Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

WHY THEY TORE THE COURTHOUSE DOWN

The Laurens County Courthouse, circa 1911.

Buildings go up. Buildings go down. Sometimes economics and progress require their razing. All too often, apathy pulls down the structures we love, the ones that have special meanings. They are the places where we were born or where we married. They are the halls of learning. They are the places we grew up with and we always relied upon to buffer the continuity of the past through the present and into the future.

When the Laurens County Board of Commissioners and Revenue erected the old county courthouse in 1895, it was the most imposing and ornate structure any where around in these parts. In those days, architects had no electrical, plumbing or air condition systems to design. Utility and cost were often the primary design requirements.

For three score and seven years, the grand government house served the people of Laurens County. But as the population of the county began to skyrocket after the end of World War II, more and more people meant more and more crimes. Real estate transactions escalated. More storage space was needed. For twenty-five years, the county had shifted some of its operations a block away to the old post office on Madison Street. Moreover, the bricks furnished by local brick maker L.A. Chapman were beginning to fail. Nearly all systems were malfunctioning, and often.

Something had to be done quickly. And, that’s where the problem began to erupt. The early 1960s was an era of out with old and in with the new. Preservation minded politicians were as scarce as rain gages in the Sahara Desert.

Everyone mostly agreed that a new courthouse was needed. The number one question was where to build it. Option one was to remodel and expand. That choice was immediately discounted due to the fact that the existing structure was situated right smack dab in the middle of a traffic island and surrounded by two Federal highways. Option two was to the building in place as strictly a courthouse and moving other offices to other locations in the downtown area, a choice which had been practiced for many years.

The question of ideal working conditions remained. No economically viable solution could found for maintaining two complexes. It always comes down to a question of money.

A third option was to the leave the original building in place a community center and build a self-contained complex on the fringe of the downtown area. A fourth option, one favored by a majority of the county commissioners, was to keep the courthouse on the square and build a new complex out on Telfair Street on the site of the former Laurens County Agricultural Center and Georgia State Patrol Station.

That possibility was no solution at all, especially in the minds of the business owners and operators who had vested and substantial interests in keeping the courthouse in the center of town. In those days, the courthouse was open on Saturday when the country folk and the working people came to downtown to shop.

The question of relocating became a moot one. The main issue was renovating or building a new one. And, that’s where the problem really began. There were still quite a few residents and even more tax payers who saw little need for paying more taxes. Many folks just didn’t want to see the center piece of their heritage ripped down and replaced with a cold cookie cutter building, void of any character and charm whatsoever.

I can’t blame them. If I had not been six years old, I would have been picketing out front of the building, even though it was the site of where I received the first spanking I ever got, or the one I remember most vividly. You see, my daddy warned me not to mess with the ink well in the clerk’s office. Not two moments later, the indigo liquid was all over the front of my pants and my daddy’s spanking hand all over the back of them.

In August 1962, the voters of Laurens County went to the polls and cast a resounding defeat of the bond issue to fund the building of a new building on the courthouse square. The commissioners were in a quandary. There was no money to build or renovate, so the commissioners turned to an old time friend of Laurens County.

They placed a call to Cong. Carl Vinson of Milledgeville, who had several Laurens County for more than fifty years. Vinson, who had already secured the location of the VA Hospital and Interstate Highway 16 in the county, used his powerful influence to include the project in an early form of a stimulus bill proposed by Pres. John F. Kennedy.

President Kennedy had a belief that Federal funding of municipal and county construction projects would help to extend the county’s continuing economic recovery after World War II. With the funding of half of the project in hand, the bond issue was approved by the voters in November. It would be the first time in American history that a county courthouse was built with Federal funds.

Vinson would continue to support our county by appropriating additional funds to build a new library. Thankfully forward thinking citizens fought back to prevent the demolition of the old one and in doing so, formed the Laurens County Historical Society, which is now completing its fortieth year of operating the Dublin-Laurens Museum.

Yes, old buildings must fall sooner or later. All I ask is that if they can’t be saved or profitably utilized, recycle some of their parts. Just like Wiley and Barbara Shepard who bricked their two-story wooden 19th Century home with the courthouse bricks. Or, the members of Christ Episcopal Church who still ring the old bell in praise of the Almighty. Or, even my father, who purchased and installed the old weather vane on top of our house.

Cherish your memories of old buildings. Tell their stories, pick up a brick, but don’t do what I did on the last day of January of this year. In my hasty attempt to save memorable pieces of the old High School, I had a heart attack. I could have easily died. But by the grace of God, who automatically rerouted my arteries around two of the other blockages and all of your prayers, I am still here each week telling you the stories of our people and the land I love.

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