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 is endless.

"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 with materials.)

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)

To my readers: If you ever wonder if I get comments on these columns, I do occasionally. What are your thoughts on the matter?
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*The opinions stated in this page are those of Ms. Eva Ritchey and do not necessarily represent the views of CyTech Computers & Internet Solutions, Inc..
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