Sep
07

History of the Springfield Courthouse

The history of Springfield’s old buildings has always been a subject I keep coming back to. The amount of memories tucked away in some of these locations is fascinating to me, and the courthouse in downtown Springfield is no exception. 

This long-standing landmark is one of the most recognizable sights in all of Robertson County and has a history dating all the way back to the end of the 18th century, when Springfield wasn’t much more than dirt roads and a handful of buildings. As the city and county have grown over time, the courthouse has also changed. From its humble beginnings as a small cabin to the impressive structure we recognize today, this building has become a marker of how our community has evolved over the decades. Today, we’re doing part one of a two-part deep-dive into the history of the Springfield Courthouse, from 1799 through the early 1900s. 

Our courthouse got its start in 1799 as a log cabin structure, which was expanded in 1805 to include two jury rooms, windows, and fireplaces with accompanying chimneys. The contract noted that work was “to be done in as workman-a-like manner as the present courthouse and of as good materials,” 

The first courthouse served Springfield until 1819, when a second courthouse was built. This new building was two stories tall with 44 foot walls and sat on a solid stone foundation. Robertson County levied a new property tax on residents to raise funds for the courthouse, collecting $6,845.29 over the course of three years. 

This new courthouse would still be standing when the Union army drove Confederate soldiers out of Fort Donelson and occupied surrounding cities, including Springfield. Regular courthouse proceedings were suspended as federal troops made their home in and around the square, even stabling their Morgan horses in the local Presbyterian Church.  No record remains of damage sustained to the courthouse during the Civil War while the Union occupied Springfield, but a newspaper article in 1866 reported that “repair of public buildings of our county are being rapidly pushed forward. The courthouse has been newly covered and repaired.” It’s likely that the building sustained some damage during the conflict that is simply lost to time. 

The extent and success of that repair process is unknown. However, just a few decades later, the county decided a new courthouse was needed. In 1879, a committee was formed to begin researching what was needed to construct the new building. That committee included names that can still be heard around town today: Crunk, Garner, Woodard, Washington, and Walker. 

Despite repairs over the years, the building was rapidly in decline, as noted by civil engineer D.J. Johns and W.F. Foster: “[The building] is rapidly getting weaker and more unsafe. It is manifestly unsafe and dangerous to the lives of those who may be from time to time within said building. It is liable to fall at any time from hard wind to heavy rain.”

By August of 1879, a third courthouse was under construction to replace the former. William Crawford Smith served as the architect of the new building and would later earn his spot in history books for designing both the Parthenon in Nashville and Kirkland Hall at Vanderbilt University. 

William Crawford Smith

During construction, a cornerstone was placed within the building containing one of Robertson County’s most famous exports: whiskey. J.S. Brown deposited a bottle from the distillery of Wiley Woodard into the space and sealed it at the end of the 19th century, not knowing that in 1903, the county would become dry and legal whiskey would disappear from Robertson County altogether. 

The third courthouse was finished a few years later for a total cost of $20,959.40. When the building was complete, a representative from each of the 18 civil districts planted a tree on the front lawn to celebrate the third rendition of the county seat. A new century was coming, and the future looked bright for Robertson County!

As the area grew and modernized, the courthouse would evolve to reflect these changes. Electricity, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and other 20th century improvements were all on the way, as well as the famous clock tower. We’ll make sure to explore the courthouse’s history post-1900 in a future blog post. 

But first…whatever happened to that whiskey? 

In 1929, the courthouse underwent another renovation and the cornerstone was removed. The county had been dry for 26 years at this point, but residents still remembered the bottle hidden away decades ago and were excited to (hopefully) get a taste of what had been some of the finest whiskey in Springfield during the height of legal distilleries. 

The cornerstone was removed and opened to reveal the much-anticipated bottle. Excited bystanders watched as it was lifted from its dusty home and examined. 

Unfortunately, they would ultimately be disappointed. The bottle’s cork had disintegrated and the whisky had evaporated. 

The history of the courthouse is long and chock full of interesting stories that may be new to you. In fact, there’s so much to tell we’re dedicating two posts to the subject! Sign up for our newsletter to be notified when the next blog post hits our website.

Special thanks to the Robertson County archives for the images provided and help with research on this topic! 

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