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Mike Watson: the story of the historic Adair Courthouse

By Mike Watson

The current situation is keeping many from their usual activities. I am a natural 'hermit' or think I am. To relieve the stress of captivity for those of you here, I intend to start posting from my archive.

I started writing for the local newspapers in 1983, under direction of Ed and Linda Waggener, with a (usually) weekly column on local history, genealogy, events, etc. And I've been cranking out such material since. This is a long one, but...

From April 2009:

When this area was an unclaimed wilderness, the Long Hunters made their way through the forest and cane brakes to establish camps, one near Columbia, on Skin House Branch. These hearty souls were adventurers, willing to risk life and limb to hunt and explore new and sometimes dangerous expanses of God's bountiful land. This was then--as now--beautiful land. Some of these same hunters would follow the earliest settlers into what was Lincoln, then Green, now Adair County to build homes, raise crops and nurture families. With the breaking of the way, settlers poured into this section of Kentucky--they were our ancestors. They were brave, courageous, hard-working and progressive.

History tells us that with the opening of new lands, first came the explorers, then the first settlers followed by government and the church. Our ancestors came to a wild place and were to a large degree wild themselves. Them came here on the heels of the American Revolution, a great fight for independence--some of our folk were seeking even more independence with their migration into the virtually untouched forest, others may have been seeking a hiding place far away from political and social changes that were not to their liking.

We know from the stories that have been handed down from our earliest Adair County ancestors that there was wildness in them. Frontier justice was often swift and--by modern standards--brutal. Many lived by the Old Testament code of "an eye for an eye". Having fought the Natives for every inch of this, their hunting ground, the code had been a way of life for years.

Creeping along on the heels of the settlers was civil law. Justice came to be meted out by those who were more apt to be level-headed men, those who had made this their home and would remain here for life. They wished to establish a government of laws, not of men--based upon written regulations, not on the whims of hot heads fanned by vigilante violence.

With the birth of Kentucky in 1792 and with Green County's creation, we found ourselves in the bounds of a new county, with a seat of justice on a days ride from home. When Adair County was formed a decade later, a new seat of justice was established on the present site of Columbia. Justices of the Peace, Judges of the Court of Quarter Sessions, a Sheriff, and other county officials necessary for the smooth operation of a county and town were duly appointed or elected.

From time to time in the early years there were violent crimes that had to be dealt with in the prescribed manner of the law. Lesser crimes abounded as well as can be seen in the early records of the county. Theft, hog stealing, malicious cutting, fighting, swearing on the Sabbath, false swearing, and disturbing worship were just a few of the types of cases that came before the law.

Court was held in various places for the first few years of Adair's history. It took time and money to plan for and erect an imposing edifice that would be the visual and virtual representation of the county and her people. The county court records are replete with debate and counter-debate on what and how to proceed with the construction and maintenance for the court house. There were always needs for attention, improvement, repair, and additional light and heat or security. Money was spent on these needs, all from local taxes, for the need to maintain the face of the county was crucial. In time a remodeling of the structure was undertaken and a beautiful Grecian-style facade was put in place.

With the Civil War came many trials. The courthouse was used to house military arms, as a make-shift hospital, and as a central point for area operations at times. The wear and tear on the building was substantial. Soon after the War ended there was talk of a new seat of justice, but money was very tight and Adair had to do with what it already had until better times. These came in the 1880s when the economy is better and money was coming in from local taxes placed on real estate and the poll. A new structure was designed and the old one torn away. The center of the Public Square would continue to be the center of town and the county--a point of pride and visual identity for the citizens of the county and a major focal point for visitors.

The new courthouse was a thing of beauty. The architectural firm that designed it had a reputation for good work and was evident throughout the State of Kentucky and the nation for they designed numerous courthouses based on the same general design. It was a red brick structure that would resist the elements and man for many, many years. The clock tower was perhaps the most impressive feature. When the clock was finally installed, the faces could be seen and the tolling of the hours heard all over town--both were pleasing to the eye and ear. Progress--on the Public Square, Columbia, Adair County, Kentucky.

Time brings on decay from abuse and misuse and the Adair County courthouse was not exempt from this. There were face lifts from time to time, but in the 1970s when the nation was preparing to celebrate her bicentennial, the county fathers proceeded with a revitalization campaign that centered round the renovation and additions to the existing structure. At that time floor space was added to the four corners on the first floor and the facade was painted a pale green, almost white color. It was attractive, but not the courthouse of our memories. Many lamented the loss of the original design.

For space, there is always a great need. In our modern time we create more paperwork for we have more people and they are more active--the offices of the courts were and are overwhelmed and need more space. Even with the advent of the modern computer systems on which we rely so heavily today, there was and is need for more and more space, both for operation and storage.

After the disastrous fire that claimed the Miller Hotel and lives of several citizens in the late 1970s, there was great debate as to what would be erected on the site. Eventually, the county leaders proposed the construction of a new courthouse annex building that would house several offices and, thus, relieve the serious issue of space in the main courthouse. A wonderful idea and it came to pass in a short time.

The State of Kentucky has been quite generous in the past decade with funds for the construction of modern, safe "centers of justice". There have been many built in recent years and are a much needed additions. Adair County entered upon a new path when we were granted funding for such a justice center. The location, which overlooks the City Cemetery, is a good one. Many civic and historical minded individuals were relieved when it was decreed that more space was needed for the new building than the center of the public square had to offer! This new justice center would not be in the center of the square and we would be able to keep the structure that has come to be the identifier of the town and county. When the new building is completed, we will celebrate the advance of progress in our county and will continue to praise all those who helped make it a reality.

We hope and trust the "old courthouse" will continue to be a focal point for the town and county, as it has the past century and a quarter. With the help of humanities grants and contributions, would it not be wonderful to see it turned into a vital cultural center as has happened in counties such as Green and others. We have a beautiful piece of architecture, on the National Register of Historic Properties since the 1970s, that could be a showplace for the arts, a museum, a historical window to our own ancestors--let us take advantage of the national wave of historical progress and preserve our little piece of history...

This story was posted on 2020-03-24 19:47:43
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