"The Courthouse serves as a backdrop to heritage and tradition ... a biography or memorial to those who gave their last full measure of devotion for an ideal."
- From Courthouses In Georgia, by Robert H. Jordan and Gregg Puster
Soon after 1800, when Columbia County Commissioners chose William Appling's property as the location of their second courthouse, the new county seat itself was called "Columbia County Courthouse." It would be another 10-12 years before the official name of the community was changed to Appling in honor of the Appling family, including William, his brother John, who served on the State Constitutional Convention, and John's son Daniel, a hero in the War of 1812 and for whom Appling County is named.
Excitement reigned around that prominent location in the center of town in 1808 when plans for the county's second courthouse were complete. The two-story, brick building would be larger than the 1792 courthouse, 50 feet by 30 feet and placed on a foundation 3 feet thick. Other specifications, from the number of doors and windows to the size of the clerk's table in front of the judge's seat, were given in minute detail. Perhaps the commissioners didn't want to repeat the unguided mistakes of the first building. They needn't have worried.
David Stanford, whose $6,869 bid was the lowest, was a builder of some renown. He even made his own brick, which may explain why the building, complete with an eagle over the front door, took four years to build. Nevertheless, by 1812 the happy commissioners paid Stanford in full plus another $125 for "extras," including $20 for the eagle he apparently couldn't make himself.
Business was brisk at the county's new courthouse. Taxes were levied and collected, candidates for all levels of government chosen there on Election Day, and court proceedings carried out in the new courtroom just past the clerk's office on the main floor.
But it was the county commissioners who made the most use of their proud, new facility, and of all the business they transacted there, no item appeared more often on the agenda than something to do with roads. Since tax revenues couldn't begin to cover the cost of these projects, and assistance from the state government was sparse to none, our ancestors had to devise a plan to fund, build and maintain those miles of rural roads themselves.
Once a road project was accepted, three road commissioners were chosen to oversee each minor road or portion of a major one. The county paid for materials, but labor was the responsibility of those whose property the road passed by. For roads not bordered by private property, all able-bodied males were required to give 12 days' labor each year to keep the new roadways open.
Lest we become romantics and begin a campaign to return to those good, old, public-servant days, however, I need to tell you the plan didn't work. Those road-dominated Commission meetings then became high-spirited discussions on how to accomplish this work without depending on the undependable to get it done. As historian Pearl Baker put it, the more high-spirited the request, the quicker you were likely to get your road.
Records of early court proceedings offer a colorful glimpse into some additional concerns voiced by the residents of early, 19th-century Columbia County. For example, following the March, 1832, session, we read: "The Grand Jury of Columbia County feel highly gratified that they have nothing of a criminal nature to complain of." But by the September term, the moral climate of the county appears to have changed, as noted by this entry: "It is with painful feelings that we have witnessed the deleterious effects proceeding from the use of spirituous liquors...."
By the following March the grand jurors' indignation had increased: "It must be obvious to every observant mind that the numerous tippling-houses and dram shops in our county are evils of awful magnitude...." This report continues to scold tavern-owners and other "purveyors of evil," while complimenting the clerks of the Superior Court and the Court of Ordinary (Probate Court today) for "keeping their books neatly and correctly."
Whether or not each man got (or maintained) his road, tavern owners heeded their grand jurors' presentments (and sentiments) or court clerks continued to excel in handwriting and detail, Columbia County government would function well for more than 40 years in their new, brick courthouse in the center of town.
(From As Long as the Rivers Run, a work in progress on the history of Columbia County by local freelance writer, Barbara Seaborn. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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