A sketch of the 1889 Richmond County Court House on the Square in Rockingham shows the clock and bell tower from which the 1890 bell now on display was once located.
With Richmond County now using its new $22 million Judicial Center, it is timely to trace the history of our court houses since Nov. 10, 1779, when Richmond County was formed from Anson County.
The 1890 bell from the 1889 Court House is now on the lawn of the 1924 Court House across Lee Street from the Judicial Center in downtown Rockingham.
The bell was found in the basement of the 1924 Court House and restored by the Richmond County Historical Society in 2014 for the county. With a grant from the Cole Foundation, the bell was mounted on a stand and a monument related to it in front facing Lee Street.
The inscription reads:
1890 BELL FROM 1889 RICHMOND
COUNTY COURT HOUSE ONCE
STANDING ONE BLOCK NORTH
RESTORED IN HONOR OF THOSE
WHO SERVE AND HAVE SERVED
IN COURT HOUSE OFFICES
AND THE JUDICIAL CENTER
PRESENTED 2014 BY
The bell was cast by the McShane Bell Foundry of Baltimore, Md.
The First Court
The first court held in the newly-formed Richmond County was in the Presbyterian Meeting House on Webb’s Ferry Road about one mile east of the Pee Dee River. The date was December 17, 1779, hardly a month after this county’s birth.
The legislation which formed Richmond County called for a county seat of no less than 50 acres on which to locate a court house, prison and stocks.
This requirement was not met until Rockingham was chartered on June 1, 1784. During the intervening four years, court was held in various barns and houses in the county.
Court House moves to Rockingham
Of course, there was the community of Rockingham before legislative action made it an official town. In that community in 1783 was a one-room court house which stood at the intersection of the present East Washington and Lee streets, near what was to become Court House Square and now Harrington Square.
This one-room building served while a more elaborate building was being erected about 1790.
Writing for the Rockingham Rocket issue of Feb. 25, 1897, L. H. Webb recalled this second court house in downtown Rockingham. It was still standing when Webb was a young man in 1828.
He started his column of memories by recalling that 1828 was largely remembered for having five babies born in town within a period of a few weeks.
“There were only 15 families within the city limits, so it was big news when four girls and a boy were born in a short period of time,” he wrote.
He described the court house as being built of wood, set on pillars of bricks seven to eight feet high. The building was on the South side of the Square, facing North.
The idea was for the ground level to be used as a market place. The use didn’t quickly materialize, so the Clerk of Court had an office built on ground level beneath the court house. “The door was seldom locked; didn’t need to be,” Webb related.
The second floor of the court house was carpeted! Not, however, as we might imagine. The “carpet” was saw dust, used in an effort to keep sound muffled.
Webb tells that it was one of the duties of the sheriff to keep the saw dust spread over the floor. In order to do this, he had a large pile of saw dust next to the court house. This pile, Webb says, became a home for a number of pigs. No one thought much of it until it was discovered that the saw dust had become infested with fleas.
Webb continued his reminiscences in the March 18, 1897, issue of the Rocket. In time, he wrote, court week became a big event for downtown Rockingham. The town would be covered with wagons loaded with all kinds of wares for sale, he wrote. He listed those wares as including flour, beans, lard, whiskey, tobacco, leather, apples, chestnuts, ginger cakes, cider, split bottom chairs, spinning wheels, hickory brooms and so forth.
Court area become marketplace
The wagons would come from all surrounding counties and as far away as Randolph County.
The noise from the vendors and shoppers would sometimes reach such a high level, Webb wrote, that the judge would direct the sheriff to go out and quiet down the crowd.
Apparently the sheriff’s warnings did not suffice. In April of 1837 a new set of stocks were installed in front of the court house.
The “court house on stilts” became inadequate so in April, 1842, a contract was given to F. S. Nuttall of Raleigh to build a new brick court house. The county agreed to pay $4,715 for the new building. Located on the north side of Court House Square, the building faced south.
Details of the 1842 court house have been lost. However, just a few years ago documents were found in Whiteville telling of the Columbus County court house built in 1850. The documents reveal that it was “on the plan of the court house built in Rockingham except on the ground floor there are to be six rooms instead of four.” Also, offices were to be on the ground floor with the court room on the second floor.
Even more astonishing, a photo of the 1850 Whiteville court house exists. It shows a square building of brick, with an A-Frame roof.
In October 1856, a tower was added to the Richmond County court house. A bell in the tower was used to announce court and also to warn the population of fires.
We suspect the bell also issued a warning of approaching Union forces in March, 1865. Rockingham citizens were in considerable distress that they were to be overrun with soldiers, about which they had heard terrible things, including the burning of court houses.
The 1842 court house was not burned, however it was vandalized.
Fire destroys court house
The bell gave a warning of fire on the night of July 19, 1888. The building across the Square from the court house was in full blaze. Before the night was over, almost half of downtown Rockingham lay in ashes, including the wooden interior of the 1842 court house. Fortunately, all court house records were rescued before the building was totally engulfed in flames.
While brick from the destroyed court house were being sold as souvenirs, the Board of County Commissioners was making plans for a new court house. Less than a year after loss of the 1842 court house, a call for bids to construct a new court house was made. On April 25, 1889, a low bid of $9,900 by W. A. McKinnon of Montgomery County was approved. The county issued bonds totaling $12,000 to pay for the court house and furnishings. A year later a clock was added to the court house tower which also contained a bell to announce court and warn of fires. The Thomas Seth clock had chimes which, according to news reports, could be heard for over a mile.
When the 1889 court house was torn down after construction of the present 1924 court house, the bell cast in 1890 was saved..
