Our Historic Courthouse
I imagine that sitting at the feet of Socrates probably wasn’t much
different than being seated in front of Dr. Jones. Having not had
the privilege of knowing Socrates, I can only guess that the casual
self-assurance of both men comes from a lifetime spent drawing from
the well of knowledge. Dr. George Jones can measure out a fascinating
cup of stories from his pail of experience. As historian of the
Henderson County Genealogical and Historical Society, his collection
"There was the time when they were trying some criminals in
the courthouse, probably during prohibition, and one of the criminals
walked out and shot dead the Federal Marshall who had testified
against him." That is his favorite story he told me, eyes twinkling.
"Really?, " I replied incredulously. "How come they
let them have guns in the courtroom then?" He raised his shoulders
and shrugged, "I don’t know, but he sure shot him."
But let’s go back to the beginning, way back, even before there
was a street. In the 1820’s, Dr. Jones relates, the U.S. government
offered contracts to build a system of turnpike roads through 16
states. The road that interests us in the discussion of our Historic
Courthouse is the Greenville Turnpike, later called the Buncombe
Turnpike which connected Greenville S.C. to Greenville, Tenn. The
Vallentine and Ripley families operated this toll road and by order
of the N.C. Legislature, all Henderson County residents were allowed
to use the Buncombe Turnpike without paying the toll. It is on this
historic turnpike that our Historic Courthouse sits.
It was the Historic Courthouse that marked the beginning of urban
life in Henderson County. By order of the North Carolina Legislature
in 1838, "X. Be it further enacted that Asa Edney, Capt. Robert
Jones, Richard Allen, John Miller, Benjamin Wilson, Epaphraditius
Hightower, John Clayton, Esqr., Col. Samual Chunn, Reuben Deavor,
John Jarrett, Sr, and John Young are hereby appointed Commissioners
to select and detemine upon a site for a permanent seat of Justice
for said County who shall locate the same as near the center of
said County as practicable by taking into consideration both the
extent of territory and population…XI. Be it further enacted that
seven of the above commisoners first named shall have power to purchase
or receive donation for the use of the County of Henderson a tract
of land consisting of not less than twenty-five acres to be conveyed
to the Chairman of the County Court and his successors in office
upon which a town shall be laid off and shall be called Hendersonville,
where the court house and jail shall be erected and where, after
completion of the court house, the court of said county shall be
held and the clerks and register shall keep their offices."
Thus, as Dr. Jones accurately points out Hendersonville was born
with the establishment of the courthouse. Thus, the Courthouse is
much more than a building, it is the catalyst and heart of the historical
record of Hendersonville.
The Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions as it was originally called
met quarterly and held it’s first meeting in Noble Johnson’s house
in Horseshoe. After that first meeting they met for the next two-three
years at the Mills River Academy—a very fine school Dr. Jones reminds
us. The Court of Pleas and Sessions then moved towards the city
to the Osborne Store building possibly located at the intersection
of Haywood Road and the Buncombe Turnpike Road (Hwy. 25).
As you will remember, our first commissioners were charged by the
legislature with finding a suitable permanent home for the Courthouse.
Just in case you think the present dust storm with the Texas legislators
over redistricting is a new phenomena, listen to Dr. Jones recount
this saga of Henderson County history. "The legislature had
decreed that the Courthouse was to "take into consideration
both the extent of territory and population." Well, most of
the population lived in Mills River and along the French Broad.
Four of the commissioners, Asa Edney, Capt. Robert Jones, Richard
Allen and John Miller didn’t want to put the county seat up near
the French Broad and wanted it closer to their property. One of
those was my great grandfather, Capt. Robert Jones, a real hardheaded
stubborn man. Everytime the commissioners would meet, these four
commissioners would just walk out so that no vote could be taken.
Then, from ’39 to ’41 they just started suing each other. In order
to evade the Sheriff’s subpoena, they regularly hide out in the
hills. It’s not unusual for people to hide out in these mountains.
Finally the sheriff, tired of hunting for Robert Jones, took the
subpoena and nailed it to his door. In the end the matter was taken
to the citizens and the four commissioners in the minority of eleven
won. The NC legislature was tired of fooling with their suits and
sided with the citizens and that was the end of that argument. Mitchell
King, James Johnson, and James Brittain gave sufficient land for
the city and lots were sold to finance the courthouse, stocks and
jail." Eric Rudolph, Texas and partisan politics have a long
history here, too.
