On October 7, 1839, the county court held its first meeting at the home of William and Bethany Benson, which served as a hotel as well as a courthouse. It was a double log house with a stack chimney with two rooms (Located just to the SW of the square across the street from the old jail where Wilson Funeral home was located for years). Mrs. Benson couldn’t find seats for all the officials and citizens that crowded her home, but a farmer chanced by with a load of pumpkins that provided stools. In this makeshift courthouse the business of the county commenced.
The first court house was merely the clerk’s office on the square, first occupied May 4, 1840 by the circuit court over which Judge Walter B. Scates presided. Gabriel Sanders, who was an 1838 election clerk In Harrison’s mill precinct, took the contract for this first Williamson County building December 12, 1839 and was paid $108 for its construction.
In 1839 Robert M. Hundley was employed to remove hazel brush shrubs from the soon to be public square and John Paschal built the first court house in 1841 at a cost of $3,500. The two story building was forty feet square and built of brick. In 1859 it was torn down and the brick was used to build a farmhouse.
On March 19, 1858 Robert Hundley was awarded a contract to build a new courthouse. The agreed price was $9,500 of which the greater part was to be paid in county orders bearing interest at 8%, the remainder from the swamp land fund. Mr. Hundley’s bond was $19,000 with the provision that the building must be finished by November 15. The work was completed on schedule. Mr. Hundley was paid $245 for painting the building and Napoleon B. Calvert furnished the courtroom for $305.
This third courthouse was a plain brick building and stood on Lot 2, block 5 of the original survey in the southeast corner of the square. The two story building measured about 50 x 70 feet with a hall, county offices and a jury room on the first floor. The first of the Vendetta trials were held in the courtroom on the second floor, but this building burned May 30, 1875 with the other buildings on the block. The lot was sold by the county for $1,775 the following June 19th.
The court obtained a room from Goodall and Campell at an annual rate of $500. Their building stood on the square west of North Market street. County officers transacted business where they could. Then the entire second story was taken for courtroom and offices at a rental of $1,000 a year. After 10 years the rent was reduce to $800 annually.
At the election in November 1875 the voters defeated a special tax that would accumulate a building fund for a new courthouse in five years. The question was argued for 10 years. A special tax of .35 cents on each $100 of taxable property for a period of three years was approved at an election November 2, 1886. A fund of $18,000 was collected by this means and the third courthouse was constructed in the middle of the public square.
The plans and specifications were accepted during the first week of June 1887. Charles E. Brush of Carbondale was the architect whose plans were judged the most suitable after a competition in which many able men took part. Mr. Brush was the third son of Colonel Daniel H. Brush, one of the founders of Carbondale. After his work at Marion, young Mr. Brush moved to Chicago where he became a leading architect. The buildings of the state Normal at DeKalb were his work.
Work began on the foundations of the new courthouse that summer of 1887. J.J. Elliot furnished the stone. Isaac M. Rapp of Carbondale was employed at $5.50 a day to supervise the building which continued through 1888 and 1889. The red brick walls slowly rose and the cupola crowned the work.
In 1921 a new court house was proposed and projected plans drawn up but it was defeated in 1922 and never got off the ground. See photo of proposed six story court house taken from the Egyptian Hustlers souvenir booklet from 1921.
In 1938 a Works Progress Administration allotment was secured to aid in remodeling the building at a cost of $40,000. New wings were added, the brick was painted white, tile floors laid, the basement vaults enlarged and all the rooms redecorated.
In 1963, the court house was sandblasted back to its original brick appearance.
In April of 1964 the Williamson County Judges went to the Williamson County Building Commission and requested that a new court house be built. Construction on the new three-level brick building located at 200 W. Jefferson Street was started in September, 1969 and completed in the fall of 1971, with Bearden Construction Co. of Marion serving as general contractor. On November 19, 1971 a dedication ceremony was held to pen the new court house. Because of the natural slope of the land site, the first two levels of the courthouse have direct entrances from the outside. The first floor may be entered from the parking area on the north side, while the second floor is at ground level on the south side. In addition to a lobby, the lower level contains offices for county officials, including commissioners, clerk, treasurer, tax collector and tax supervisor. The middle level is devoted to court-related activities. There are two jury courtrooms, two non-jury courtrooms and offices for judges, state’s attorney, coroner, bailiff, probation officer, court reporters and circuit clerk.
The old court house on the square was demolished during the latter part of January 1972. It was finished and removed in February . The current 93 foot tower erected in 1972 in the old court houses location is meant to reproduce the cupola that sat atop the old court house housing the town bell and weather vane from the old court house. The clock is a new addition. Since then, memorials commemorating the fallen veterans of wars and the victims of the 1982 tornado have been added to the plaza surrounding the tower.
A new seperate buidling addition was added to the court house around 2010 and all of the offices of the Clerk, Treasurer, Tax Assessor and Commissioners were moved to the new building on the north side of the existing court house. All of the offices of the judicial branch of county government remained in the court house.
For additional details, see the post “1965, Details on the Old County Court House” from an article by Homer Butler.
(Portions extracted from Pioneer Folks and Places, Barbara Barr Hubbs; 1905 Souvenir Book; some photos courtesy of Williamson County Historical Society; Williamson County Website, compiled by Sam Lattuca 12/12/2012)