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Monticello Memories – The Old Courthouse, on the Square

March 27th, 2011 by

The old Drew County Courthouse, on the Town Square

In light of Monticello’s recent improvements to the town square, my thoughts again turn to the old courthouse square and what a treasure it is for Monticello. I can’t help but regret the demolition of the old courthouse that once stood there though.

A brick from he "Old Courthouse on the Square."

Since the old courthouse was torn down in 1933, there are few Drew Countians who remember what a regal structure it was! Built in 1870, it proudly stood in the center of the Square and watched over daily activities in the growing city for 63 years. Its 110-foot tower held a four-faced clock and a large bell. (The clock is lost in antiquity, but the courthouse bell sits proudly by Weevil Pond on the UAM campus.)

For the curious, there is one place in Drew County where the old courthouse can still be seen as vividly as it stood over 75 years ago. Therefore, I am extending an invitation to you to visit the Drew County Historical Museum to see the old courthouse as it must have looked in the mid-1870s.

While we have a scant few photographs of the courthouse on the square, we do possess a wonderfully detailed oil painting of the “grand old lady”. The manner in which this painting came into our possession is a great story within itself.

Our story begins in the aftermath of the great Chicago fire in 1871. Among the multitudes of lives and businesses lost was the dental practice of a man named James Smith. In need of a livelihood, Smith applied for a federal job and wound up in Monticello as postmaster in 1876. He stayed here until 1878 before establishing a dental practice in Little Rock. He returned to Chicago only to wed and bring his bride to Arkansas to live and raise a family.

Our Mr. Smith was much more than a postmaster or dentist though. He was quite a talented painter. While in Monticello, he gave art lessons to some of our leading citizens and produced a dynamic portrait of the newly-constructed Drew County Courthouse that filled the Square.

When James Smith came to Monticello, the courthouse was a new and imposing figure. His painting reflects the building in all its original glory and splendor. The details of the structure he captured in their fullness. You could almost count the bricks if you were so minded!

By studying Smith’s four feet high painting, you can quickly appreciate the unique and old-world charm and elegance of the building that has been described as our “French castle”. It was actually constructed in the Second Empire style that featured a tower topped with a steeply sloped mansard roof. The tower formed a projecting pavilion that served as the main entrance to the building. A variety of other ornamental features adorned all views of the building.

Built of red brick made at the Jordan brickyard just north of town, it was topped by a fenced area that held a 25-star flag. (The courthouse was originally built during the post-Civil War years known as the Reconstruction period. In 1870 there were only 25 recognized states as the others weren’t yet “reconstructed”.) All of these details Mr. Smith captured on his canvas and you will be amazed when you study it.

As if all those details and features weren’t enough, there’s more to the painting. James Smith entitled his painting “Election Day” and incorporated a bevy of citizens in the courtyard who presumably have, or will, cast their ballots.

I won’t spoil your study by elaborating on these details, but you really should come and observe the “crowd”. The make-up and actions of the citizenry imply a great deal about the history and culture of the period. Many little “features” also reaffirm several “practices” we have heard were prevalent in the political practices of the time. (There were even such “rumors” abounding in our recent elections, but we are beyond that today – aren’t we?)

James Smith’s painting is difficult to truly reproduce with the same emotion and detail in a “cold” photograph, so I encourage you to come and study it for yourself. The museum is open from 1-5 on Friday afternoons and 2-5 on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. If you don’t, you are missing a treat and a true treasure of Drew County!

See you at the museum!!

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