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Memories from the Museum–The Courthouse

February 8th, 2009 by

by Sheilla Lampkin

In light of the current restoration work being done at the Drew County Courthouse; we’ll look at the history of the present Drew County Courthouse in the next few weeks to see how the Drew County Courthouse we recognize today came into existence.
Drew County’s present courthouse celebrated its 75th year in 2007 and is destined to serve its people decades into the future.
Born in the midst of the Great Depression because of a perceived need for space and a concern that the regal, old courthouse recognizable in so many pictures was unsafe, this “new” courthouse was planned, constructed and dedicated in 1931-32.
To better understand the situation facing county government in 1931 when this occurred, we must review the historic formation of Drew County and its past courthouse properties. Drew County was created in 1846 from parts of Arkansas County and Bradley County as the 52nd county in Arkansas. The first county court was held at the home of Alexander Rawls. (This area later became a part of Ashley County.) In 1848 the county court was moved to the Rogers School in an early settlement atop Rough and Ready Hill. The first county officials were W. H. Wells, county judge; Young R. Royal, clerk; D. D. Greer, sheriff; W. C. Guice, treasurer; E. J. Howard, surveyor; and T. Hale, coroner.
By 1849 the name “Rough and Ready” was considered “too rough” for a growing community. The town site was largely abandoned when a new city, Monticello, was organized “down the hill” on 83.02 acres donated by Fountain and Polly Austin.
The town of Monticello was laid out around a 170 foot square that was intended to be the site for a courthouse.
Sales from the other city lots surrounding the square allowed money to be set aside for construction of said courthouse. Soon $460.00 was set aside for building materials and $174.00 for construction costs. (Total: $634.00) A new wooden building was ready for use in October, 1851, as the county courthouse. (Incidentally, the town of Monticello was “incorporated” in 1852.)
By 1856 this first courthouse was considered “too small’ for the growing community. It was literally “moved” to the west side of the square (in the vicinity of Mullis Insurance Agency) and a new courthouse was constructed on the original square at a cost of $3400.
This second one has been described as “more impressive” than the previous courthouse. It measured 40 x 65 foot and was a white frame two-story building with a painted roof and gutters to carry water to a 500-barrel cistern on each side of the building. It was carpeted with “bagging” and surrounded by a fence. It even had a $40.00 bell to toll community events.
This courthouse served the county well until 1870. By this time it, too, had begun to appear inadequate for the needs or “perceptions” of the new fledgling community. Plans for a new and “proper” brick courthouse were developed and soon came to fruition.
On October 20, 1870, the new courthouse, reminiscent of a “French castle”, was begun. The architectural firm of Jones and Baldwin of Memphis, Tennessee, had drawn  plans for the building designed in the Second Empire style so popular at the time. (This architectural style took its name from the Second Empire of Napoleon III. It featured a  Mansard roof; a steeply sloped roof that held a full story, a tower, elaborate ornamental features and a symmetrical floor plan, among other features.)
Construction of the building was awarded to builder L. W. Lissenbee of Little Rock at  a cost of $48,620. The wood and brick used came from local sources. Those said brick were formed from clay found one mile north of the square in what was known as Jordan field.
Framework for the doors and windows were made by a local furniture dealer, Joe Laude, a native of France.
The new courthouse featured a majestic tower rising 110 feet into the air and a large four-faced Seth Thomas clock. A large bell was hung in the tower that pealed the time for 60+ years, as well as sounding fire alarms, assembling the citizenry for meetings, proclaiming the New Year, tolling for funerals, and other special occasions.
Two wells were dug near the square, one for livestock and the other for people. (One well was found a few years ago when Union bank was expanding westward. The other probably lies under Cockrell’s Shoes.))
The 1870 courthouse served the community well at various times throughout the years as courtroom, post office, banquet hall, lecture room, ballroom, office building, church, voting precinct, meeting hall, skating rink, etc.
It was a favorite haunt of youngsters who liked to climb the steps to the top of the tower and view the surrounding areas. Drew County was proud of its courthouse and the town of Monticello thrived around it.
However, by 1931 the grand old building had begun to be perceived as “too small” for the ever-expanding county records. Some of the citizenry began to fear the building was also becoming unsafe. No doubt others wanted a “shiny new and modern-looking” structure for the seat of government.
Those forces for change won and a new courthouse was built, but not without a battle!

(Today most observers long for the beauty and grandeur of the building that was lost. Two questions always arise from the subject of the old 1870 courthouse: 1) If histories preservationists had been active in 1931, couldn’t this grand old building been saved, much as Lakeport in Chicot County, the Ridgeway and other unique structures?; 2) Why was the Depression so late in coming to South Arkansas that the present courthouse, City Hall and the old post office were all built during this earlier tragic economic period in American history?)
Next week: The battle rages.

One Response to “Memories from the Museum–The Courthouse”

  1. Keith Vincent says:

    Thank you for such an excellent history of the courthouses in your county. If you would like to see several postcards of the current courthouse and the preceding one, my site has several that might be of some interest. The website is courthousehistory.com and one just needs to go then to Arkansas and then Drew county. Hope these postcards will be of some interest.

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