The Vagabond – Etowah County’s first courthouse

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By Danny Crownover

Etowah County’s first courthouse in 1870 was a small red brick building of colonial design featuring four immense white pillars in front and a porch extending out over the entire front. Underneath the portico was a small iron-railed balcony, on which constable John Jones stood when he called lawyers, judges, witnesses, and litigants to court by shouting, “Oh yes, oh yes, John Doe come into court.”

Right in front of what was the Lee building and inside the courthouse grounds was the famous courthouse well. There was a beautiful grove of trees in the courthouse yard and a wooden fence with cut rails surrounded the grounds and the building. A hitching ground was located at the front of the building with numerous hitching racks and posts.

Record shows that Colonel R.B. Kyle and Major W.P. Hollingsworth, two of Gadsden’s wealthiest merchants, were commissioned to build the city’s first courthouse. They advertised for 250,000 bricks for that purpose.

It has always been said that the brick was made on the Jimmy Gardner farm located between what is now Gardner Street, at the North Carolina & St. Louis Railroad and Ninth and Tenth streets.

John Cunningham hauled some of the brick with an ox team and used to tell of an experience in connection with his first real job that cured his urge to gamble. Cunningham said that he drove that ox team for three months, and at the end of his contract, he had made $68. Cunningham carried the money around in his pocket and enjoyed its possession to no end.

One day a small circus arrived in town, and along with it came the inevitable shell game artist. Cunningham said that he spent all of his money trying to locate that little pea under the right shell. He was sure that he saw the man put the pea under the right shell, but every time he was mistaken. Cunningham never liked to think about gambling for the rest of his life.

Sam Henry donated one-eighth of the site for the courthouse, provided it would be used for that purpose alone. His heirs were paid a reasonable price for it when the county sold the property.

When the courthouse was under construction, a local newspaper suggested that a third story be added for use by the Masonic Lodge, which, next to churches, seems to have been the most important and most influential organization in the little town. One of the main business sections was known as the Masonic Lodge block. The paper said that it was sure that the Etowah County Board of Commissioners would consent to the addition if the county would provide the money.

The lodge had some cash on hand and could raise more so that the addition would mean a much more imposing public building.

Fortunately, the county commissioners did not wish to see the pretty little colonial structure turned into an architectural monstrosity, and the building was completed as it was originally designed.

In the northeast corner room where Captain James T. Brooks held forth as mayor and tried all of the police court cases for two years, a portion of the floor sagged several inches.

The courtroom on the second floor was carpeted by cotton bagging, and in no time after it had been put down was stained red from tobacco juice. It was a perfect collector of germs, as well.

A well that was much used by the public was located near the door of the present annex on Court Street. It was roofed and enclosed with lattice work.

One night the city council passed an ordinance requiring the town marshal to make continual rounds of the business section at night and to tap the courthouse bell once every half hour to let the people know that he was on the job and that everything was safe. It soon dawned on the council that it was physically impossible for the marshal to make his rounds and shake store doors to see if they were locked while at the same time ringing the bell every half hour. The ordinance soon was repealed. Al Gwin used to tell how the boys of his generation would tie a calf to the bell rope and of how it sounded irregular alarms while trying to break free.

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