"The Courthouse Wars,"
(Part I)
by Eva Margaret Carnes

West Virginia Review
January 1944

There is a seldom-told story in West Virginia, the story of towns that once served as county seats only to lose their prestige when the courthouses were removed to other locations. It is a story rife with political intrigue, personal feuds, local civil wars when an armed citizenry insisted on removing county records, legal opinions, and appeasement programs. It involves at least two of our State institutions, the locations of which were the results of courthouse arguments. One town, once the county seat, consists today of only one dilapidated brick house. At another, can still be seen the foundations of a pretentious seat of justice which was never completed because another town became the county seat. One courthouse is today a part of a State school. And so it goes. Local politics played a large share, and personal desire for gain helped. Even industrial heads added their bit to this story of "things that might have been." Two of West Virginia's - Virginia's, rather, for this was before the State was divided - former county seats are in Pennsylvania. For a short time, in 1775, the county seat of the District of West Augusta was at Catfish Camp in Pennsylvania. You know the town today as Washington. This vast territory included all of what is now northern West Virginia and much of southwestern Pennsylvania and was a Virginia district. In 1776 the Virginia Assembly divided this territory into three counties, Monongalia, Ohio, and Yohogania. The latter county lay within the present bounds of the state of Pennsylvania and West Liberty became the county seat of Ohio County. Monongalia's county seat, however, was at the farm of Theophilus Phillips, about two miles east of Geneva, Pennsylvania, and Phillips was the county clerk. The county seat, housed in a log barn, remained in this Pennsylvania location until the Mason and Dixon's line was completed, and in 1782 the Assembly ordered the county seat moved into Virginia. Morgantown became, and has remained, the county seat of Monongalia County. Today nothing remains to mark Monongalia's out-of-state courthouse.

West Liberty remained the seat of justice for Ohio County until 1797, when it was included in the territory taken from Ohio to form the new county of Brooke. Wheeling became the county seat of Ohio and Wellsburg won the accolade as county town for the new county. West Liberty settled down to a placid existence after having been the leading town of the State's richest county.

These changes were quiet and were made in an orderly manner. No doubt there were citizens in West Liberty who felt that their town should, by right, have been selected for the county seat when the Assembly created Brooke County. But they took it with good grace and apparently made no protests.

Beverly's story is a different one. Randolph County was formed from Harrison in 1787 and Beverly was laid out for the county seat. Although it was many years before the courthouse was completed, the town was smug in its knowledge that it was the leader of the large county. Churches were established, academies opened, and it was here that the first doctor in the section opened his offices. The bar became a famous one. Brick homes on either side of the main street were in the southern tradition.

Through the Civil War its citizenry held faithful to the cause of the South although the town itself was occupied for much of the time by Union forces. For many years after hostilities had ceased the people of the town met at the horseshoe-pitching lot and talked of "The War." Others in the county sometimes remarked that "Beverly has never surrendered."

But Beverly was out of the line of the march of progress in the industrial development which followed "The War." The major town on the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway was built near the Leading Creek settlement, five miles north of Beverly, and was named Elkins. The Ekins' and the Davis' built pretentious summer homes on the hills overlooking the new town, which boomed with industry. The Davis' and the Elkins' liked for their towns to be county seats, too.

The first bit of bad luck came in 1892 when the courthouse at Beverly was destroyed by fire. A new one was immediately begun and so was an agitation among the people of the Elkins section. They wanted the courthouse at Elkins. The county officials proceeded with construction and the new courthouse was completed in 1897. But the Elkins enthusiasts demanded an election to determine the site of the county seat. They lost in the first election, for a majority of three- fifths was required, and they appealed to the Supreme Court of West Virginia. They lost a second election, and, according to the county court, a third. The third was appealed to the State's supreme tribunal and the decision of the county court was reversed. Elkins won the courthouse in 1900.

But Beverly and Elkins had not been quiet during this series of elections and court decisions. Feeling between the two towns was bitter. Rumors of armed citizenry marching on the county seat to capture the county records flew thick and fast. Friends in the two towns no longer saw each other and business between the residents came to a standstill. Beverly people stayed at home at night for they felt that that was the safest place. Men who had served in "The War" got the Beverly people together and formed a military company, throwing up entrenchments about the clerk's office. Armed guards stood ready to protect the county's - and Beverly's - public property. Pickets were placed at distances of half-mile intervals for two miles down the Beverly Pike toward Elkins. And then, in 1897, the courthouse was mysteriously burned.

