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The Seat Of Power
I can’t speak for crooks, drifters, and others standing before a judge, but law-abiding Georgians love their courthouses and well they should. Georgia has one of America’s great collections of courthouses. The buildings range from Greek Revival to International Style. In fact, just about every architectural style imaginable can be found in Georgia’s 159 counties.
What’s interesting is that although Georgia is the twentieth largest state, it is second in number of courthouses. Only Texas has more. Without doubt, Georgia has a reputation for having some of the more beautiful and historic courthouses in the country.
In the smaller, rural counties the courthouse reigns as the area’s indisputable architectural gem. It’s the county’s ultimate power symbol too: the incontestable seat of power. Few structures provide a more powerful focal point for good behavior than the courthouse. Violate the law and the courthouse may be your personal Waterloo.
In 2002, I traveled to many towns while working on a book about the history of Worker’s Compensation insurance in Georgia. I interviewed a lot of lawyers and not surprisingly I visited a lot of courthouses. Most are gems. Just about all of them serve as imposing reminders of where true power resides. One hundred thirty-two Georgia courthouses are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Lincoln County’s courthouse stands among them.
We came by today’s courthouse in a series of phases. When legislation carved Lincoln County from Wilkes County in 1796, the act stipulated that county commissioners select a site for a county seat and build a courthouse there. The 1796 act further directed that elections and court sessions first be held at Joseph Stovall’s house.
Lincolnton, settled near a spring then called Founders Spring, was named the county seat around 1800. The first court in Lincoln County was held in the old Ferguson House, which afterwards became the Dozier Hotel. When Lincolnton was designated the county seat, a stone courthouse was built. Later, on March 2, 1874, the legislature approved Lincoln County’s loan of $12,000 for building a new courthouse. That two-story courthouse rose from Lincoln County soil and served the people until 1915 when the present courthouse was built. An architectural website states that Little, Cleckler Construction Company built the current brick and stone structure and that architect G. Lloyd Preacher designed the building. The cost of construction for building the Neoclassical Revival courthouse was $24,340.
Neoclassical Revival architecture by the way is “defined by a commanding facade with a full height porch, its roof supported by classical columns. The columns are often fluted and the capitals are usually ornate Ionic or Corinthian. The Neoclassical Revival is also symmetrical with its entry centered and flanked by a balanced array of windows. Curved, flat roofed porticos are seen occasionally.”
Neoclassical Revival has been prominently used for public buildings and banks, institutions where people anticipate a bit of gravitas or dignity. Getting divorced, filing a deed, and condemning a man to the gallows quite rightly deserve a degree of solemnity. It wouldn’t seem as judicial would it to receive a life sentence while standing before a judge in a mobile home.
As you’d expect being the seat of power, county courthouses see their share of drama and life-changing decisions. Thus the courthouse plays a prominent role in Southern literature. Take Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Hollywood went to great pains to recreate the courtroom for Atticus Finch in the Monroe County, Alabama, courthouse for the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird. And that most southern of writers, William Faulkner, referred to this omnipresent symbol of power in Requiem for a Nun using grandiose words.
“But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county’s circumference like a single cloud in its ring of horizon, laying its vast shadow to the uttermost rim of horizon; musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as a rock, dominating all: protector of the weak, judicate and curb of the passions and lusts, repository and guardian of the aspirations and hopes.”
In 1984 John Grisham witnessed the disturbing testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim at the De Soto County courthouse in Hernando, Mississippi. A Time To Kill resulted.
For certain, courthouses serve up a mix of stories, plots, and memories. I have an unusual collection of memories centering on the hometown courthouse. Not long after I joined the staff at South Carolina Wildlife, a blonde secretary with few rivals when it came to good looks asked me where I was from. I knew that she worked stints as a model and had appeared in television commercials. “Well,” I told her, “I doubt you ever heard of where I’m from. It’s a small town in eastern Georgia by the name of Lincolnton.”
“Oh yes I have,” she exclaimed. “A man named Homer Legg married me there at the courthouse when I was just a teenager.” After a few second’s pause she added, “I had to get married.” She was divorced when I came to know her but Homer Legg’s ceremony had legitimized her and her sons.
