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How County Records Were Preserved
Through War and Court House Fires

by A. W. Hamilton

Fayette Tribune
25 January 1933

In the late fall of 1861, General Floyd, in command of Floyd's Brigade of the Confederate army came into Fayetteville from the Sewell Mountain campaign over the Giles, Fayette and Kanawha turnpike. He was following up Rosecrans' Federal army encamped at Gauley Bridge, and along the Kanawha. Floyd's force was encamped around Fayetteville and Cotton Hill for a few weeks while they were annoying the Federals by cannon fire from Cotton Hill cliffs overlooking the Gauley camp. The Fayetteville court house and the clerks' offices were occupied by the Confederates. When they evacuated the town rather hurriedly, pursued by the Federals, there was some fear among court house officials for the safety of the county records.

Thos. S. Robson, whose home was on the site where Capt. Ankrom later built the residence now occupied by W. R. Dickerson, was county surveyor. He tried to prevail upon John B. Jones, clerk of the circuit court, whom it seems had charge of the county records, to remove them to a place of safety. Jones refused to do so without an order of the county court. But the court had ceased to function soon after its famous June order of 1861 of "eat roots, drink water and fight for our liberty unto death."

Mr. Robson, realizing the gravity of the situation, took the matter into his own hands. He had a brother- in-law, Capt. Joel H. Abbot, in Floyd's command and made some sort of arrangement with the officers to transport the records in an army wagon to Virginia. Mr. Robson, together with Clerk Jones who was only too glad to get out, but did not have the courage to take the best and safest method to preserve the records in his charge, and Capt. Abbot and a special detail of soldiers went with the army to Montgomery county, Va., where he (Robson) found a farmer, off the main traveled highway, who allowed him to store the records in a room in his house. At the same time he employed a man, the farmer no doubt, as special guard over them. Mr. Robson soon thereafter, got his family to Christiansburg where they stayed until the war was over. He made it a point to see and know every few weeks that all was well with the records.

As soon as peace was declared, he came back to Fayette and began to get some sort of habitation ready for his family, plant some corn, potatoes and etc. As soon as there was some sort of county organization functioning in the new state of West Virginia, he hired a wagon and team, went to Montgomery county, got the records and delivered them to the officials of Fayette county. He had to go personally after them as the man who had them in charge, would deliver to no one but him. Mr. Robson paid for the storage, care taker or guard at the farm house and hire of the team, wagon, etc., and expenses incident in getting the records back for which the county never paid him one penny.

Some time after this he presented a bill to the county court for the actual expense, (money he had paid or was obligated to pay) of removal, storage, guard hire and return of the records, which the court refused to pay; the spokesman for the county court remarking "you should have taken them north, not south." That showed the feeling in reconstruction days. God forbid that such bitter feeling among people, citizens and neighbors will ever occur again. The records were saved, no matter how, by whom or where they were taken, did not enter into the question at all. The loss to the citizens of the county and the public generally, would have been incalculable.

Mr. Jones, the refuging clerk, who assisted Mr. Robson in loading up the records, never did return to Fayetteville, but finally located in Tennessee. The story goes that he was afraid he would be prosecuted for assisting in moving the records without the order of the court.

Mr. Robson detailed to me the condition he found the records in when removed. The papers were scattered over the floor of the two offices, and as he said, looked "knee deep." Files were all torn apart, and scattered. He got every record book except one which contained the record of proceedings of the school land commissioner. This book contained a lot of maps and evidently was appropriated by some officer for reference. The papers in both offices contained many maps, reports, &c., which accounted no doubt for them being scattered over the floor and trampled upon by the soldiers. The loss of the papers was serious, but loss of the record books would have been terrible.

It can be seen from the foregoing that the people of Fayette county are indebted to Thomas S. Robson, and no one else, for the preservation of its county records and all at his own expense. Mr. Robson removed his family back to Fayette county in about a year after the close of the war and located on Laurel creek, near Beckwith, and lived there until his death, about the year 1888 or 1889. He was active in helping to restore order out of chaos, and like the balance of the people, as his son, H. A. Robson said to me a few days ago, "The living was hard, corn bread, bacon, (sometimes) potatoes, beans, sorghum, rye or wheat coffee, with "long sweetenin'" (sorghum molasses), but Mrs. Robson was happy to get back, though she had none of her old possessions, having had to leave them here at Fayetteville, in an army wagon, with her three small children, leaving everything as it stood in the house, the breakfast dishes on the table, cows not milked, and only time to throw a few clothes together for herself and children.

