"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."
- From Courthouses In Georgia, by Robert H. Jordan and J. Gregg Puster
With the long-anticipated renovation of the Appling Courthouse nearly complete, this seems like a good time to remind readers that the 1856 building in question was neither the first nor the second "legal center" erected in Columbia County.
For two years following the 1790 division of Richmond County that created Columbia County, we didn't have a courthouse at all. But since choosing a county seat and erecting a courthouse and jail were the primary requirements for calling ourselves a county, nothing was more important 215 years ago than complying with those rules.
Details of the first courthouse are sketchy, and there is some question about whether this was the first courthouse at all. But most records place the small, wooden building on five acres of land donated by William Few Sr., (father of the celebrated William Few Jr.) in Cobbham near the current Columbia-McDuffie County line in 1792.
Builder William Stevens was paid 255 pounds (about $500) for his work, with a threatened deduction of 40 shillings ($4) if he didn't supply a promised clerk's table and fix the upper windows so they would open. A few years later the commissioners called Stevens back to replace the locks and hinges on his troublesome windows, for which he was paid $3 more.
For those who believe there was a different "first courthouse" in the county, perhaps an account by historian Pearl Baker can clear up the confusion.
A few months before the completion of the Stevens building, the county commissioners sent the following information to Superior Court Judge George Walton in Augusta, whose court continued to handle Columbia County business until her facilities were open: "The Courthouse at Cobb's Place is sufficiently finished for business, and the jail will be before the sitting of Court."
To explain the possible discrepancy, Baker writes that one of the temporary polling places in use before Columbia County was formed was at Cobbham, a small village that grew up around its largest landholder and namesake, Tomas Cobb. But even after Cobbham became the recognized name of the community, it wouldn't have been unusual for some to continue the common practice of adding the word "Place" to the name of a prominent citizen. Hence, "Cobb's Place" was quite possibly the forerunner of Cobbham. It's doubtful even the celebrated Cobb would have had two villages named for him, and a former polling place would be a fine site for a courthouse.
We do know there was some delay in completing the 1792 building because of a disagreement over whose land would be chosen for its location. Both Few and his neighbor William Appling had offered the county similar five-acre lots. But the commissioners chose the Few location, even though most people agreed Appling's site was more centrally located.
It's also doubtful the jail was complete before "the first sitting of the court" as promised. Jail may be a misnomer anyway, since there was already a "Stocks, Pillory, and Whipping Post" which, surprisingly, was erected on Appling's land. Perhaps the split location was a compromise to honor the wishes of both men.
In a late 20th-century assessment of the county's early "judicial system," longtime Appling resident, clerk of court, and state senator G.B. "Jake" Pollard Jr. surmised that this apparatus was probably used only for misdemeanor offenses, while more serious crimes were handled at "the hanging tree," an actual large oak located behind First Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Appling until a few years ago.
We hardly have time to continue the debate about courthouse No. 1 anyway, because talk of its replacement began surfacing as early as 1799. Whether there were more problems with the first building than the windows, or the commissioners were bowing to continued pressure to move to a "central location," is not certain.
But we do know of Judge Walton's criticism of the commissioners for their continued wrangling over the location of the courthouse. In his final words of a lengthy tirade on the subject, Judge Walton advised them to "give way to a more happy understanding."
The commissioners didn't follow Walton's advice right away, and it would take longer to plan the new building than to build it. But whether by wrangling or finally by gentlemen's agreement, they eventually accepted William Appling's offer of five acres of land where the current Appling courthouse now stands at a cost of one shilling per acre, or about 50 cents.
And therein lies another tale.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. This column is excerpted from As Long as the Rivers Run, her work in progress on the history of Columbia County. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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