In February of 1754 the General Assembly of Virginia passed an Act ordering that the Counties of Frederick and Augusta be divided to form another: Hampshire County. It was named for the Shire in England by the same name and in honor of the fine swine produced in both. In each county was needed a strongly built courthouse where a seat of justice could be held and titles, deeds, and other instruments of law could be recorded and processed. Hampshire County did not long await such a building.
Hampshire County’s first courthouse was located south of Romney adjoining what became River Road. According to Maxwell and Swisher in their History of Hampshire County, p. 371, the mid-18th Century building was located in the valley several miles above Romney. As was the custom in other parts of Virginia, it is likely that one of the many plantation homes dotting the valley was the original courthouse. Sometime prior to 1762, before Romney was laid out, a wooden courthouse was erected south of the present site at the intersection of Gravel Lane and High Street. The act of the Virginia General Assembly creating Romney in 1762 specifically references the building: “Lord Fairfax, hath lately laid out a parcel of land, at the place were the courthouse stands, in Hampshire County, into one hundred lots.” Maxwell and Swisher generally mention the location but the final pin nailing down its location is driven home by a letter to South Branch Intellegencer’s editor from April 1892 when the writer refers to the building “occupied by the Intelligencer” as the “Old Court House.”
In the early 1800’s a Federal style brick building was built just a few yards east of the present courthouse site and used as the seat of county government until 1837 when a statelier courthouse was finished. The site of the 1837 courthouse is the approximate site of the present day courthouse. The 1837 Hampshire County Courthouse was a Greek revival building featuring red brick, a colonnade of four massive columns, and capped with a leaded dome. Through the visages of man and war, the 1837 Hampshire County Courthouse stood in triumph to witness the happiness of the nation through the later half of the 1800’s and early 1900’s. As if by fate, as the economic growth and strains of the 1920’s began to register on the nation in the grip of prohibition and stock market fluctuations, the redbrick building collapsed under the strain of a remodeling initiative began by the County Commission and against the wishes of the population. Some argued then (and some even now contend) that the collapse of the 1837 courthouse was by design in order to manufacture a crisis and require the building of a new courthouse. Vocal and irate, many letters to the editor of the Hampshire Review asked why the undertaking of the remolding was even started during the inflationary period and not when labor and materials could be gotten more cheaply.
The present building is the product of an effort which, when started, barely achieved the momentum to finish and when done was largely vacant of furniture and fitted with a clock that did not work. The saga began 83-years-ago, June 16th, 1920, when the Hampshire County Commission signed a contract with John L. Vandergrift of Cumberland for the remodeling of the 1837 Hampshire County Courthouse. The remodeling was to include the digging of a basement under the brick structure to accommodate restrooms and a heating plant. The first floor courtroom was to be moved to the second floor and the downstairs to be taken up with offices. Floors, both upstairs and down, were to be lowered to give the courtroom ceiling greater height and a hall running the length of the first floor to access the first floor offices. Stairs leading to the second floor were to be immediately inside the front entryway and an addition was to be added to the rear of the building for offices on the first floor and judicial chambers and jury rooms on the second. Fireproof vaults were to be installed in both the circuit clerk’s and county clerk’s offices to safe guard records in both offices. A new cupola with a town clock was to finish off the remodeling leaving the exterior largely the same.
Governor John J. Cornwell protested the remodeling at that time
Constituents, including Governor John J. Cornwell, protested the remodeling at that time but the county commissioners contended that since the roof needed repaired, the work of modernizing the whole structure should proceed despite the inflationary period. Examinations of dollar values of the period indicate that the undertaking occurred at the worst possible time. In the interim between 1910 and 1945, the dollar’s value in the United States was at its lowest (e.g. inflation at its highest) in 1920, the year work started. Reflecting on the predicament, the Hampshire Review on March 16th, branded the 1920 remolding project the product of bull headed men who, using erroneous judgment, failed to take counsel from the public.
On Monday, July 26th, about one month into the remodeling project, three fourths of the east wall of the 1837 building collapsed dumping thousands of bricks onto the ground, injuring a small boy, Tom Duncan, who was caught in the falling debris while playing along side the east wall. The cause of the collapse was a combination of events. The ground beneath the foundation had been excavated on the inside of the building for a basement, and the ground outside the wall was compacted by a large 5-ton truck delivering sand to the worksite. This combination likely forced the earth under the foundation to shift toward the building causing the wall to subside. No other injuries were reported, but soon afterward the rear wall of the building showed signs of immanent collapse.