The first brick courthouse building was erected in 1845 at a cost
of $7,994. The temporary building that had been built for $366.70
to serve the Court while the permanent building was being built
was torn down and sold for $70.00. This first brick courthouse was
used until the present courthouse was built in back of it in 1905
for $38,000. Now here is where my favorite story comes in.
Under the title, "Court House Improvement" from the Hendersonville
Times, September 15, 1905, "Some extensive and important improvements
are being made on the court house grounds. The ruins of the former
building have been almost entirely removed;… and several trees have
been cut down…It was in connection with the last mentioned task
that the trouble started. Among the trees marked for destruction
was one which had shaded Judge Pace’s office for time whereof the
memory of man runneth not to the contrary. The judge, whose heart
is big in proportion to his physical frame and who has a marked
capacity for forming strong attachments, had learned to love that
tree. He notified the executioners to stay their hands and abandon
their deadly purpose. When they told him that the tree must go,
he replied that if they attacked it they could do so only over his
dead body. Eternal vigilance is the price of most things which are
worth having, and the judge’s efforts were untiring. But human endurance
has its limits; sleep is a necessity of human existence. On Monday
night all was well, and Judge Pace turned his face homewards. On
Tuesday morning when he arrived on the scene of his official activities
the tree was gone and the judges’ feelings can better be imagined
than described… the death of one tree might not seem to be any very
great loss, but that tree was dear to the heart of one venerable
citizen. Its shade had cooled his brow while he wrestled with the
nightmare of sixteen to one; it had comforted him in the dark days
when his political foes were entrenched in the stronghold at Washington;
when nations were warring and empires were crumbling and had tempered
his enthusiasm or mitigated his grief. Everybody who knows Judge
Pace can understand his feelings and sympathize with him in his
present sorrow." I surely do, Judge Pace.
Former Commissioner Don Ward’s grandaddy, Phillip Thomas Ward, current
Commissioner Shannon Baldwin’s relative Commissioner J. J. Baldwin
and Commissioner Solomon Washington Hamilton were on hand to dedicate
the imposing classical revival style courthouse that glorious day
in 1905. The courthouse was fashioned by architect R.S. Smith and
constructed by an army of skilled craftsmen working under the direction
of William F. Edwards.
Lovely and young, Zacnite Figueroa stepped down from the stage,
her dreams firmly in heart. Beyond her favorite things like lions
and pizza and the nice teachers at Hendersonville Middle School
lies her ultimate goal—college. She is fortunate to have found the
helping arms of her family, Irene Medina and the American Association
of University Women.
If only walls could talk. There must be a thousand stories in that
building. Surely another venerable Socrates among us, Francis Coiner,
who practiced law in our Historic Courthouse for fifty years has
a few to share as well. Why not insist that he tell you a few?
However, there seems to be a grander story about this imposing edifice
that goes beyond the columns and cornices. It is a story of pride
and sacrifice. The Historic Courthouse, our oldest significant architectural
building, is representative of the character of our Henderson County
forebears. They had little but they gave much. For the most part,
they were yeoman farmers who would never have $38,000 in their lifetimes
or ten lifetimes, but they were willing to pool their sweat earned
money for a public building embellished with pride. They viewed
the Courthouse as the center of their political life and symbolic
of their submission to godly law. It was bigger than the sum total
of any of them. It represented their belief in personal sacrifice
so that something larger to benefit their community could exist.
Our courthouse is not the work of aristocratic donors, it is the
heartfelt sacrifice of everyday citizens. They sacrificed to build
it then, we must sacrifice to save it now.
(I would like to express my appreciation to Virginia Thompson,
President of the Geneological & Historical Society for her assistance
Update: In a
column by Times News reporter Joel Burgess last week, the relationship
between the newly formed committee to preserve the Historic Courthouse
and the County Commissioners took on the appearance of a game of
hot potato. Seems as though a few skinflints on the Commission—we
never seem to have a shortage of those in Henderson County—want
the committee to fund the entire $10 (?) million dollar renovation
on their own as a private non profit. This thinly disguised magnamity
on the part of the Commissioners would no doubt shield them from
their failure to budget sufficient monies in years past for maintenance
and capitol improvements. "No new taxes" has its consequences.
Stay tuned, the agony is just beginning for our plastic card commissioners.
(November 28, 2003)
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