Historic Chatham County courthouse reopens

ablythe@newsobserver.comApril 20, 2013 

— The historic Chatham County courthouse, burned to little more than a brick hull three years ago, reopened Saturday with the gathered crowd showing a deep reverence to its past.

Fire swept through the clock tower and upper floor on March 25, 2010, leaving the centerpiece of the quaint downtown in jeopardy of becoming a chapter in the Pittsboro history books.

“It was like a family member passing away,” Celeste Bryan, a retired finance officer, recalled in a video tribute compiled by UNC-TV videographer Mike C. O’Connell.

But the county commissioners quickly vowed to rebuild, and on Saturday, Chatham County residents got a glimpse of a future shaped greatly by yesteryear.

The new walls of the old courthouse provided a sturdy framework for much reminiscing.

There was the story about a man from Bonlee in western Chatham County who rode a horse through the courthouse, pretending to be Hoot Gibson, the pioneer cowboy film star. Moonshine, of course, played a role in the prank.

And there were many hoots in the courthouse crowd, when Tommy Emerson, a former county commissioner, explained that the sheriff and local law enforcement officers gave chase in a Model A Ford. There were more hoots when Emerson described the culprit’s defense when he had to come back to Pittsboro.

The sign on the courthouse, the Bonlee man explained, said “No Dogs.” Horses, though, weren’t mentioned.

Wade Barber, a longtime Chatham County lawyer whose father also practiced law in the Chatham courthouse, described it as the hub of the community’s trials, tribulations and celebrations.

Barber talked about elections decades ago, when Pittsboro voters went to the courthouse to cast ballots for elections big and small. All the ballots were stuffed into two wooden boxes with padlocks keeping them closed.

After the polls closed, a young Barber would climb up on a chair and get to reach into the box to pull out the first ballots for vote counting.

There were recollections of how the courthouse staff tested what was believed to be alcohol contraband, putting a sample about an inch deep inside a concrete vault, then striking a match to see if it would burn. Flames were proof of high-proof evidence.

Changes since 1881

The courthouse that has longed served Chatham County was built in stages. The first stage went up in 1881 at a cost of $10,666, according to Paul Shield Crane’s first edition of “North Carolina Taproots: Courthouses of North Carolina.” In 1930, another story was added to the brick building and, in 1959, there was an extensive renovation that cost $130,000.

Though clocks were called for in the 1880s plans, the installation was delayed for more than a century.

Lucy Worth Jackson, the daughter of former Gov. Worth and the wife of the Pittsboro mayor, had collected $130 of the $450 to install clocks in the late 1880s. But, according to accounts in the Chatham Record, town leaders asked her to use the money for a school instead. It was not until February 2000 that four clocks were installed.

Blasts from the past

Over the years, the courthouse became iconic.

Motorists traveling through Pittsboro on U.S. 64 or U.S. 15-501 loop past the landmark. Politicians, protesters and others through the decades learned to gather in front of the building to get maximum exposure.

Many famous and infamous court cases were heard inside the building, including hearings on the fate of the infamous sex tape from the John Edwards saga.

Though much was saved from the 2010 fire, Luana Luconi Winner, a Raleigh artist, was called on to restore a portrait of the Earl of Chatham, for whom the county is named.

The Chatham County Historical Association still has a museum on the first floor, displaying photographs and other relics from the past.

Safer in the future

Allen Baddour, the resident Superior Court judge in Chatham County, noted some of the new features in the renovated building: an automatic sprinkler system and sound-proofing that drowns out the whir of trucks barreling through the traffic circle.

The historic Chatham Courthouse, Baddour said, should be a symbol of community for years to come, honoring a vibrant past as it incorporates a hopeful future.

“In short,” Baddour said, “it’s Chatham County’s front porch.”

Many more stories, he said, will be told on that porch.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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