The old court house and clerk's offices were, I was always informed, destroyed by the Federal troops, immediately after routing Floyd's forces. All houses were destroyed, that were not occupied, and practically the entire population had refugeed, some of the men being in the army, leaving the women and children to hold on, but this county being about 98 percent, rebel sympathizers, the people actually believed that the Yankees had horns and went about killing all in sight, and naturally all that could refuged but those who stayed at home were not molested, nor were their homes destroyed. On the contrary, they were protected, the commanding officer would always detail a man or men to see to that.

There were six houses left standing in town at the close of the war, viz: The Huse house at the edge of town, (still standing); the twin residence of Judge Bailey, standing on the location of the George Love residence, the "old tan yard house" standing where the Janutolo lumber yard now is; the Peyton Morton house, on the present location of the M. E. church building, and a two-room log house standing about on the location of the present Warden garage building; and the front part of the F. O. Janutolo home. Thus it is seen, the town was practically wiped off the map. There was east of the town about one half mile, the Paddy Myles farm house, and south about one mile, the Huddleston farm house and west one mile the Marrs farm house.

I have been unable to learn of any houses between the three mentioned farm houses and the town proper. These houses, I understand were all occupied and thereby saved from destruction by the armies of either side. There was no occasion for the loss of houses, had the people stayed in them. Houses were not burned or destroyed by either side when occupied (except when women camp followers got in them). From best information in talking with old timers years ago the town had a population of from 100 to 150. I can find no record of even probably population though.

Soon after the close of the war, the county court, or tribunal acting in lieu thereof, had constructed a court house 40 by 40 feet, and the clerks' offices about 25 or 30 feet from the court house, 32X16 feet on the location of the burned building, with a partition in the center, making the two offices of circuit court and county court clerks. Both court house and the clerks' offices were of brick construction. I worked for about six years in the circuit clerk's office and acted as clerk in the old court house.

In 1891, a new court house was completed, and was about the size of the present one, with clerk's offices, Judge and prosecuting attorney's offices, jury rooms, etc. This too, was of brick construction. On April 19, 1893, this court house building was accidentally destroyed by fire, but the architect and builder, Frank E. Davis, of Baltimore, Md., had done a good job on the vaults and the records were all saved, except a criminal court book and a few indictments, which was not a serious loss. This loss occurred by reason of the fire breaking through into the court room, before any one could get in, the fire starting during a recess of the court, and the book and indictments left for use at the night session. The loss was total as to the court house, as well as to the old jail, but the walls and cells stood, standing near, together with the old jailer's residence adjoining, and a new jailor's residence nearby, which had just been completed, and was occupied by the sheriff and jailor.

This was a serious loss to the county, but it was all paid for. Before the fire had practically burned out, a hue and cry was raised by the people, the April term of criminal court being in session, and many jurors, witnesses, etc., being here, to remove the county seat. This question had been agitated in a way for years, but the loss of all the public buildings of the county was regarded as the opportune time to remove the county seat to some point on the C. & O. Ry. The question of removal waxed hot and furious, there being some four or five places on the railroad clamoring for it. Finally a mass convention was called to meet in July following, at Kanawha Falls. In the convention, Montgomery was selected as the most suitable place, and in September following, an election was held which resulted in an overwhelming defeat on the part of the removalists. During the winter and spring of 1893-94, the county court had plans made, and advertised for bids, etc., and work on the new building was begun at Fayetteville in early spring of 1894, and the building was ready for occupancy in the late fall and early winter of 1895.

The old jail, which was of stone and good construction, was repaired immediately after the fire and was ready within 30 days after the fire for detention of prisoners. The courts were held in the old Presbyterian church building, (now Propps' Hardware store), and temporary clerk's offices, of sheet iron, were built in the court house yard which served for the time until completion of the new building. This was the arrangement for the functioning of the county's business during the construction of the present court house.

The present jail was built ten years after the court house was completed.

Thus it will be seen that in one hundred and one years of the existence of Fayette county, it was organized in 1831; it has had five court houses, including the present one. First the Miles Manser store house near Ansted, if that can be claimed as a court house, (certainly it was the county seat by reason of the courts being held there); second the court house built here (then known as Vandalia), in 1837 and 1838, which was destroyed during the civil war; third the court house built after the war, and which stood about 10 feet east of the present court house, and near the street, the north corner being about ten feet from the present court house, and to the front. This building was torn down, and brick used in building the jailor's residence, which was burned along with the court house built and destroyed by fire as heretofore stated. Fourth, the court house completed in 1891 and burned April 19, 1893. Fifth, the present court house.


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