The clerk's office and the records were saved. Beverly still had something to fight for. The feud continued. In the spring of 1900 feeling had reached a breaking point. Elkins patriots chartered a special train to the county seat and more than five hundred Elkins men, armed with every kind of a weapon, waited to climb aboard.

Beverly had not refought the Civil War in vain. Squire John DeWitt, an Elkins magistrate who favored the Beverly side of the question, rode madly into Beverly howling at the top of his voice that "The Hessians are coming." Randolph people had not forgotten the Revolution either. And Beverly rallied round. Armed with muskets that had seen duty in other wars, one hundred and fifty brave men advanced to the old trenches at Mount Iser and took their places where Imboden's men had stood to repel an invasion thirty-nine years before.

But the invasion never came. Older and more level heads in Elkins got together and Judge C. Woods Dailey was appointed to try to discourage the crowd. From the steps of the Elkins National Bank he pleaded with the crowd. One of his strongest arguments was that there was sure to be bloodshed - and the crowd quietly dispersed.

The train was dismissed, and no doubt there were a number of disappointed men in the trenches at Beverly.

A few days later the decision of the Supreme Court settled the question and Elkins became the county seat. The citizens of Beverly were law-abiding citizens. If the Court said they would lose the courthouse, all well and good. It would be peaceably done. But they still knew that the Elkins people couldn't take their records from them by force.

Huntersville, in Pocahontas County, too lost the county seat to the industrial forces of the section. Maybe Huntersville lacked the fighting traditions of Beverly for she lost her courthouse by election and without raising a single musket.

Marlinton, with promises of a coming railroad, made her bid for the county seat in 1891 when an election was held to determine the site of the courthouse. Marlinton won in spite of the fact that Huntersville had been the county town since the county was established in 1821. Huntersville protested and demanded another election, hoping to bring the seat of justice back home again. This election was held in 1894 but it was a lost cause. Marlinton was again the victor. And like the others, Huntersville settled into a quiet village, but a village with remembrances of past glories.

Calhoun's county seat spent its youthful days in traveling. The county was organized April 14, 1856, at the home of Joseph W. Burson at Pine Bottom and meetings were held here through August. Then it was moved to a "residence near Peregrine Hays," according to the records. Peregrine Hays was the big-time politician of the county and together with Absalom Knotts, the senior justice of the county, had things pretty much his own way. And Peregrine lived at Big Bend. But there was some revolt against his authority, for in May of 1857 an order was entered to move the court to the store of Betts and Stalnaker, and at least one meeting was held here. The following day Hays supporters rallied and the order was rescinded. The next two meetings of the court were devoted to acquiring two acres of land and having a courthouse built. This frame structure cost $675 and the first term of court was held there in September.

There was dissatisfaction in the ranks. The June term of court in 1858 was held "at a house in Arnoldsburg" and an agent was appointed to rent the county property at Big Bend. A year later Hays was still fighting for the former location and an order was entered to purchase an additional acre of land from Hays adjoining the Big Bend courthouse. The next day the order was rescinded and plans went ahead for the construction of a courthouse at Arnoldsburg. It was to be a pretentious affair and the plans for the Wirt County courthouse were being used. But for some reason - the county paid the contractor several thousand dollars - it never progressed beyond the foundation stage and court continued to meet in a rented house.

Court records are missing for the period of 1861 to 1868 so the story of this migratory court must be told from tradition. Early in the Civil War the court moved to Grantsville and a courthouse was erected, only to be destroyed by fire before the court could occupy it. Then came the board of supervisors, replacing the county court under the new constitution of the State of West Virginia. This board met for sometime at Old Bethlehem Church and then returned to Grantsville where a courthouse was constructed.

