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Courthouse Active After Nearly 200 Years

DANICA SMITHWICK, The Jackson Sun7:29 p.m. CDT June 29, 2015
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(Photo: DANICA SMITHWICK/The Jackson Sun)



The Hardeman County Commission met the evening of June 18 in its original meeting room at the Little Courthouse in Bolivar for the first time since 1827.

"We wanted to have this meeting tonight because of the anniversary celebration," said Hardeman County Mayor Jimmy Sain. "It's a meeting to vote on our budget, but the timing was just right."

The meeting made the site not just the oldest log courthouse in Tennessee, but the oldest active one as well. Bolivar's Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities (APTA) celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Little Courthouse's restoration.

According to Ken Savage, president of the APTA's Bolivar chapter and seventh-generation Bolivar resident, the courthouse was established in 1824 and after three years of use, it had to be sold. Relocation to a larger building would accommodate more people.

"Tonight's meeting will make it the oldest active courthouse in Tennessee and perhaps the U.S.," Savage said prior to the meeting. "It's the most valuable building we have, as far as I'm concerned."

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the decision to hold the budget meeting in such a small space. Monroe Woods, president of the local NAACP branch, told The Jackson Sun the meeting's location was problematic. Some citizens who wanted to be heard were turned away when the building reached capacity, he said. Commissioners sat in one room, and others sat in adjoining rooms to watch the proceedings on monitors.

"To say the least, it was disappointing and insulting that the meeting took place in a location where the space was restricted to the point that the citizens of Hardeman County who elected the body could not be in the same room with the body as they voted on how their tax dollars would be spent," Woods wrote in a letter to the editor.

Savage said The Little Courthouse holds a lot of history. While the first level of the building served as a courtroom, the upstairs portion was a jail.

But this isn't the county's only historical treasure. APTA also maintains The Pillars, the home of John Houston Bills. At age 19, Bills settled in Hardeman County and made his fortune on cotton.

"He had three plantations, he was postmaster and president of county court — he wore a lot of hats, you might say," Savage said. "His wife was first cousin to President James K. Polk, and Bills served as adviser to Polk when he was president."

Bolivar also has ties to American frontiersman Davy Crockett and the Alamo. Historians believe that he stood on a whiskey keg and gave a speech in the middle of the court square during the 1827 election. Additionally, the last survivor of the Alamo was married in Hardeman County.

As a county museum, The Little Courthouse archives artifacts from Hardeman County's beginnings through modern day.

"It's just like any other building that's almost 200 years old — it needs a little tender loving care," Savage said. "We're hoping we can draw more attention to our cause."

Home tours will be offered Oct. 16 and 17.

APTA is Tennessee's oldest nonprofit preservation group and the nation's fourth oldest. It maintains 15 properties across the state, including Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville and the Woodruff-Fontaine House in Memphis.

For a $25 annual fee, members have free access to visit any of the 15 sites.

"We're proud this log courthouse is preserved in the shape it's in today," Sain said. "It's really an amazing thing."

Reach Danica at (731) 425-9643. Follow her on Twitter: @danicasmithwick

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Hardeman County Mayor Jimmy Sain conducts the first meeting in the Little Courthouse since 1827. (Photo: DANICA SMITHWICK/The Jackson Sun)

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The Little Courthouse in Hardeman County. (Photo: DANICA SMITHWICK/The Jackson Sun)

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Woody Savage,
Jul 6, 2015, 6:01 AM
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