Archive for July, 2007

The Eight Randolph County Courthouses

July 21, 2007

For the first seven years after the creation of Randolph County in 1779, court met in the houses of private citizens. The very first session of court was held in the log cabin home of Abraham Reece, located somewhere near the present Randleman golf course. For the next 7 years court met in other private homes such as that belonging to William Bell, the first sheriff of Randolph County, who lived near his mill on Deep River west of Randleman.

In 1786, court began to meet in a newly-built frame courthouse in the newly-formed town of Johnstonville, a community which no longer exists but was located just south of US Highway 311 more or less at the spot where the WGHP television transmission tower now stands. The county’s first historian, J.A. Blair, says that the Johnstonville courthouse “was a model of its day. It was a quaint two-story, hip-roofed house… The nails used in its construction were made in a smith-shop near the place, and the plank were sawed by hand, and the first court was held in this new forum was March court, 1786.” On that day the justices of the court ordered that the Sheriff and his deputies attend court in the future “with their swords on, attended by three constables, each with a white stick six feet long.”

Just six years later the state legislature, responding to the petition of county residents who felt Johnstonville was inconveniently located, ordered that a new courthouse, jail and stocks be built “in the most central part of Randolph County.” The court met at a small wooden house at that site, the modern intersection of Main and Salisbury Streets, at 9:00 AM on Wednesday June 12, 1793. On Christmas Day, 1796, the village of “Randolph Court House” was renamed “Asheborough,” after the current Governor, Samuel Ashe.

In 1805 the Legislature passed an Act authorizing Randolph to build a new Court House, and a large two-story wood frame structure was built in time for the first session of Superior Court ever held in the county, beginning on the first Monday in April, 1807. The Court House was the end-all and be-all of Asheborough of that day, and the “Publick Square” surrounding the courthouse was the focal point of all county business during the quarterly sessions of court. Years later Mrs. J. L. Winningham, an early resident, wrote, “I wish I could bring to my readers the atmosphere of the little town a few days before court week; on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the gathering of the lawyers from other places and witnesses and those who had business; then Tuesday when everybody, especially the men, came to court to sell anything they had for sale, swap horses, and lots of them just to get drunk….” Sidney Swaim Robins, son of lawyer Marmaduke Robins whose frame office still stands on Main Street, recalled that the courthouse square “…was often a noisy and riotous place… the judge often had to call a halt in the proceedings of a trial and order the sheriff to go down and restore order and quiet around the building. The noises arose from horse traders, venders of patent medicines, shilabers for peep shows and the like, and lastly from quarrelers and battlers likely stimulated by country brands of raw John Barleycorn. Many of the hawkers moved from one court to another, and in Asheboro at least, Tuesday was sure to be a big day. They camped often times by open fires alongside their wagon-tongues, and slept in their wagons… In July particularly, with windows open, it often sounded like Bedlam out there.”

The frame 1805 courthouse was sold in 1830 and converted into a wing of a nearby inn; it was replaced by the county’s first brick courthouse. The earliest-surviving artifact (not counting public records) of county government dates from this era: in August, 1838, Jonathan Worth, Hugh McCain, and John Balfour Troy were ordered by the county justices to buy and hang a bell in the courthouse. Moved from belfry to belfry over the years, it still survives today.

Poor quality brick caused the 1830 structure to be short-lived, and the sixth Randolph County Courthouse was authorized to be built in February, 1839. Local lawyer and future Governor Jonathan Worth supervised the construction of this building, a 35×54-foot, two-story brick rectangle with six offices on the first floor for the Clerk of Court, Register of Deeds, Sheriff and County Treasurer, and a courtroom and two jury rooms upstairs. In March, 1876, a new entrance portico was added to the south and an extension for the courtroom on the north.

In March, 1908, citing the need for fireproof record storage vaults, the county commissioners voted to build a new courthouse, the county’s seventh and Asheboro’s fourth. Asheboro had changed considerably since 1889, when the railroad had arrived in town and almost-magnetically began to attract the town’s businesses toward its rails. To facilitate the change, Dr. John Milton Worth’s old cornfield and barnyard was purchased for $1,400 by a group of citizens and donated to the county. The Charlotte architectural firm of Wheeler, Runge and Dickey had produced plans as early as 1907 for a new building, which was all but a duplicate of the 1899 Iredell County courthouse, and seven similar relatives. Construction began on July 8, 1908, but by November mounting costs and political dissatisfaction caused the chairman of the county commissioners, W.J. Armfield, Jr., to step in and cut costs. The final pricetag of the building was $34,000. The 1839 courthouse was used as a jail for a few years thereafter, but in August, 1914, it was demolished and its bricks used for the foundation of the county jail built just north of the 1908 courthouse. A sizeable expansion to the east was built in 1950 as offices for the Clerk of Court, County School Board, Tax Department and Register of Deeds. In 1975 offices were added for the county manager, and in 1979 large wing was completed for two additional courtrooms and a larger Register of Deeds. In 1997 the ever-expanding records of the Register of Deeds spilled across Worth Street into the former First American Savings and Loan building, and in 1998 planning began for the newest Randolph County Courthouse, the eighth overall and the fifth in Asheboro.

{Prepared by me for the dedication of the new Randolph County Courthouse, July 21, 2002, and printed in the event program.}