The county commission met the following day in special session and called for a mass meeting of the taxpayers to get public input on what should then be done. The meeting was held Wednesday, July 28th. What was intended to be a public meeting for the public to advise the commissioners on options that would be supported by the public turned into a forum for the public to criticize the commission on its lack of judgment for undertaking the remodeling project and neglecting other infrastructure issues. It did not help that the week the courthouse remodeling contract was awarded, the bridge over the South Branch at Blue’s Beach collapsed from want of maintenance and that the road projects throughout the county seemed to radiate only from Romney. To say the meeting was contentious would be an understatement. Between 25 and 30 people pummeled the county commission with indignant comments regarding the state of disrepair of bridges and roads throughout the county. Despite the group’s objection that too few of the county’s taxpayers had been heard, the commission voted on and carried a motion to demolish the old building at once and build a new one. This was likely a moot point as the architect for the remodeling project informed the gathering that the foundation of the old building lacked mortar and was unsound. Further, the architect explained that the mortar between the bricks in the remaining walls “had lost its life and could not carry the load of heavy concrete floors” planned for in the remodeling project.
The initial plan for the new courthouse was to follow closely the remodeling plan for the 1837 building. The new courthouse would be built further back from the road but have substantially the same character architecturally. One major difference was that the exterior was to have a curtain wall of Indiana limestone.
Apparently sensing that there needed to be more input from a larger group and that more congenial circumstances may exist in the future, the county commission called for another meeting of citizens to meet August 17th at the Opera House theater (now the vacant lot next to Dollar General) to discuss the building of a new courthouse. The room was packed. Likely an effort to mitigate the antagonisms found at the July 28th meeting, Judge R.W. Dailey chaired the proceedings and addressed the crowd. He recounted the events regarding the courthouse remodeling to the present time and explained that the county must have a courthouse to replace that which was by then demolished to store and safeguard the county’s records, now housed in the Literary Hall across the street from the ruble strewn courthouse site. John L. Vandergrift addressed the gathering and explained that a new courthouse could be built for between $50,000 to $60,000. A motion prevailed asking the Judge to appoint a committee made up of two people from each district to confer with the county commission on not only the building of a new courthouse, but also the maintenance of roads and bridges throughout the county. The gathering also approved a motion that a guard be placed on the records in Literary Hall to guard against fire or theft. This person was E.O. Wirgman.
Judge Dailey appointed a committee and ten of its members met with the county commission two weeks later at the end of August. The committee was informed by the commission that it had on hand about $20,000 and about $2,000 invested in a heating plant for the remodeled building. The committee informed the commission that the courthouse could be built for something less than $75,000 and approved of the commission’s levy of $.30 for the courthouse. The committee also recommended a corner stone for the new building. No discussion of roads took place at the meeting.
In writing for what was likely a plurality, George H. Williams implored the committee to do its best to “give us back a reproduction of the old” courthouse. In a letter to the Hampshire Review on September 1st Williams reminded the county that the 1837 structure was a masterpiece and deeply missed by those who thought of it as representing “the glory of an age that has gone.“
At a meeting of the Courthouse committee September 7th, the committee disapproved the building plans submitted by John L. Vandergrift. They were then informed that the plans were in motion and could not be changed at that point. The committee also decided that only 5 members needed to be present to transact business at anytime.
Commission calls for a special levy to raise $40,000.
On Christmas Eve 1920, the commission decided that to expedite the building of a new courthouse, a levy was needed. The commission called for a special levy election to be held February 5th, 1921 to authorize the sale of bonds to raise $40,000 toward the completion of the courthouse, work having stopped sometime before. It was then reported that $55,000 had been spent toward the construction to that time and that an additional $70,000 would be needed for an estimated total cost of $125,000 ($1,262,500 in 2002 dollars). The figure of $125,000 represents a significant increase over the $75,000 shared with the courthouse committee. No explanation in the record is given for this increase and no other record can be found at this writing. The date of these decisions is important; this a time of the year when people are generally distracted by family, friends, and the holidays. It is also the time of the year that constituents are found to be the most generous and least critical of their representatives. That little activity by the commission took place in the time between mid September and Christmas Eve speaks volumes about the political maneuvering by the commission.