But all was not quiet in the courthouse question. At the meeting of the board in March it was ordered that a guard be employed to protect the courthouse "from fire at night." At the same meeting it was ordered that the seat of justice be moved back to Arnoldsburg, in compliance with a legislative enactment which repealed a previous enactment and placed the courts at the same point where they had been held at the beginning of the Civil War. The next day the order was rescinded and the board defied the Legislature and remained in Grantsville. They did, however, order an election to be held in October to determine the location of the courts. But their defiance was short lived and in August they met in Arnoldsburg, the records having been hauled there by A. M. Campbell. In October they were back in Grantsville. Then in November they were back in Arnoldsburg.

Although a group of citizens protested the result of the election, which gave the county seat to Grantsville, the board ordered the removal of the records to the courthouse and Grantsville at last became the permanent home of the migratory offices. Today the remains of the foundation of Calhoun's courthouse at Arnoldsburg stand as a memorial to its days as the county seat.

"The Courthouse Wars,"
(Part II)
by Eva Margaret Carnes

West Virginia Review
February 1944

Tucker County, with the coming of the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway, also became dissatisfied with the location of her county seat. St. George had held the honor since the formation of the county in 1856, but St. George did not lie near the route of the new railroad. An election was held in 1893 in which the new town of Parsons received the vote for the county seat. This election was declared illegal on a technicality and a second election in July again gave the courthouse to Parsons. But the county clerk and an attorney of St. George filed injunction proceedings to prevent the removal of the records. The Parsons faction, already incensed by the legal delay, took the bit between their teeth and made arrangements for a wagon train to go to St. George, five miles away, and remove the safes and the records.

St. George residents were angered when the rumors reached them and immediately prepared for siege. Armed pickets were placed along the road to Parsons and a quantity of dynamite was purchased.

On August 7, an armed force of about seven hundred men from the vicinity of Parsons, augmented by a force of four hundred which had been brought in by train from other points along the railroad, started for St. George. Accompanying them was a wagon train under the supervision of James Parsons and made up of practically every vehicle in the neighborhood. The St. George pickets saw them coming, put off some dynamite as a signal of the enemy's approach, and then beat a hasty retreat. In the face of the large force they indeed decided that discretion was the better part of valor.

The marchers and the wagons moved into St. George, loaded the records and safes, and marched out again - to Wamsley's farm, a short distance from St. George. Here they made camp for the night in true military tradition. Part of the men went on to Parsons where the women of the town had established the supply base. Armed with food for the fighting men, they returned to the encampment. The next day the conquerors marched into Parsons, unloaded the county records at a temporary courthouse, and the fight was won. Everyone from Parsons had had a grand time.

Taylor County, too, moved a courthouse because of a railroad, but this time it was the Baltimore and Ohio.

When the county was formed in 1844 the act named Williamsport, "sometimes called Pruntytown," as the county seat. Pruntytown had long been the leading town of the section, a trading center, and the seat of Rector College. Grafton was as yet only a woods and the nearest town was Fetterman, now a part of Grafton. The first court was held at the Methodist Episcopal church, where county headquarters were established until the courthouse was erected. Pruntytown basked in the prosperity of the county town while near by the coming of the Baltimore and Ohio brought to life the town of Grafton. Here the railroad established shops and the population of the new town grew rapidly.

About 1875 an agitation began for the removal of the courthouse to Grafton, which had outstripped the older town in population and was one of the most important points on the railroad line. The older residents protested vigorously against any change but, at an election held in 1878, Grafton was chosen as the county seat. The county officers were die- hards. Adolphus Armstrong, the clerk of the county court, led the fight against Grafton and, when wagons arrived to remove the records in his custody, he refused to give them up. Court action was taken. The court met in Brinkman's Opera House in Grafton while the records remained at Pruntytown. It was not until the completion of the courthouse in Grafton that a procession, led by John W. Mason astride a large bay horse, proceeded to Pruntytown, loaded the records into wagons, and took them to the new building. The people of Grafton celebrated hilariously while Pruntytown enthusiasts mourned their loss.

There was compensation, however, for the Pruntytown people, for in 1890, the Industrial School for Boys was established and the old courthouse was incorporated into the new State institution. It stands today, a red brick structure of colonial type, as a landmark to Pruntytown's heyday.

