Saturday, November 7, 2009


Anyone over the age of forty remembers the old brick courthouse that stood in the center of downtown. How could they have torn that beautiful building down and replace it with a dull “boxlike” courthouse? For sixty seven years, the old building served the county well. It was the scene of political speeches, concerts, weddings, and meetings which shaped the history of our county - not to mention the adjudication of scores of thousands of lawsuits and criminal trials.

It has always been the nature of counties to build new courthouses. Growth in a community invariably brings about changes. The first courthouse on the downtown square was built about 1812. A more substantial one was built just fourteen years later in 1826. Just twenty two years after that, a two-story building, which lasted for forty seven years, was built by the Justices of the Inferior Court, who managed the business affairs of the county. Near the end of the 1880s, county officials, in an effort to find more space, hired an architect to  make design changes to add more room to the Clerk’s office on the rear and to raise the height of the building. These plans were scrapped in a favor of brand new brick building.In 1895, Laurens County erected a new courthouse, which was designed by the architectural firm of Bruce and Morgan of Atlanta. The building was funded by an additional tax on property owners.

The courthouse bell rang, hailing the aging heroes of the Confederate Army.  It signaled the end of the war to end all wars, World War I. The iron bell, three feet in diameter, had been installed when Laurens County's first brick courthouse was built in 1895. During the gubernatorial campaign of 1934, candidate Claude Pittman was scheduled to speak at the courthouse. The janitor climbed to the clock tower to alert the townspeople. The bell was designed to be rung by pulling a rope attached to a big wheel. The rope grew frayed and worn and would no longer work.

The janitor climbed a ladder and struck the bell, presumably with a hammer or a metal object. As he struck the bell, it cracked upward from the base. County officials knew they would need to acquire a new bell since the crack could not be repaired. The cost of a new bell could run as high as two thousand dollars. They turned to scrap metal dealer P.M. Watson. Watson agreed to sell a slightly smaller bronze bell to the county for one hundred dollars. Despite its smaller size, the new bronze bell's vibrations would carry further than the iron one's. That bell, which probably dated back to the 19th century, came from neighboring Dodge County.  Watson purchased the bell in 1939 after the courthouse fire thinking it might be of further use. Until Howard Edward came along with an idea on how to put the bell up in the tower, the old Dodge County bell sat out in front of the courthouse waiting to be hoisted up to its perch. When the courthouse was torn down in 1963, Dubliner W.W. Walke purchased the bell and donated it to Christ Episcopal Church, where it is still in use today. There were plans to build an elaborate bell tower beside the Church, but they never materialized. For some time the bell was turned upside down and used as a planter. One man in charge of ringing the bell drilled a hole in it so that he could ring the bell from the inside of the Church using a long thin wire attached to the hole. You may have wondered what happened to the old original Laurens County courthouse bell. Remember the year it was removed. Mr. Watson sent the old bell, which had signaled so many important events in our history, to perform one more patriotic duty. The bell was melted down and used in the war against Germany and Japan.

After forty years in the building, it became apparent to the commissioners that it was time to build another courthouse. Plans were made in 1938 to build a columned courthouse building in keeping with the old style of courthouses, but with the modern amenities. This plan was set aside with the country’s entry into World War II. In 1957, the Board of Commissioners again turned to the issue of building a new courthouse. A design was submitted in 1957 which called for a two-story brick, steel, and aluminum building, which very typical of governmental buildings of the late 1950s and 1960s. The design featured an ornamental structure resembled the top of four-sided pyramid turned up-side-down on a wedge-shaped base. The bond issue was turned down by the voters.

A large crowd gathered at the Laurens County Courthouse on September 27, 1960 to hear the testimony of a Macon man. This man had seen a lot of immorality in his business and in society as a whole. There were no lawyers in the courtroom that night - no judge, no jury. Buses were sent around town to bring folks to hear the man's testimony. He came to Dublin to speak about what Jesus meant to him and that he would rather have Jesus than all the fame of being a movie star or rock and roll singer. As the man rose to speak, the crowd must have gone into a frenzy. The man was not in his usual attire or putting on his public personality. He was Richard Penniman, Christian. You know him by his other name, "Little Richard." There were a lot of amens that night, but alas, no "Tutti Frutti" or "Good Golly Miss Molly."

It wasn't an easy thing to do. The county courthouse of 1895 had outlived its usefulness as a courthouse. The bricks weren't the best in the world. The clerk's office was out of room. The justice of the peace was crammed in an office under the stairs. The courtroom's temperature ranged from freezing to boiling. The wiring was dangerously overloaded. The clock didn't work. There seemed to be thousands of pigeons on the weather vane. The downtown merchants didn't want the courthouse moved. Remember in those days, there was no mall, and the courthouse was open on Saturdays. Several possibilities were proposed. Maybe the Federal government would abandon its building and construct a new post office. Perhaps a new courthouse could be built on the county's property on Telfair Street. Other downtown sites were considered. A bond issue to fund a new courthouse was voted down by Laurens Countians. The only remaining solution was to contact Cong. Carl Vinson.

Cong. Vinson had always come through for Laurens County. The powerful Milledgeville congressman was able to obtain federal funds for one half the cost of the new building. Construction began in the winter of 1963 on the first federally funded courthouse in the United States. The new three-story building was opened on July 21, 1964. Speaking at the dedication ceremonies were Cong. Carl Vinson, Secretary of Commerce Luther Hodges, and Gov. Carl Sanders. The new building isn't as beautiful as the old one, but that's always the case. If the old lady had lived another thirty years, maybe our citizens wouldn't have let her die. One silver lining was the rescue of the Carnegie Library building. It was slated for demolition in 1966 and was saved by many concerned citizens, who eventually formed the Laurens County Historical Society. Other pieces of the old building were sold at public auction. Dale Thompson bought the weather vane for his new house. Barbara and Wiley Shepard bought many of the bricks for their new home. Willis Sapp bought one of the safes for his jewelry business. One piece, and perhaps the most important piece, was the cornerstone. The marble stone on which inscribed with the names of J.F. Fuller, M.S. Jones, J.M. Finn, J.R. McDaniel, and T.J. Blackshear, county commissioners in 1895, was salvaged by the Laurens County Historical Society, but was evidently damaged or lost while sent for repair.