Looking Back on Our Courthouse
by Julia Pearson
Justice in early Brown County was meted out by a circuit riding judge, believed to be dispensed in a private home made of logs two stories high, not far from the Reasoner Orchard home on the Lanam Ridge Road.
A year after Brown County was formed by the State Legislature and when Nashville was designated the county seat, tandem building projects for a courthouse and jail were deemed civil necessities.
According to archival records provided by George Fleener, a contract for the building was awarded to David Weddle in 1837.” It was constructed of hand-hewn logs, “chinked and daubed with mortar.” It was two stories and of true rectangular design, with two rooms above and a stairway at each end. The ground floor consisted of one room. Fireplaces were the sole source of heat. The cost of the first courthouse and jail was $700. The courthouse was in use until 1853. The log building was then sold and the logs were used as a stable for a half century.
A contract was let to John Douglas to build a courthouse of brick on the same site for a cost of $7000 and it was finished by 1855. In the interim, court was convened in the Methodist Church.
A November morning fire in 1873 claimed the courthouse and many records were lost in the flames along with the walls and doors. The Brownstown Banner reported on November 12, 1873 that the whole court room was on fire when discovered. Citizens succeeded in getting out the records from the clerk’s, auditor’s, and treasurer’s offices, but didn’t save any of the records in the recorder’s office. Different accounts and reasons for the tragic fire are still told. Fleener’s notes record that after the fire, “the auditor, William J. Watson and commissioners, Robert Henderson and Allen Anderson, met at Brown and Prather’s law office for a special meeting for the purpose of housing the government of Brown County.” Three rooms were rented from John Gendin so that civil business could proceed.
In 1874, a contract was let for a new courthouse at installments of $4,000 and $4,500. It was to be finished by 1877. Following the same plan as the previous building, and on the same site, the old foundation and a portion of the old wall were to be utilized.
The first floor was rectangular in design and housed offices for the treasurer, auditor, county surveyor, recorder, and clerk.”
The second floor held the jury room and office for the superintendent of Brown County schools. The well-known and loved superintendent, Grover G. Brown, used this office for 32 years. The upstairs courtroom was used for any activity where a large room was needed.
Records state that the building was heated by, “a box type wood burning stove, their mouths were always ready for another stick of wood.” In 1930, water was piped from the creek to flush toilets and to provide water for the heating system which consisted of hot water radiators—the water being heated by coal furnace.
When automobiles brought people into Nashville, the courthouse lawn had a well, a pump, and a common drinking cup for all. One day, local Brown Countians noted that an automobile from Indianapolis drove up to the curb. A lady got out of the car with a big dog. She pumped a cup of water and gave the cup to the dog to drink from. Mr. Fleener’s notes share for readers: “That was fine for the dog, and it pleased her, but was not acceptable to our society.”
In 1939, a one-story extension was added on the north end to provide room for health facilities. A second story was added to that extension for space needed for activities of the judge of the court.
Remodeling continued and by 1964 wiring was revamped and new fixtures hung. The old coal-burning furnace was replaced with a fuel-burning furnace. The Brown County courthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. In 1989, the courthouse bell tower was repaired for a cost of $10,000.
Starting in April of 1992, there were major renovations to expand the courthouse and included installation of an elevator, addition of a hearing room, and expansion of offices. The eight month project cost $600,000.
While digging a pit for the elevator shaft, large chunks of limestone were found. “We believe that large rocks were used as foundation material instead of concrete,” said architect Michael Chamblee.
Lee Waltman Construction Company of Nashville, which renovated the building’s second floor in 1976, received the remodeling bid. The courthouse received a new roof, plumbing, wiring, and plaster. Heating and air conditioning were added. Across the back of the building was built a 9 foot, two-story addition. The large iron staircase was removed and a new staircase was constructed, spanning three stories from the basement to the courtroom.
The Brown County courthouse was rededicated in a special observance on December 6, 1992. The program proclaimed:
“We dedicate this building to be set aside to be used for the 88th Judicial Court System and functions of county government.
“We dedicate this building to the service of the people. To justice, righteous and fair treatment.
“To the leaders who had foresight to see the county’s needs, to the people who carried out the plans, and to the youth and the promises of the future, to all the citizens of Brown County.”