When Smyth County was formed in 1832, the early leaders wasted no time in taking care of necessary business. Fifteen justices, chosen by Governor John B. Floyd, met in the home of John Thomas on April 2, 1832, to select court officials.
Robert Beattie Jr. of Seven Mile Ford was chosen to be the first clerk of the court. Instead of serving, he appointed his friend, James F. Pendleton, to conduct the duties of this office as deputy clerk. The clerk’s office was located in the Beattie home until September 1832, when it was then moved to the Pendleton home.
The first commonwealth’s attorney in Smyth County was Charles E. Harrison. The first coroner was George Byars.
According to Sally Harris’ article, “Courthouses of Smyth County,” the justices “divided the county into two districts and called for the election of three overseers in each district to provide for the poor. Charles Tate, upon the recommendation of the justices in April, was commissioned sheriff by the governor in May 1832. He was paid $75 per year for his duties, which included tax collecting and the paying of all county bills.”
In other words, the Sheriff not only maintained law and order, but also served in the capacity of what we now know treasurer.
“At the May 25, 1832, session of the county court, John H. Fulton, Isaac J. Leftwich, Charles E. Harrison, and George T. Lansdown were chosen as commissioners to enter into a contract for the building of a courthouse and a public jail. They were instructed to entertain proposals for a courthouse and jail similar to that of Scott County, but were allowed to consider other plans for the building.
“A proposal was received from John Dameron and Thomas W. Mercer, of Jonesboro, Tennessee, to build the courthouse similar to that of Scott County, with certain changes. They proposed the addition of a stone wall at least one foot thick, to go on either side ‘of the passage of the jail’ and the substitution of locust frames for the windows and doors of the jail instead of stone frames. To surround the public lot, the builders recommended a post and plank fence—the posts to be of locust, two feet underground, five feet above ground, and six feet apart. The plank was to be of chestnut, one inch thick. The whole was to be finished ‘in the most workmanlike manner out of the best materials’ within a period of eighteen months. The court accepted this proposal and the courthouse was ready for use in January 1834.
“The new courthouse, Smyth County’s first official courthouse, was located on the same one-acre lot on which the present courthouse stands. The red brick building cost the county $7,750. To pay for the building, the county borrowed $1,000 from Washington County and sold 21 lots in Marion.
“The courthouse had a water fountain on the front lawn and ‘an iron trough at the sidewalk curbing for animals.’ In November 1834 a ‘necessary’ was built in the yard. A keeper was appointed, whose duties included keeping fires, when necessary, in the jury and courtrooms and seeing that the courthouse was well supplied with candles. Sheet-iron fenders were placed on the fireplaces in the clerk’s office in an early effort to make the building fireproof.
“For 70 years, the second courthouse was the focal point of Smyth County’s court days. Court day was an important social, political, and judicial occasion. People thronged to the court village to see one another, to purchase needed items, to tend to legal business, and to hear the lawyers, who were their ‘main source of inspiration and information as to the news and issues of the times.’ According to Goodridge Wilson, a Smyth County historian, people from the mountains surrounding the county seat were treated to ‘classical orations, crude demagogic harangues, elegant discussions, rough-and-tumble debates, impassioned appeals to patriotism, and to prejudice, and exhaustive expositions of the political questions of the day’ when they came to court.
“In 1904, the Smyth County Board of Supervisors decided that the 70-year-old red brick courthouse needed to be remodeled and repaired, and an architect was employed to advise them. The architect reported that ‘the present Courthouse is in a very dilapidated and unsafe condition.’ He recommended the construction of a new courthouse, and the supervisors immediately named a committee to study the feasibility of constructing a new courthouse ‘on the site of the present Courthouse, as soon as practicable.’
“The committee made its report in January 1905, recommending acceptance of a ‘set of sketched plans’ for a courthouse drawn by Frank L. Milburn, an architect from Columbia, South Carolina. The board of supervisors directed that the building should be completed in 1905 and should cost no more than $50,000.
“Because the jail was on land needed for the new courthouse, the supervisors instructed the building committee to build a new jail. Milburn submitted a sketch for the jail and the supervisors approved it, stating that the cost should not exceed $2,500. The jail was constructed on a lot fronting on Strother Street, purchased from Mrs. M. Sheffey Peters. Bids for the new courthouse and jail were opened on April 12, 1905, and the contract was awarded to Stephenson and Getoz, of Knoxville, Tennessee.
“Since the red brick courthouse had to be demolished to make way for the new structure, the board of supervisors had to find temporary quarters for the dislodged offices of government. The clerk’s office was moved to two rooms in the Marion National Bank. The treasurer’s office was moved to the back rooms of the Bank of Marion. The Francis Opera House on Main Street became a makeshift courtroom.
“The courthouse complex was completed in 1905 at a cost of $48,082, and several residents were confident the county would never recover from this financial outlay. The neoclassic building contained 25,750 square feet and was built of Powhatan salt-and-pepper brick and Bedford limestone. Most of the lumber used in the structure was cut in Smyth County. All rooms in the courthouse, except the auditorium, had steel ceilings.”
The second-floor auditorium was built to “accommodate such events as entertainments, county school singing, and spelling contests. The area had dressing rooms, a stage, and a balcony, furnished with wooden benches from the red brick courtroom. The facility was called the Court Square Theatre and remained in use by the community until competition from ‘moving picture shows’ diminished the need for traditional entertainment. The area was then used for storage until the 1950’s, when it was made into offices.”
The courthouse has undergone major renovations and additions over the past decade. The building has adapted with time, to meet the needs of the citizens of Smyth County. It has been the scene of countless dramas and safeguards the records of our ancestors within its steel vault. It is, in many ways, a time capsule with countless stories to tell.
If you have any stories about the courthouse history or those who have worked within the courthouse, I may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org