The 1846 Courthouse & What Remains

The Maury County Courthouse stands proudly in the center of Columbia’s Public Square, a bright, shining example of the county’s prosperity at the turn of the 20th century.

Maury County was still a rich agricultural hub in the early 1900s and it was also emerging as an industrial powerhouse with phosphate mines and all of the processing companies that came along with them. In building a new courthouse, the county’s fathers might have been sending a statement that a county such as Maury deserved a building more refined and polished.

That may have been a small piece of the puzzle. But, the other 999 pieces were all about the condition of the old courthouse.  

The “old courthouse” was built in 1846. Many people refer to it as the “Second Courthouse” since it was the second building to stand in the center of the square. Nimrod Porter, a long-serving Sheriff of Maury County, is credited with building the 1846 building which replaced another brick structure (the “first” courthouse) built in 1810. [The first county court was held in Joseph Brown’s log cabin. Today a stone tablet stands on Mooresville Pike just south of Elm Springs, marking the approximate location of the true first courthouse.]

As the 19th century came to a close, the 1846 building was already being called shabby. An 1898 newspaper article in the Columbia Herald claimed that courthouse was “the shabbiest in the state.” Similar comments were made in the new century. A 1902 Herald article stated, “The present building is an eye-sore and a disgrace to the prosperous town and county.”

The late War Between the States is to be given a little credit for this. During the War, Federal troops fortified the courthouse and placed cannons on the north, south, and western entrances. The building was left in a terrible state at the close of the War. Yet, it survived. Many of Tennessee’s courthouses burned during the War.

The War left the South financially ruined and there were no funds available to repair the damages made to the courthouse. Left unrepaired and without annual maintenance, the building fell into even more disrepair.

An early postcard showing the 1846 Courthouse razed in 1904.

January 1902, a resolution approving the construction of a new courthouse failed. The Nashville Banner reported, “Maury County needed only a change of three votes of the special session of County Court yesterday to gain a new court-house.” Even though the measure failed, a committee to investigate a new courthouse was formed.

No action would be taken until June 1903 when Maury County’s Grand Jury grave their opinion to the Quarterly Court. It read:

We have examined the county court-house. It is in bad and dangerous condition. The noise of the streets is heard above the testifying witnesses and it is a difficult matter to hear or know what is said during an investigation. We have observed during our present session that the rains came through the roof and top floor onto the second floor. The walls are cracked and dilapidated. There is absolutely no protection to the county records. Land titles, court records and other documents and records of vast importance to the citizens of the county are practically subjected to the elements. There are no vaults nor other protection from fire, and should a fire occur, the result would most probably be their destruction, bringing an unending turmoil of lawsuits, trouble and expense to property owners. The building is in such a state of dilapidation and decay that it would be folly and useless expense to undertake to repair it. The pride of the county calls for a new court-house, the serious and dangerous conditions demand, and the unprotected citizens are entitled to it.

We, therefore, heartily and unanimously recommend to your Honor, and through your Honor to the Quarterly Court, that an appropriation be made, and such other necessary steps be taken as are necessary for the building of a court-house suitable to the present needs of the county.

On June 15, 1904, the ground was broken for the new building. The cornerstone was set a few months later on October 8th by Dick Porter, a man estimated to be over 120 years of age. As a slave, he worked on the two previous courthouses in 1808 and 1846. Now, as a free man, he was selected to lay the first trowel of mortar on the cornerstone.

The “new” courthouse was finished in 1906 and has served the people of Maury County since. Other than a few remaining photographs, not much remains of the 1846 building… or so we thought.

One of the old gasoliers from Maury County’s 1846 Courthouse survived and has been in a private collection since 1957. The beautiful, four-armed fixture has been electrified and it is currently for sale. It will take $5200 to bring it home—a small price to pay for one of Maury County’s lost jewels.

The gasolier from the 1846 Courthouse. $5200 is needed to bring it home to Maury County!

Local historian Adam Southern is issuing a cry for help. He is currently seeking donations to bring this rare fixture back home to Maury County. Once the $5200 has been raised and the fixture is purchased, it will be installed in Colonel Looney’s study at Historic Elm Springs.

Elm Springs was the home of Colonel Abram Looney, a prominent man in Tennessee’s political scene and an attorney in Maury County. Looney practiced law in the 1846 Courthouse and would probably be very familiar with the fixture. This is just one of the reasons Elm Springs was selected to be the home of this fixture.

Photograph of Maury County’s Abram Looney

Another reason being that Elm Springs, a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has only one antique light fixture. This fixture, when purchased and installed, will add more history and ambiance to the tour at Elm Springs.

Donations are needed NOW! Please give what you can. Donations are being accepted through Go Fund Me at https://gf.me/u/y5dbn3. You can also mail donations to the Southern Light Fund at 409 3rd Avenue, Columbia, TN 38401.

Historic Elm Springs, built in 1835, is listed on the National Register.

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