However, the state of infrastructure in Romney did not escape the notice of the grand jury seated for the circuit court on January 4th, 1921. Among their indictments for murder, larceny, and moonshining were notices to the county commission for the unsanitary condition of the privies provided for the courthouse grounds. The grand jury met in Literary Hall across the street from the partially completed courthouse. Their indictments were somewhat hollow as a petit jury could not meet, there being no where to try the accused. For the time, the accused who could not post bond were left in the county jail. A situation that became exacerbated as the courthouse remained unfinished.
Realizing the critical nature of the election for the bond issue, the Hampshire Review began an editorial campaign January 12th, urging voters to support the bond issue. Giving recognition to the likely mismanagement of the whole affair on the part of the county commission, the editor asked voters to set aside their opinions and look a the issue. The common theme in the editorial was that the present state of affairs left at risk the records of the county. It was an amazing coincidence that the capitol building in Charleston burned and partially exploded a few days before providing the editor a plain illustration of his point.
Appearing in the Hampshire Review the following week (January 19th, 1921) were several discussions mostly for but some against, the bond issue. Interestingly, there is printed an appeal by two members of the county commission to support the bond issue to save the public records. D.E. Swisher and H.E. Strieby flatly state that they are “new hands” and “had nothing whatever to do with” the remodeling of the 1837 building and the subsequent collapse of the building, laying the blame for the “hole we are in” squarely at the feet of the previous administration. In the same issue, the previous commission president, Frank P. Allen, explained why the commission undertook to remodel the courthouse when “building material of all kind and labor [were] skyward in price.” Mr. Allen explained the condition of the 1837 building largely focused on the “dilapidated condition of the old building” as reason enough to begin the effort. In addition, complaints from the public that the banks in Romney were loaning out and profiting from the money saved to begin the work also drove the commission to act in 1920 rather at some future date. In these and other letters, it is clear that those wanting the bond issue to pass feared the enmity felt for the previous county commission. None argued that the records were at risk, that a courthouse was needed, nor that the previous commission acted rashly. What was prevalent was the bitterness of the community that the question was foisted onto the taxpayers by the county commission.
One of the first acts by this brand new commission was to terminate the employment of John L. Vandergrift
The Hampshire Review for the weeks of January 26th and February 2nd also implored voters to vote for the bond issue by editorials and publishing letters to the Editor. Among the arguments echoed from the week previous, were added the fact that the county had to house all of its constitutional offices and records in rented space and that the cost for the rents was further compounding the county’s financial problems. Samuel Holland Williams summed up his letter in support asking the voters to support the “new” county commission and build a building that would protect the county’s records. On January 31st, A.V. Parker tendered his resignation, making a clean sweep of the former county commission. Parker was replaced by Samuel Holland Williams, who was shortly voted in as president of the new commission. One of the first acts by this brand new commission was to terminate the employment of John L. Vandergrift, the original contractor of the courthouse remodeling project. The commission’s next act was to remove the cornerstone plaque laid by the Masonic Order from the front of the building and replace it with one that read “Hampshire County Court House 1920-1921.” The county commission considered delaying the special election to decide the bond issue, but favored continuing the election as scheduled.
On Saturday, February 5th, the election regarding the bond issue failed by a majority. Only in Romney and Springfield districts did the measure pass, while in all other districts it was defeated by wide margins. It is noteworthy, that while the precinct served by the courthouse in Romney passed the measure by a margin of 11.5 to 1, the precinct served by Kedron School defeated the issue by 112 votes to 7 or a margin of 16 to 1. At Mt. Airy and Oak Grove, the issue was defeat 26 to 0 and 45 to 0 respectively. Of 26 precincts, only 8 passed the measure.
On March 16th, the County Commission again called for a special election but made the stipulations that it would hold such an election if 30 persons per district petitioned for another, that poll workers would serve for free, and that publication for the election in the Hampshire Review were also free. The commission further stipulated that all petitions would have to be turned in by its April meeting so that the election could be held in May. Almost immediately, protests against the second bond issue sprang up. Citing Luke 14, v. 28-30, one voter asked why the commission started a project that they could not finish. Another asked why not use the existing $.30 levy to pay for the new courthouse since it was fairer than burdening her children with the repayment in future years. Delegate Zimmerman introduced a bill to the legislature that continued the Hampshire County Commission’s ability to lay a special levy, $.30 on every $100.00, for the purpose of finishing the courthouse. On April 5th, the county commission decided to dispense with the requirements of petitions, and free serving poll-workers; by a two to one vote they decided to fund a special election for the bond issue. Having received petitions with 500 signatures requesting another bond issue election, the commission set the next election for Saturday, May 28th, 1921.