Richmond County was proud of the 1890 court house. It was a two-story building measuring 50-ft. by 80-ft. The offices on the first story had 12-ft. ceilings. Included with the offices were two fire-proof vaults. The court room was on the second floor, as were two jury rooms and a office for the judge.
There were two outside iron stairways. One of those stairways still exists. It is on the side of the former Economy Auto building (originally Bank of Pee Dee). It is highly ornate, similar to iron stairways found in Charleston.
A new Richmond County
The new 1890 court house symbolized a new Richmond County. Cotton agriculture was making many farmers rich. Adding balance to the exploding economy were the textile mills. By 1890 Hitchcock Creek supplied power to Ledbetter, Roberdel, Pee Dee #1 and Steele’s mill at Cordova.
The growth continued with Hamlet becoming a major rail center by the year 1900, and with the arrival of electricity, still more textile mills were built.
(Until their separation in 1899, the court house in Rockingham served both Richmond and Scotland counties. One of the reasons given for the separation was the distance of the courthouse from people in Scotland County.)
Although only 30 years old, the 1889 court house needed replacing by 1920. In the 1916 issues of the Rockingham Post-Dispatch are letters and articles stressing the need for a larger court house that would provide space for a growing government. The Board of Education was especially insistent.
Part of the decision for a new location was easy: there was not enough space on Court House Square, now Harrington Square, for a building the size needed. The point was also made that the 1889 court house could remain in use while a new, much larger building was under construction.
However a final decision on a new location was not as easy. In the beginning, a site next to the Farmer’s Bank was first choice. The Farmer’s Bank at that time was further west on Washington Street. The proposed court house site would be about where Rockingham Hardware is today.
The site was dropped due to cost of $265 per foot of Washington Street frontage. A second site on Washington Street was considered, however the final vote was for the present Franklin Street site. The county already owned 115 feet of frontage and, according to the May 5th, 1922, issue of the Post-Dispatch “Aunt” Mollie Russell, a colored woman, agreed to sell 120 feet of additional street frontage for $9,000.
Following the vote to approve the site was another vote to immediately pave a major portion of the unimproved Franklin Street.
New court house planned
The Richmond County Board of Commissioners had wasted no time. They had architectural drawings before the site was selected. With a site in hand, they immediately called for construction bids. John P. Little & Son of Charlotte offered a bid of $177,450. The high bid was $203,908 by J. L. Crouse Construction in Greensboro.
The May 12, 1922, issue of the Post-Dispatch carried an architectural drawing of the building, noting that construction work would begin within a month and the building completed in one year’s time.
Plans were already being made for a spectacular corner stone ceremony.
The date for the event was set for Oct. 11, 1922, only five months after selection of a site.
The front page of the Oct. 12th Post-Dispatch carried a full account. Editor I. S. (Ike) London wrote that the crowd attending the event was even larger than the celebration at the end of World War I. “A conservative estimate would place the crowd at 5,000,” he reported.
There was a dual reason for the large crowd. Not only was a corner stone to be set for the new court house, but also for the new Rockingham High school which marked a major consolidation of county high schools.
The two ceremonies were, in fact, highly similar. The Grand Lodge of North Carolina Masons was requested by the county commissioners and school trustees to do the honors.
Masons officiate at ceremonies
The Grand Master, James H. Webb of Hillsboro and Grand Secretary William W. Wilson of Raleigh arrived a day early. The Shrine Band from Charlotte came on an early train the day of the event. The band had 35 members according to London’s account. Their striking costumes and music made a striking impression on the people, he reported.
The ceremony began at 10 a.m. in a garden at the Rockingham Hotel at the corner of East Washington and Franklin streets. After a band concert, the band led a procession of Masons, county officials and over 50 Sir Knights in uniform to the foundation of the new court house. There, a choir of over 100 opened the ceremony with the hymn “All Hail The Power of Jesus’ Name.”
The following ceremony included scattering corn over the corner stone as an emblem of plenty, followed by pouring wine over the stone as an emblem of joy.
At the conclusion of the corner stone ceremony at the court house, a parade was formed. Led by the Shrine Band, all who had a part in the court house ceremony marched to the Rockingham High school site for a similar service. They were met by a large delegation of school students.
The events of the day were filmed by Fox Movietone News and, according to London, shown in movie houses all over the United States.
The University of South Carolina in 1980 acquired the Fox Movietone News archives.
By late summer of 1924, the Post-Dispatch was reporting that “Richmond County’s magnificent new court house” would undergo a dedication ceremony on September First. The building and furnishings had cost $225,000.
Occupants of the building included the sheriff, Clerk of Court, Register of Deeds, American Legion Club, Farm Demonstration, Home Demonstration and Roads Superintendent.
Having served its purpose, the 1890 court house on the square was sold in 1925 for $1 with a three-month demolition deadline.
This 1924 court house continues to serve. While the Clerk of Court, court room and various other offices related to court are now in the new Judicial Center, many other offices remain in the older building.
In contrast to the 1924 building, the Judicial Center was constructed and opened in without fan fare.
However, earlier in 2009, Masons laid a cornerstone for the Judicial Center during its construction. Officiating were Dan C. Rice, Grand Master, Grand Lodge, AF&AM of NC; and Milton F. Fitch, Jr., Grand Master, PH Grand Lodge, F&AM of NC.
The new Judicial Center opened in 2010. It was designed and built by Ware Bonsall Architects of Charlotte. The five-story, 70,000 square-foot building with six courtrooms cost $14.4 million in construction. With the purchase of property and other improvements surrounding the building, the total cost was $22 million.