Another State institution also grew out of a courthouse fight. The county seat of Mercer had been established with the county in 1837 and the courthouse was completed two years later. This building was destroyed by Southern forces in 1862 and was not immediately replaced. In 1865 the judge of the circuit, Nathaniel Harrison, an ex-Confederate who had deserted the cause, rode into Princeton to hold court. But Judge Harrison was unpopular with the people of Mercer, due to his change of allegiance, and he met with such a cool reception that he rode on and convened his court at Concord Church. The people of the section immediately began an agitation for establishment of the courthouse at that point and, following two election, the second of which won the seat for Concord, and the repeal of a legislative enactment which had established the county seat at Princeton, a courthouse was begun at Concord. But all was not well with the new location.

Urging that the records were not safe in Concord Church, Benjamin White, sheriff of the county, by sheer force of elocution, forced two members of the board of supervisors to resign and succeeded in getting the remaining three to vote for the removal to Princeton in 1869. George Evans, a candidate for county clerk, joined the fight, and the records were loaded into wagons and removed to Princeton.

The battle was not yet won and the citizens of Princeton organized a committee of safety. Benjamin White was sent to Wheeling, then the capital of the State, to present a special act to the Legislature ordering a new election on the county seat question. This act required only a majority of votes, not the three-fifths majority required by law. White was successful in his mission. The election was delayed, however, while the Princeton people assembled their forces. A vacancy in the board of registration was filled, by an appointment made by the governor of the State, by a man friendly to the Princeton cause. The registration book of the township, in which Concord was located, was lost. Rumor said that all ex-Confederates, deprived by law of their franchise, would be allowed to vote in the coming election.

The Concord people appealed to the governor who sent A. F. Gibbons to Mercer to investigate. Then the Concord people sent a messenger to the State capital to secure an injunction against the opening of the polls, but someone, friendly to the Princeton cause, told about it and Princeton, too, sent a man to the capital. Princeton's man got there first - two hours ahead of Concord's representative - and the injunction was refused. The election gave the county seat to Princeton and on February 28, 1872, a normal school was established at Concord by the State Legislature.

One former county seat exists today as a single old red brick house. A post office bears the name of DeKalb, once the county seat of Gilmer County. The act which created the county in 1845 ordered that the organization meeting be held at the home of William Stalnaker - the red brick home which stands today - at DeKalb, but added that the location of the permanent seat of the courts must be determined by election and that the site might be either DeKalb or the lands of William H. Ball at the Ford of the Little Kanawha River. A town was immediately laid out at the last named place and was called Hartford. Today we know it as Glenville.

The first court convened at Stalnaker's but already a faction had been developed to support the alternate site. An election was demanded and held in May, 1845, and Hartford was selected by a majority of sixty-six votes. It was decided, however, to continue meetings at DeKalb until buildings could be erected at Hartford. But DeKalb supporters were not easily defeated. James Camp, clerk of the new county, refused to allow the removal of records from DeKalb and the June meeting of the court found two bodies in session. The supporters of Hartford met at Hartford, under the handicap of all records being at DeKalb, while DeKalb supporters held court at Stalnaker's. Certain justices in the DeKalb group were known to be wavering in their allegiance to that point and late in the afternoon the Hartford court made a hurried trip to DeKalb, arriving just in time to prevent an adjournment of the court at that place. With the help of the wavering justices, they were successful in having the court adjourned to meet in Hartford. But there was no satisfactory place to meet and so the court again adjourned to DeKalb. Although bickering continued among the two factions, the court continued to meet at DeKalb until the April term in 1846, when at last the town of Glenville became the seat of justice.

McDowell, too, had a "runabout" county seat, and industrial development aided in the question. McDowell was established by an act of the Virginia Assembly in 1858 and the act named a committee to determine the location of the county seat which was to be known as Perryville. The first court was held at the home of George Washington Payne, near which the commissioners located the county seat. Perryville is today known as English. No courthouse was built at this site, however, and, during the Civil War, Federal sympathizers of the Elkhorn section succeeded in getting the county seat removed to what is now Wilcoe, a part of the Gary mining property. Some stories say that a courthouse was built at this place, others that there was no county building. Following the close of the war, in 1872, Perryville again became the seat of justice.

