This is the thirteenth in a series of columns by State Rep. Sheilla Lampkin about historic sites in Monticello. Lampkin is active in historic preservation in Arkansas and has received several awards from the Arkansas Historical Preservation Association. She writes a regular historical column for several area publications.
Before we continue our historical tour and head down South Main Street, we should revisit our Square itself and again look at its fascinating history.
The Square is located in the heart of the original 83-acre tract of land donated by Fountain C. and Polly Austin in 1849 for the establishment of the city of Monticello. The town was laid out with 35 numbered blocks and one unnumbered block in the center designated for a courthouse square. This square was to be a 170 foot square.
City lots were soon sold to provide funds to build the first courthouse and jail. At that time the enormous sum of $634 was allotted for construction of that first courthouse – a rough wooden structure much like a large cabin – and it was occupied in October, 1850.
By 1856 Drew County had outgrown this first building and a new courthouse was constructed at a cost of $3,400. I believe the first one was moved to the vicinity of Cockrell’s today.
This second courthouse was more impressive than the first because it was a 40’ by 65’ two story white framed building with a painted roof, gutters and a cistern. It was carpeted with “bagging” and surrounded by a fence. “Bagging” was a coarse cloth used in making bags, flour sacks, grain sacks, cotton sacks, etc. I can imagine that it may have been pulled tight and nailed to the floor.
In 1870 this old plank courthouse was deemed too dilapidated and plans were made to build a third new courthouse on the Square. The old frame courthouse was sold and moved to the west side of the square where it was converted into shops and offices. The lower floor became a butcher shop while the upper floor held a millinery (hat) shop and family living quarters.
Then the county court, or quorum court, appointed a committee to develop plans and hire an architect for a new courthouse. They allotted $25,000 for the project. Committee chair David S. Wells contacted the Jones and Baldwin firm of Memphis,TN, to draw plans.
Their design for the courthouse was the fashionable architectural style of the times – Second Empire. With a design reminiscent of the second French Empire of Napoleon III, it featured a tower with a mansard roof that was steep and sloped that also provided the main entrance of the building. Some observers said it resembled a French castle.
Although the construction contract was awarded to L.W. Lisenbee of Little Rock, much of the work was done locally. Bricks for the building were made locally in Jordan’s field, a brickyard located about one mile north of the square. In particular, windows and door frames were built by Joe Laude, a Monticello furniture dealer who was a native of France.
The 110-foot tower contained a Seth Thomas clock with four faces and a bell that struck the hours, as well as sounding alarms for fires, calling courts to session, tolling for funerals and welcoming the New Year. Incidentally, that bell is now located by the pond on the UAM campus – but that’s another story in itself.
The courthouse cornerstone was laid on October 20, 1870, amid day-long festivities filled with music, speeches, food, visiting and games. A delightful eye-witness account of the day was later written by Miss Minnie E. Wells, a young girl at the time. This account may be read in the files at the Drew County Archives building located west of the museum.
The total cost of the courthouse was $35,689.25, including a $749.25 architect’s fee. Soaring over the square in red brick, it gave a grand view of the town and was the focal point of the county. The citizens were proud of it!
The 1870 courthouse, in addition to being the seat of county government, served as post office, ballroom, skating rink, banquet hall, lecture room, polling place and concert hall when the need arose. Two wells were dug near the square – one for livestock and one for people. It was truly the center of community life for a time. Incidentally, the two well sites are now allegedly buried under Cockrell’s Shoes and the new Union Bank parking lot.
Several artists have tried to capture the beauty and splendor of the 1870 courthouse over the years, with the most noted being Postmaster James Smith’s 1876 painting entitled “Election Day”. This painting depicts the courthouse in all its glory with exquisite details. The flag above the courthouse shows 25 stars for the 25 “reconstructed” states and the voters are milling on the grounds. This oil painting now hangs proudly at the museum.
Sadly, this grand old courthouse eventually was replaced. By 1930 some Drew Countians felt it had become too small for its governmental space needs. Signs of wear and safety concerns had also begun to mount. In 1932, and in the midst of the Great Depression, a new courthouse was built on South Main Street. The contents of the cornerstone of the old building were removed and placed inside the cornerstone of the new courthouse. This is the courthouse currently in use today.
With the new courthouse finished, the next problem to be addressed was the fate of the regal old 1870 courthouse. Although some argued that it should be repaired, preserved and/or used in some way until times were better and it could be restored, their wishes were ignored and the old building was razed.
The late 1930s saw a beginning of interest in the preservation of many old, historic structures, but it was too late for the old 1870 courthouse. It was gone forever. What a waste!
It took nearly a year to clean up the center of the square after the courthouse was torn down and it took three years to complete the present civic center that replaced it. Finished in 1937, its display of shrubs, trees and benches surrounding the pool and waterspout were very serene and appealing. The painted manmade yellow, red and green stones inlaid within its walkways symbolized the various crops of the area at that time, such as tomatoes, peaches, cotton and watermelons.
The Square served its community as a gathering place, festival site, farmer’s market and location for political and other meetings, including weddings, over the years until it came to be basically an area of serenity amid the bustle of downtown and an anchor for the community.
In 2009 efforts began to update and refurbish the Square. This project culminated in the summer of 2011 and left Monticello with the magnificent Square we enjoy today.