On another occasion the scenario repeated itself. Another woman told me Legg had performed her marriage. She too had to get married. Lincolnton, being the first town you come to on Highway 378 from South Carolina became a haven for “girls in trouble” as the old expression went. The Lincoln County courthouse apparently was the destination for young unwed South Carolina mothers back in the 1960s.
Growing up I knew nothing of all that child out-of-wedlock business. I knew one thing, though: the courthouse impressed me, intimidated me even. First of all I found its size to be mammoth. It was the only building in Lincolnton visible from three miles away on the Augusta Highway where I grew up. Even now, driving toward Lincolnton, if you know just where and when to look, the courthouse reveals itself on the horizon as you approach where Mr. Henry Partridge’s sawmill once stood. Look quickly and you’ll see the courthouse dome peek over the green tree line.
Second, the place struck me as the site for serious matters. As a boy whenever I entered the building I got the notion that I was in a sacred, powerful place. It always intimidated me to go into that place. I knew it was the last stop a fellow would make before landing in jail. Do something wrong and you’d pay a price.
In 1972, I got a chance to participate in such serious matters. Despite my 1970’s era long hair and a pair of John Lennon spectacles and bad taste in clothes I was chosen as a jury member and then in a bigger surprise chosen as its foreman. The case we heard involved that of a man who had been caught robbing lake homes. He was in the process of rifling through a cabin when he saw its occupants driving down the lane leading to the cabin. He dropped his loot and scurried away from the cabin. The occupants realizing they had been robbed, called the law, and the law found this fellow walking down the road with a rifle scope in his back pocket, a piece of loot he forgot to ditch.
That riflescope did him in. We found him guilty. And then the judge told us this fellow had already served two terms for burglarizing lake homes and we’d have to determine how many years he’d serve without parole. He could serve a minimum of one year or a maximum of twenty. After three ballots we were nowhere near agreement so we added all three ballots and averaged them out: seven years without parole.
Not all courthouse memories are so serious. Eddie Drinkard’s fondest memories of the courthouse were when Vern Sturkey, the custodian/janitor, would take several kids up into the clock tower. “We’d go up some stairs in the dark. There was a small square that would open so you could see out above the houses and trees. There was always one condition, we had to be out before the next time the clock struck. It would burst your eardrums or so we were told and we were not taking any chances.”
That experience, said Eddie, was pretty cool when you were seven to eight years old. “Also,” he said, “if you were lucky enough to have a pair of roller skates (the metal kind with a key to tighten it onto the soles of your shoes) we would skate on the concrete around the monument in front of the courthouse. Sort of a 60’s version of Roller Derby!”
Eddie said too that he would always remember doing business with Mr. Ben Ross whose office was upstairs just before going into the courtroom.
“Going into the courtroom.” That phrase has a negative tone to it if you are on the wrong side of the law. But that’s why such buildings exist: to dispense justice, sort out disputes, maintain records, and in general bring an orderly way of life to the people in the county. And you could say with authenticity to add an element of beauty as well.
Atop Lincoln County’s courthouse, one that will be 100 years old in 2015, sits a cupola with a green patina like that of oxidized copper. Green metal roofing matches the cupola. The deep red bricks contrast with the four white columns. Those red bricks came from Lincoln County clay. Out front fly the state and national flags. Between those flags stand the county’s memorial to local veterans of four wars who made the supreme sacrifice. Those men fought that we can be free, that we have the right to make laws and see that justice is served. They died so that you can use the courthouse and judicial system to redress grievances and wrongs.
Thus do we have courthouses all over Georgia. These grand old buildings house the scales of justice, which generally do their thing in a just and impartial manner. On the absolute top of our courthouse you’ll find a weathervane. “Justice is often the wind that blows the criminal to his punishment” goes the old quote. This stately old courthouse has long blown justice to criminals while doing its share to contribute to Georgia’s legacy as a state known for its alluring seats of power. Beauty, history, justice, social conventions, and architecture: they all come together and they all reside at many a courthouse in Georgia.
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