By Ruthie Robison The Webster Progress-Times
Looking at the distraught faces surrounding the remains of the Webster County Courthouse covered in snow and ash, it was easy to see that the nearly 100-year-old building housed more than land records, deeds and licenses. To the county’s residents, this building was filled with memories and was a staple in the small, but thriving village of Walthall before it burned last week.
The Webster County Courthouse has been the pride of the county and Walthall for nearly a century. On May 23, 1876, Walthall was announced as the county seat of the newly created Webster County, previously Sumner County, because of its central geographical location. Walthall replaced the former county seat Greensboro of first Choctaw then Sumner County, which had an infamous history that included two courthouse fires.
A temporary building that consisted of a rough-frame structure of unfinished 12-inch pine boards located on a resident lot was erected to suffice for county business.
Erected in 1915 After a brick kiln was made, a courthouse could be built. The first courthouse established in Walthall was a basic two-story brick building. Decades later, the plans for the architecturally elaborate courthouse were set in motion during a prosperous time for the county.
Local architect and Walthall Mayor Belinda Stewart stated that the courthouse blueprints are dated back to 1913, while a courthouse plaque recovered from the remains states the building was erected in 1915. Therefore, it is believed that construction for the Webster County courthouse began in 1913 with the structure completed and open to the public in 1915.
N.W. Overstreet was the main architect of the Jackson-based architectural firm Overstreet, Spencer and Paine. The structure was built in a Beaux-Art style, which was common for courthouses in the early 1910s. The main walls consisted of steel structure, concrete, brick and terracotta used for the detailing on the outside walls of the building. The interior walls consisted of clay tile and concrete.
Remarkable Sight Tupelo structural engineer Mark Watson discussed in an emergency Board of Supervisors meeting following last week’s tragedy that the concrete and steel used in making the courthouse is the reason why the walls remain intact with little to no movement.
“It’s actually a really complicated design at the time it was built,” said Stewart. “Overstreet was known for building very well and of a higher quality than what had been being built in the past. This courthouse was built very well.”
Most of the wood used in the structure was located in the roof, which is now completely gone. In the early 1970s, the Webster County Courthouse had a major renovation. In order to keep up with the time, the building had to become more functional. The renovations included rewiring, new plumbing, new vaults, lowering the ceilings and closing off the courtroom balconies, which were converted into additional storage space.
The courthouse was added to the official “101 Mississippi Places to See Before You Die” list by Preservation in Mississippi. The building itself was a remarkable sight, especially with its rural backdrop.
Was Center of Residents’ Lives Watching the blaze take over the building was a heartbreaking image. However, the assistance and friendly words that have poured in from across the state have made the county’s tragedy more bearable. “Firefighters came from everywhere, we’ve had phone calls from several other counties and people offering help and advice,” Stewart said. “We’ve had a really nice heartwarming offering from people who want to help.”
In W.J. Adams’ article “A Great Lady Fitted with a New Dress” published in the Aug. 5, 1974, special centennial edition of The Webster Progress-Times, he talks about the importance of the building in the village of Walthall. Adams notes how the residents of village were interconnected with the courthouse. According to Adams’ article women and children would pile rocks up in nearby pastures while the men would collect them in wagons and take them to the work site. Adams writes, “They worked long hours whether it was pleasant, hot or cold. Then it was completed, they stepped back to look and said ‘How big, how beautiful and I had a part in building.’”
Adams keeps to a theme in the article, which features the conversations of the men who would sit on the courthouse steps and converse about their changing world over the course of 59 years whether it was an automobile, the first site of an airplane in Walthall or spittoons.
Adams’ words describe the courthouse not only being in the center of the county and village, but also being the center of the residents’ everyday lives.
Walls Still Stand Strong Many residents standing outside the courtside on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 17, talked about the courthouse being a part of their childhood. The doors were never locked and the local children would play in the courtroom using their imaginations to recreate a trial. Adams also highlights that the courthouse steps were a part of childhood in Walthall dating back to the early 1900s when the courthouse was newly built.
“For many generations a favorite spot for boys after dark has been the courthouse’s north, south and east steps. From here many yarns have been told. Before the lights came they could see shadows slowly moving during beautiful nights and blustery nights. These were older people of the village hunting companionship or going to see about an ailing relative or neighbor.”
Adams ends his article saying, “Yes, if the old courthouse had eyes and ears it would have seen and heard much in the past. Never could it all be told. This is to those who have rested or walked in the shadows of this beautiful building.”
From the outside, the walls of the courthouse are still standing strong. Further investigations into the condition of the building will assist in deciding what actions must occur during Webster County’s recovery process.
Even the ash and rubble cannot hide the once grandeur of the building.