The 2003 Calendar celebrates the County Courthouses of West Virginia. Currently 34 courthouses are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The State Historic Preservation Office has also begun a survey and nomination process for the remaining historic courthouses not yet listed on the National Register. By selecting the county courthouses of West Virginia as the theme of the 2003 calendar, we recognize their important role in our public history and also our personal lives. Many of these buildings are more than 100 years old and are under pressure by their modern use. We recognize the threat of age and change to these buildings and hope that this calendar reinforces the importance of their preservation and protection.
The County Courthouse plays an important role in our personal and public lives. For example, we may stand in line once a year to pay our property taxes. We may get married at the courthouse. Or we may visit to request a copy of our birth certificates for passport use. The deeds to our homes are recorded officially at the courthouse. Our county government must also ensure that health care, education and emergency services are provided to our families. In many ways our lives can be traced through the documents and activities at the courthouse.
In these and other varied ways, the county system and its seat of government at the courthouse are an intrinsic part of our lives. And even prior to the creation of West Virginia as a state, this form of government played a significant part in our public history. The settlement of western Virginia is visible through the development and organization of county governments. In 1634 the Virginia colony was organized into eight counties. By 1738 westward settlement warranted the creation of two more counties: Augusta and Frederick. [These two counties were created from Orange County.] From Augusta, all counties of West Virginia would be formed except Jefferson, Berkeley and part of Morgan. In 1754 the first western Virginia county was organized as Hampshire County, named after the English shire. In 1769 Augusta split and Botetourt County was formed. From this county would emerge McDowell, Wyoming, Mercer, Monroe, Raleigh and portions of Greenbrier, Boone and Logan Counties. In 1776 another subdivision named West Augusta was formed. This would later split into 14 whole or partial West Virginia counties as well as several counties of Pennsylvania.
|The 18th century was a period of change for western
Virginia. Individual towns were formed such as Romney and
Mecklenburg (Shepherdstown) in 1762. By 1766 the Mason Dixon Line
was surveyed to the western boundary between Maryland and western
Virginia. This period also witnessed the end of Native American
occupation of the region. Their resistance to settlement through
various skirmishes and raids was unsuccessful. By the end of the
18th century, Berkeley, Ohio, Monongalia, Greenbrier, Harrison,
Hardy, Randolph, Kanawha, Pendleton, Brooke, Wood and Monroe
Counties were established. This continued formation of counties
demonstrated that western Virginia was well on its way to
The 19th century saw continued formation of county governments and also, of course, the creation of a new state, West Virginia. All but five counties were formed before statehood in 1863: these were Mineral, Grant, Lincoln, Summers and Mingo. Most counties split from existing western Virginia counties; a few were created from adjoining Virginia counties (Bath, Tazewell and Giles.) Most county histories outline the “genealogy” of a county’s creation to show how land divisions and settlement occurred.Before West Virginia became a state, western settlers of Virginia struggled to gain recognition in Richmond. Formation of a county government meant that delegates from that region could speak for their needs at the state level and press for funding to be sent to their county. As the number of residents grew within a region, county organization followed. Counties were approved by the state legislature if signatures by petition demonstrated sufficient political weight from the locality. Today, citizens continue to actively voice their opinion to ensure attention is paid by their state government.
Our system of county government was developed according to Virginia institution which followed the English system of monthly courts as transferred to the original Virginia Colony. One example of the County Court is described in Cabell County Annals and Families written by George Selden Wallace in 1935. Organized in 1809, the Cabell County Court was composed of four justices of the peace with common law and chancery jurisdiction, limited criminal jurisdiction and police and fiscal jurisdiction. Other officials included a sheriff appointed by the governor. Two delegates were elected to serve in the General Assembly. A county jail was established for the safekeeping of prisoners and debtors. The County Court reviewed applications by freed slaves seeking permission to remain in the county. Early courts also set tavern fees and ferry rates. The History of Monongalia County identifies an appointed flour inspector who examined barrels by using a long hollow drill. This history also states that road overseers, coroners and overseers of the poor were appointed.
Unfortunately, early records for many counties have been lost or destroyed. Knowledge of the early buildings associated with the county courts is limited. Many times, a home would be designated as the court until a courthouse could be built. The first court of Pocahontas County was held in a log residence owned by John Bradshaw of Huntersville. Because Cabell County records prior to May 3, 1814 were lost, there is no record regarding the construction of its first county courthouse in Guyandotte. The county’s second courthouse at Barboursville is referenced by association in an order dated May 2, 1815 for the construction of the public stocks and pillory on the square near the jail. Pendleton County tradition states that a barn of Seraiah Stratton was used instead of his house as the first court.