With the coming of the Norfolk and Western Railroad the town of Welch was established and soon became the seat of industry for the newly developed mining and timbering industries. The first election for the removal of the courts to the new town was held in 1891 and Welch won by an overwhelming majority. Payne remained undefeated and led the Perryville faction in a court fight against the removal of the records from the established seat. Finally, in 1892, the records were removed to Welch, where a house had been given rent- free for a temporary courthouse, until the present building could be erected. Today many of the early records of the court are missing, probably due to the fact that the courts of the early days were gad- about affairs.

Pughtown, in Hancock County, also had its day of glory as the county seat. The formation of the county in 1848 was made at New Manchester, later Fairview, and still later, Pughtown. New Cumberland immediately advanced her claims for the seat of justice and was successful after a second election held in 1850. The first election had failed when Pughtown supporters had refused to relinquish the records although New Cumberland had been successful. In 1852 a third election was held and this time New Cumberland lost by one vote and the records were returned to Pughtown. All was quiet about the county seat for a quarter of a century and then, in 1884, the people of New Cumberland again advanced their claim, offering land and brick for a courthouse. The railroad was under construction and, with increased industrial activity. New Cumberland was again successful. Pughtown was not easily defeated. Court action was brought immediately and an injunction sought to prevent the removal of the records. New Cumberland, however, got the records and speedily completed the new courthouse.

But the courthouse needed a bell. It had a belfry and many New Cumberland people thought that it was foolish to spend money on a new bell when there was one in the old courthouse. And so a group of New Cumberlanders, in the dead of night, stole into Pughtown and captured the courthouse bell.

New Cumberland has not been secure in her hold on the county seat, for at various times throughout the years both Chester and Weirton have made bids for the honor of being the county town.

The county seat of Grant County was at Laurelton in 1866 until the construction of the first courthouse at Maysville, which had been designated as the place for holding courts by the act which established the county. But Petersburg wanted to be the county seat and at an election held in 1870 was successful and the courts were established there. An act of the Legislature, passed in 1873 and which required a majority of three-fifths of the voters in order to change the place of the courts, reopened the Maysville-Petersburg feud. A second election, held in 1876, gave Maysville a majority, but not of three-fifths. In 1880 a third election was held and Maysville was victorious, but Petersburg supporters took the case to the Supreme Court and won a decision in that tribunal. In 1895, a bill was passed by the Legislature allowing the question to be decided only by a majority vote and Maysville soon became the county seat for a second time. Petersburg citizens continued their fight for the courthouse and by a decision of the circuit judge, which held the act of 1895 as unconstitutional, a decision which was upheld by the Supreme Court, Petersburg again became the county seat.

Other counties have had other county seats, although the battles of these courthouses were not so picturesque as some of the stories which have been told. Wood County, organized in 1799, had its first court meeting place at the home of Hugh Phelps at Neal's Station, and adherents to this place fought hard against Parkersburg but failed to obtain the courthouse.

Boone County's first courthouse was erected near themouth of Spruce Fork soon after the organization of the county in 1847. This public building was burned by Federal troops during the Civil War and, for the remainder of the war, court was held at the Methodist Episcopal Church at Ballardsville. It was not until 1866 that the courthouse was erected at Madison and a permanent seat of justice established.

Fayette County, too, for the period from 1831 to 1837, held court in another county seat. New Haven, near what is now Ansted, was selected by the act which established the county and served until Fayetteville was successful in becoming the county town in 1837.

Cabell County was organized at Guyandotte in 1809 and later Barboursville won the county seat, only to lose it again to Huntington in the early 1890's, when the latter town became a thriving railroad center.

And so the story goes. Failures and successes. The former county towns have, by and large, become quiet country towns. The homes of the attorneys of an earlier day add dignity to the streets. And the older residents get together and recall the stirring days when men marched bravely forth to save the county records. As in other southern states, the county remains the social as well as political unit of government, and while feuds are forgotten, a certain aura still hangs about the old towns that once knew the glory of the courts with their famous cases and eloquent oratory.

Jefferson County seat moved from Shepherdstown to Charles Town
Tucker County Seat War
Photograph: Mob Putting Records in Courthouse at Parsons

West Virginia Archives and History