SPARTA -- In 1885, the Hancock County Courthouse was two years old when an all-white jury upheld the wishes of David Dickson, a wealthy planter who had left much of his estate to his illegitimate daughter born of a slave mother.
Besides the addition of electric lighting and air conditioning, little had changed inside the historic structure since those days until a fire broke out early Monday morning, leaving just the foundation and charred brick.
Local, state and federal investigators spent much of Monday at the courthouse site, which sits in the middle of a traffic circle in downtown Sparta. By late afternoon, they ruled the cause of the fire as undetermined.
Based on interviews and eyewitnesses, the fire started on the second story, said Glenn Allen, a spokesman for the state fire marshal’s office.
No one was injured in the fire, and no firefighters were injured while fighting it, Allen said.
Investigators ruled out ongoing renovations and suspicious activity as possible causes.
Officials did say that they’d had some difficulty with squirrels in the building recently, Allen said.
Investigators called the building a total loss. It housed the county commissioners’ office, Probate Court, Superior Court and the elections office.
Those county offices will be relocated temporarily to the Oconee Fall Line College site on Ga. 15, County Clerk Borderick Foster said Monday.
County Commission Chairwoman Sistie Hudson told reporters she could see flames from five miles away after she got a call about the fire at 3:23 a.m., about 15 minutes after a passer-by had called for help.
“It was a big fire,” Hudson said.
Flames burned so hot that they melted siding off two sides of a single-story building used by the Magistrate Court about 150 feet away, said Rick Joslyn, president of the Sparta Hancock County Historical Society.
Joslyn said he was told that although the building had a sprinkler system, the fire was so hot that there was no way sprinklers could have contained it.
The courthouse, the second one built on the same site, is the first glimpse of Sparta that many travelers get when they enter town from the north.
“We’re a pretty small town, and the courthouse is an integral part of people’s lives,” he said.
Joslyn said he was in the same courtroom where the 1885 case was heard about 11 a.m. Saturday, along with a county commissioner and a photographer taking photos for a magazine article.
“We’re all still in shock. It’s just devastating,” he said of awaking to hear about the fire. “It’s like having your front tooth missing.”
Status of records undetermined
Beth Brown, a spokeswoman for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said the courthouse was insured by the association, and coverage is included for office space rental and recovering any files that might have been backed up off site.
Information about the exact amount of coverage -- and whether it’s enough to rebuild -- wasn’t available Monday.
The fire caused an estimated $5 million in damage, Allen said.
The only similar courthouse fire in recent years was in Paulding County, northwest of Atlanta. That fire, started as an act of vandalism, caused about $800,000 of damage, Brown said.
“There’s been some damage with things like tornados, but nothing that’s been catastrophic where something has been totally lost like this one,” she said.
It was unclear Monday what court and county records might have been lost in the fire.
Foster said clerks of the Probate and Superior courts used walk-in vaults to store many important documents, like deeds and birth certificates. Doors to the vaults typically are closed at the end of the work day, he said.
It wasn’t clear Monday whether the vaults’ doors were closed, nor whether the vaults were intact.
Voting registration records are stored online and have not been affected, said Jared Thomas, a spokesman for the Georgia secretary of state’s office.
Joslyn said many court records were microfilmed in the 1950s. Although the microfilm can be tough to read at times, the film is stored at the state archives.
Monday was set to be the beginning of a Superior Court trial week, with more than 100 criminal cases on the court calendar, said Fred Bright, the Ocmulgee Circuit district attorney.
Typically, defendants wishing to plead guilty would have entered their pleas on Monday. Jury selection for a trial would have begun Tuesday.
Bright said his office keeps copies of each criminal indictment.
As far as criminal records, “there’s nothing we can’t reconstruct,” he said. “I don’t envision anybody getting off ... because the courthouse burned.”
In 2013, the courthouse was named to the Georgia Trust’s annual Places in Peril list.
At that time, the building had suffered from a lack of funding for maintenance and preservation, leaving it in a state of decline.
A more than $150,000 exterior restoration project was launched recently, said Allen Haywood, executive director of the Hancock County Development Authority.
Work was set to include restoring several ornate doors, painting, roofing and restoring the clock tower.
Joslyn said one set of doors, located at the west entrance, was rehung Thursday after being restored. Another set from the east entrance had been removed for restoration.
“That’s probably the only wood from the courthouse that survived,” he said.
The restoration also was to include a new installation of county artifacts from a shuttered museum. Luckily, the historical treasures were still in storage and weren’t damaged by the fire, Haywood said.
Foster, the county clerk, said the clock in the historic tower had not worked for years.
“The clock was going to tell time again,” he said.
Some parts of the clock’s interior weren’t in the building at the time of the fire, but the facings and tower lay in smoldering ruins Monday.
“The most disheartening thing about this is that for years it has needed a renovation, and we’d finally gotten everything in place to do it and then this happens,” Foster said.
‘It is awful’
People from across town and the surrounding area went by the courthouse square Monday to watch as crews mopped up what the fire had left behind.
Maria Rodriguez said she moved to town four years ago to retire and open Rooms You Love on Broad Street with her husband.
They stood in Veterans Memorial Park Monday watching the firefighters.
“It is awful,” Rodriguez said. “It was the only thing we had that was holding the town together, that we could all be proud of.”
Firefighters were called about 3:10 a.m. after a passer-by saw the fire and called authorities.
Volunteer firefighters were on the scene by 3:19 a.m., said Hancock sheriff’s Investigator Ricky Brown. When Brown arrived, the structure was ablaze, leaving only the foundation and a brick facade.
Tommy Hyman, owner of Hyman Chevron across the street, said he arrived at work at 7:30 a.m. Monday to see the courthouse’s smoking remains.
“It was out. It was just smoking and they were pouring water on it,” he said.
A bevy of investigators visited the rubble Monday, including insurance adjusters; agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; state fire marshals; and representatives from the Hancock County Fire Department and sheriff’s office.
Haywood said he’s gotten calls from surrounding counties’ development directors and county commissioners asking if there’s anything they could do to help.
“We don’t know what to do yet, but once we do I’m sure we’ll be calling on them,” he said.
Hudson, the county commission chairwoman, stood outside the courthouse Monday afternoon as firefighters continued to douse water on hot spots.
She vowed to rebuild the structure and told the story of how Dickson, the wealthy planter, had loaned money to Hancock County to build the courthouse.
After Dickson’s death, his daughter inherited the right to collect on the debt.
But she decided otherwise.
“She forgave the debt on the courthouse,” Hudson said.
Writers Oby Brown, Beau Cabell and Mark Vanderhoek contributed to this report.