The buildings of our county governments illustrate the growth and development of our state. From the use of dwellings or simple buildings to elaborate buildings, one can follow the history of a county. Wood County has had five courthouses since its formation in 1799. The first two were log cabins. From 1817 to 1860, a brick building was used. The fourth courthouse was used as a hospital during the Civil War. The final courthouse, built on the same site as the last two, was built in 1899. Saved from demolition in the 1970s, extensive renovations occurred in the 1980s.
County seats were also sometimes subjects of rivalry between communities. The selection of the county seat in many instances determined the success of a community’s development. For example, in 1897 residents of Marion County were anxious to create a second county with Mannington as its seat. To prevent this, Fairmont residents destroyed their existing courthouse to force the construction of a new building more rapidly at the existing location. In 1893 supporters of the removal of the Tucker County Courthouse to Parsons stole the court records from the existing courthouse in Saint George in order to guarantee the relocation of the county court to Parsons. Elkins and Beverly were also rivals for the permanent location of the Randolph County Court.
The activities of the county courthouse have necessitated the development of ancillary facilities. Separate buildings for health departments, the board of education and criminal services were soon necessary. Each county provided its own jail and many included a residence for the sheriff. In Franklin, Pendleton County’s seat, these are included in the National Register Historic District. In Hinton, Summers County completed the “Memorial” administrative building circa 1934 to support the functions of the c.1875 courthouse. Putnam County has seen at least four additions to the original courthouse designed by Frank Pierce Milburn.
Today’s county government is much more complicated than the business confined to the early meetings first held in a commissioner’s home or early public building. Buildings that were constructed at the turn of the 19th century must now meet the modern needs of the 21st century. The use of computers has changed dramatically our methods of record keeping. Public buildings must meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For example, easier alternatives of access, such as ramps or elevators, must be constructed to substitute for stairways. And unfortunately in our modern world our security needs have changed; therefore, we must restrict entrances and provide safeguards to public buildings and their courtrooms. Finding a way to meet all of these modern needs is not easy.
In July 2001 the West Virginia Legislature created the West Virginia Courthouse Facilities Improvement Authority to evaluate the needs of all 55 courthouses and estimate the potential costs of improvements. These improvements included building repairs and rehabilitation, renovation, security controls, and the storage of documents. The Authority was also charged with determining possible methods of financing and priorities for implementation of these enhancements. The Authority submitted its first report to the Legislature in January 2002. The report summarized the current conditions and issues of all 55 courthouses based upon a court facility’s questionnaire as well as site visits to each county by the Committee on Court Facilities. The issues identified included a shortage of work space, improved personnel and building security, expansion and improvement of document storage and ADA compliance. A rough estimate of the cost of improvements over a 20-year period approximated a necessary investment of $300 million. This estimate included the cost of construction of annexes and additions as well as the rehabilitation of existing spaces. Suggested funding sources included fee increases, general obligation bonds or revenue bonds. Money from new fees or service charges were suggested to assist bond payments.
The Division of Culture and History is working in cooperation with the West Virginia Courthouse Facilities Improvement Authority. Current steps by the Authority include a request for proposal for architectural services as well as a survey of document retention and storage needs. SHPO staff have met with several county officials to discuss the potential conflict between addressing modern needs and preserving the historic resources. Upon completion of the survey and nomination project by the SHPO, additional counties will be eligible for state development grants that may be used for rehabilitation projects.
It is important to recognize that the historic character of the original buildings must be preserved. Therefore, not only do we celebrate the role of West Virginia’s courthouses in the history of our state, but this calendar serves as a reminder that the protection of our courthouses is not assured without a commitment to repair, rehabilitation and restoration as well as to sensitive additions. The balancing of modern needs and historic character must continue into the future.
REFERENCES AND FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Maxwell, Hu and H.L. Swisher. History of Hampshire County, West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present. Morgantown, WV: A. Brown Boughner, 1897, pages 74-90.
Miller, Doris C. A Centennial History of Huntington, WV 1871-1971. Huntington, WV: Franklin Printing Company, 1971, pages 15-16, 35, 37.
Morton, Oren F. History of Pendleton County. Baltimore: Regional Publishing Company, 1974, (Originally published Franklin, WV 1910) pages 86-87.
Price, William T. Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Parsons, WV: McClain Printing Company, 1963 (Originally published Marlinton, WV: Price Brothers, Publishers, 1901), pages 100-101.
Wallace, George Selden. Cabell County Annals and Families. Richmond: Garrett & Massie, Publishers, 1935, pages 10-33.
Wiley, Samuel T. The History of Monongalia County, from its First Settlement to its Present Times. Kingwood, WV: Preston Publishing Company, 1883, pages 540-546.
Boone County Courthouse
Braxton County Courthouse
Brooke County Courthouse
Clay County Courthouse
Harrison County Courthouse
Jefferson County Courthouse
McDowell County Courthouse
Marion County Courthouse
Mercer County Courthouse
Pocahontas County Courthouse
Randolph County Courthouse
Tyler County Courthouse
Wood County Courthouse
A History of West Virginia Courthouses