part of that county, including present day Winder, was in Jackson County. There was a move by some people in the county to move the courthouse out of Jefferson and perhaps more toward the western side of the county. Pressure came on public officials to hold an election on the issue of where a courthouse should be built. Judge Bell declined to put that issue on a ballot. It's interesting to note that Judge Bell let the contract for the new courthouse even before a final site had been selected.
In a letter to the editor on May 30, 1879, John W. Glenn had argued against moving the courthouse away from Jefferson, saying the town was close to the geographic center of the county and was also in the center of the tax paying population.
"The roads of the county have been construction with much labor and capital to converge from all directions to the present county site," he said. "A change of this center to a point eight or nine miles distant would involve changes in many, if not most of these roads, and the construction of other new ones..."
Glenn also argued against the idea of "letting the majority rule" in the matter via a referendum, saying that such a concept "would undermine all government."
"To let the majority rule in all things directly would be to resolve government into the dicta of a mere rabble," he said.
But critics of the courthouse plans said the decision-making was being controlled by the "Jefferson ring" and that it should be built on four acres on "Mitchell's hill." Said one writer of the newspaper in September, 1879:
"We the people of Jackson, do not wish to be taxed to build a new Court house for the benefit of Jefferson; for the benefit of her taverns, her grog-shops and her law offices...If we are taxed, we want a house for the benefit of Jackson county, her growing populations for generations yet to come. We want four acres of land, covered with shade trees and grass, where our would-be rulers and jurors and people can have elbow room to exercise and lounge in the long and hot month of August."
But the argument was too late. On August 23, 1879, Judge Bell had purchased a lot in Jefferson from J.E. Randolph for $200 for the courthouse site. In fact, a letter to the newspaper in early September 1879 said the old courthouse had already been torn down and that the "walls of the new one are going up." Later reports in the newspaper state that the site had a blacksmith shop and "some other little buildings" on the lot and had not been a popular location for the courthouse.
It was obvious that by this time, everyone was tired of the controversy. Said an August 22, 1879 editorial: "We are aware of the fact that the people are wearied and tired of the Court House question in every way and shape, and would be glad if they could be let alone."
So by September, 1879, the only issue left was a bond vote on the matter. If the bond issue passed, that would be how the courthouse would be paid for. If it failed, the citizens would be taxed a lump sum that year to raise the necessary funding.
The bond referendum failed 516-408 so a direct tax was levied to pay for the courthouse.
On January 24, 1880, Judge Bell issued an order for the courthouse bill to be paid in the amount of $11,123, only $223 over the bid. The closing statement shows that the builders used $300 in old lumber from the previous courthouse.
One interesting side note to the courthouse is that Judge Bell paid 25 cents for each tree planted at the courthouse. The trees were planted by a Mr. J.A. Suddeth, who later recalled that he dug them off his farm and brought them to the site. Some 50 trees were originally planted, he said.
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