"The County Courthouse is the legal center of the community, the silent witness to its birth and growth ... and a symbol of the sovereignty of its people."
Columbia County's original Appling courthouse was built in 1812. The current Appling courthouse was built in 1856, and has been renovated several times since.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
--from Courthouses in Georgia, By Robert H. Jordan and J. Gregg Puster
The concept of county government emerged as part of the liberty-seeking process of English-speaking peoples long before Georgia partitioned its parishes and organized its settled lands into eight, subdivided regions. Smaller than a colony or state, but larger than the cities and towns within its jurisdiction, the county, in the words of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, "grew among the stepping-stones where freedom broadened slowly down."
Though unknown to the Romans or other ancient empires, counties were communities of people with some common interest who were governed under the English system of common law. These regions were not called counties at first, but "shires," from which derived the word "sheriff," a dominant figure who collected taxes and executed the King's justice.
Conscious of the need for legal authority following the Declaration of Independence, America's Second Continental Congress asked each state to set up a formal government of its own. Georgia's already functioning Provincial Government worked through the winter of 1776-77 to create a constitution and consolidate 12 parishes into eight counties. Much of the backcountry (Georgia upcountry) - including a 30-mile shoreline along the Savannah River, 40 miles inland, and all of present Columbia County - became Richmond County.
But a county is not a county without a county seat, and no city or town could be called a county seat unless it had a courthouse and a jail.
"That's no problem," Augusta's George Walton said. "We'll call Augusta the county seat and build the courthouse and jail here."
"That's a problem," countered Brownsboro (Appling today) resident William Few. "Augusta is too far for the people in the western part of the county to travel. The county seat should be in Brownsboro, which is halfway between Augusta and Wrightsboro, the outer ends of the county."
The Columbia County Courthouse is the oldest continuously operating courthouse in Georgia.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
It would take ten years, but finally the state Legislature resolved the problem by cutting the county in two, creating Columbia County and, essentially, giving each man the county seat of his choice.
THE COUNTY COURTHOUSE
Law and order might have been the ideal during the colonial period, but justice was rarely achieved. What few laws were enacted, either by British Parliament or by the newly established provincial governments, were poorly enforced. Thus, the county courthouse served as both a practical and symbolic bridge between a formerly ill-defined system and orderly rule.
This process would take time to develop, but from the beginning the courthouse offered a place for residents to vote, record documents and hold court. As the Georgia counties progressed, so also did the General Assembly. Choosing representatives to the state body became a primary reason for residents in all counties to vote.
Before the end of the next century, the courthouse's function would expand to include tax assessment and collection; facilities for the clerk, sheriff, coroner and ordinary (probate judge today); and a more refined judicial system.
THE COLUMBIA COUNTY COURTHOUSE
Before Richmond County was divided, community leaders chose various sites where residents could vote and hold court. Makeshift polling places - our earliest precincts, perhaps - with additional room for the Justice of the Peace, were alternately established at Brownsboro, Augusta, and, in 1784, 'where the road crosses Little Kioka (Kiokee) Creek leading to the "Meeting House."' The "Meeting House" likely was the original Kiokee Baptist Church located near the current Appling Courthouse. However, since Brownsboro covered a much larger area than Appling does today, the two polling places outside Augusta may not have been near each other at all.
Details of the first Columbia County Courthouse are sketchy, but most records place it as a small, wooden building in the village of Cobbham west of Appling, near the current McDuffie County line, around 1792. Although one historian suggests the courthouse could have been an out building or on early settler Thomas Cobb's front porch, there is evidence that the structure was erected on land donated by his neighbor, Ignatius Few, the father of William Few.
Apparently this building was either inefficient or poorly built, because talk of its repair or replacement began surfacing by 1799. Talk of where the new courthouse would be built surfaced, too.
Once again, Few offered his property for the new building, but some residents objected because Cobbham was not centrally located. William Appling, who owned a more acceptable site nearer "the Kioka," offered to sell the county five acres of his property for a courthouse and jail for the tiny sum of one shilling per acre. County commissioners, including William Few, accepted Appling's offer. By 1808, a building contract was awarded to David Stanford for his low bid of $6,869, and the first courthouse to be erected in the center of what later would become the town of Appling (named for William Appling's brother, John) was underway.
Stanford, in addition to being a builder, was something of a "jack-of-all-trades." The commissioners gave him explicit instructions, everything from the outside dimensions and thickness of the walls to the size of the clerk's table in front of the judge's seat, but no architectural design. According to historian Pearl Baker, "It would seem in those days that every man was his own architect." Stanford also is reported to have made his own brick, which could explain why the building, complete with an eagle over the front door, wasn't finished until 1812. Nevertheless, Stanford was paid in full, plus an additional $125 for "extras," including $20 for the eagle, something Stanford apparently could not make himself.
Although there had been "a Stocks, a Pillory, and a Whipping Post on a substantial floor" (site unknown) in Columbia County since 1796, the first enclosed "goal" - or jail - wasn't built until 1850 - about the time Stanford's 1812 courthouse was in need of "replacement or repair." Appling native G.B. "Jake" Pollard assumes misdemeanor offenses were punished at the former "facility" before a jail was built, while more serious crimes were probably dealt with at the "hanging tree."
With the new jail already standing across the street from the existing courthouse - about where the former tax collector's office is today - this might have been the only time in the history of the Columbia County Courthouse that no one disputed where the next building would be located. The builders would work around the "core" (foundation) of the 1812 courthouse and build the newer, larger structure on the same lot.
Unlike the earlier courthouse, which was built more for function than for beauty, the new building would reflect the growing rivalry between counties for the courthouse with the finest appearance. By the middle of the 19th century, architecture had come into its own.
The county commissioners hired the reputable builder John Trowbridge, "a man of great energy, of character, of nice taste in his profession, and fully equal to the task you propose," to make Columbia County a proud contender in the courthouse competition.
Following a simple, carpenter-style design, Trowbridge used brick masonry with a stucco finish for the building, and added classic wooden doors for an elegant touch. The county opened the elegant doors for the first time in 1856.
Columbia County's third courthouse would serve her long and well. Despite a devastating tornado in 1875, the need for overflow buildings for the Clerk of Courts and Judge of Probate in the 1930s and extensive remodeling in 1980, the still elegant building stands tall on its two-century old lot awaiting a new raison d'etre. That "reason for being" may now be a museum, community center, or a function yet to be determined. Columbia County's third courthouse has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
(The above material is gleaned from the records of area historians Pearl Baker and Charles Lord; Robert H. Jordan and J. Gregg Puster's, Courthouses in Georgia; and additional reflections from Appling resident, former Clerk of Courts and state Sen. G.B. "Jake" Pollard Jr. Also included are excerpts from As Long As the Rivers Run, a work in progress about the history of Columbia County by Barbara Seaborn.)
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