Citing that the fruit crop from the year before had failed as reason enough, the commission decided to not levy the $.30 on every $100.00 of value as authorized by the Zimmerman bill. It is interesting that this “gun to the head” power given to the county commission by Delegate Zimmerman was not used. It is likely that the county commission sensed the public’s outrage at the former county commission and decided against making use of the special sanction to punish the county for not passing the bond issue. This begs the question though as to why Zimmerman introduced the special legislation for Hampshire County if the Hampshire County Commission would not use it? The likely reason was that $.30 on every $100 enabled the commission to collect only $24,000 per year for the county’s $8 million worth of property. Use of this source of funding would have meant that construction would have had to start and stop during the tax year while revenues accumulated and were used. It was deemed better to issue the bonds and use a special levy to redeem the bonds over time. This would allow the work to be pushed straight through, but at the cost of incurring the interest on the bonds.
The Review implored women to protect their homes, families and selves by voting for the bond issue.
Just before the May 28th, special election, the Hampshire Review published an ad targeting the newly enfranchised women voters of the county. In it, the Review implored women to protect their homes, families and selves by voting for the bond issue. The paper explained that since no courthouse was available to try criminals, the accused were being bailed out soon after arrest to commit crimes again. The tactic worked. On May 28th, the bond election passed by the 3/5 margin and “vindicated” equal suffrage.
On June 8th, bids were solicited and on June 30th the firm of Snider Brothers of Keyser was selected as the new contractor to complete the courthouse. What followed were a handful of confrontations between contractors, architects and commissioners regarding purchasing methods and material selection. What is ironic is that in September the design of the building was modified to enlarge the office of the County Clerk. This issue is again at the fore of issues now being discussed.
In October of 1921, a harbinger supporting the building a new courthouse became manifest when the Wayne County, WV courthouse burned to the ground. The Hampshire Review quickly pointed out the irony and good business sense of a fire safe building to house the courthouse records and that the progress of the new courthouse could not go fast enough. By November 1921 the roof was completed and the windows were in place; work continued through the winter months. In December as the Courthouse was being finished, the Hampshire Review suggested that a statue in commemoration of the fallen from the Great War (World War One) be placed at the front of the new courthouse so that the memory of the fallen who died in defense of American government be mingled with the temple of that government.
In January 1922, the clock in the new courthouse failed to function and time stood still at 8:19. It is unknown at this writing whether that was eventually remedied. In spite of the defective new clock, time did move on and on February 27th, 1922 the Hampshire County Commission removed the county court from Literary Hall across High Street to the newly finished Hampshire County Courthouse. The new building was largely vacant of furnishings, the county commission having to purchase options on furniture until it could afford to pay for it.
The March session of the circuit court saw a ponderous amount of business with over one hundred grand-jury witnesses and a whole raft of cases that had been accumulating for the previous two years. Indictments soon flowed as moonshiners, poachers, disturbers of public worship, murders, assaulters, and burglars were tried for their crimes.
It should be noted that the building of the new courthouse was contemporaneous with two social movements that were then blossoming in America: Prohibition and Women’s Suffrage. Both of these initiatives were the result of long social debate and two constitutional amendments that directly affected the building of the Hampshire County Courthouse. In the case of prohibition, the jails filled more quickly and more cases involving violation of prohibition laws were brought. In the case of Women’s Suffrage, it was the votes of these newly enfranchised voters that tipped the balance toward passage of the bond issue to build the new courthouse. It is also interesting that in the conservative era of 1920’s Hampshire County, the Hampshire Review appealed to the newly enfranchised women who had just gained the right to vote through the Women’s Suffrage movement in 1920 in spite of the fact that the 1920 Women’s Suffrage Amendment did not pass in the county.
There can be little doubt that what stands today is a work of craftsmanship and useful to our growing county. Among the courthouses now dotting West Virginia’s mosaic of counties, Hampshire’s stands in stateliness and grandeur. The elasticity of its design has answered well the necessity of modernization and it will continue to be a show place of Hampshire County and its people.
It is lamentable that the oldest county of West Virginia no longer can boast having the oldest courthouse, the only extant antebellum (and possibly pre-Revolutionary) structure being the old jail. What some counties wouldn’t give to have our history and what we would give to have again some of our old buildings.
[Web editor's note: Please note that William Rice's series of books, Colonial Records of the Upper Potomac, Volumes 1-5, have recently discovered information on the early courthouses of Hampshire County.]