SPARTA -- A worker cleaning out the remnants of the burned Hancock County Courthouse discovered a hot coal at the end of January, alight from the August fire that destroyed nearly everything but the walls of the building.
The courthouse keeps showing its resilience.
The last of the debris is out now, giving contractors a chance to begin rebuilding. The original brick-wall courthouse will again help support the building’s first floor, making it appear as it had in 1883 when it first opened.
Upstairs, those walls will support more modern facilities, including a full third floor that will be built out. Previously, the third floor extended only partway, as a balcony for the second-floor courtroom.
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Rick Joslyn, president of the Sparta-Hancock County Historical Society, said he will miss the courtroom with a balcony, a “huge, wonderful space” that reminded him of the courtroom in the movie version of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
But the rebuilding of the courthouse will preserve an edifice that anchored the community.
“It was still the place to go for elections. It was still the place to go for any land records or research,” Joslyn said. “A lot of public meetings were held in the courthouse. It was something citizens were going to all the time and we all knew it, from the earliest part of our childhood on up.”
The courthouse “really does need to come back as it was,” he said.
The brick walls remain scorched, with soot marks showing where wind pushed the flames. Some stones appear blackened and pitted. Steel braces rise to support the walls high up, where the courtroom balcony had been.
At the front of the courthouse, a magnolia tree was half burned away. Behind the courthouse, a small building still hosts Magistrate Court, its yellow vinyl folded and warped, looking a bit like November’s leaves.
There have been doubts about rebuilding the courthouse, said Ben Carter, an architect with Carter Watkins Associates Architects of Monroe.
“The hardest thing were the naysayers, the people that just insisted the building was unsound and should be flattened,” he said.
High-quality bricks and mortar were used to build the building, under the supervision of then-architect Alexander Bruce, Carter said. Wooden joists were designed so that if they ever caught fire, they would burn and collapse toward the interior.
“Every wall is still standing in that building, just as the architect intended it to be in case of a fire,” Carter said.
Workers are securing the tops of the brick walls, which will help support the building’s new roof and clock tower when the courthouse reconstruction is complete early next year.
The exterior will look as identical to the original as possible. One benefit: Carter’s company was hired in 1994 to work on a sister courthouse in Walton County, which was built with the same architect, the same contractor and with the same design. Photos taken from Hancock County then are among the materials helping with the reconstruction.
Copies of some of those photos are in the hands of Sistie Hudson, chairwoman of the Hancock County Commission. Hudson has scrutinized details. The courthouse’s slate roof will be replaced with an imitation slate, but the pine doors painted to resemble oak will be replaced with actual oak.
Pointed out the building’s beautiful moldings, she said, “All of this good heart pine burned really good that night.”
The courthouse had needed a lot of work, and the county had just begun that work when the fire started last summer for unknown reasons. Two doors and two benches were out of the building when the fire began and will be used as models for the rebuilt courthouse. An old elevator from the 1970s didn’t meet the Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines. Instead, the new courthouse will have an elevator that meets standards and can be isolated for prisoner transportation.
The courthouse also will, for the first time, have a holding cell in the basement. Some parts of the basement are also getting dug out.
The work, some $6.8 million worth, is being paid for from the county’s insurance.
Hudson said work has progressed quickly since she saw the courthouse burning at 3:30 a.m. Aug. 11. A day later, the architects showed up with documentation on the courthouse design. On Jan. 5, officials didn’t hold a traditional ground-breaking ceremony because the ground for the courthouse had been broken in 1881. Instead they held an ash ceremony, shoveling ashes from the building. Since then, workers have cleaned up the debris, including “a ton of coal,” Hudson said, left over from a long-ago heating system.
Structural steel should begin to rise next month. The clock tower could be replaced by August, near the first anniversary of the fire. Construction may wrap up early next year on a newly rebuilt courthouse that has roots in the 19th century.
Hudson said it will be glorious.
“I have always just thought it was such a grand building,” she said.
Or, perhaps, royal. Hudson is one of the people who refers to the courthouse as Her Majesty.
The rebuilt courthouse won’t be the same. Hudson said every employee lost personal effects in the fire. Hudson herself lost mementoes from her 16 years in the General Assembly as well as a desk chair of her father’s.
But the public lost, too. Most original paper records were destroyed. Four commissioners’ minutes books were found, soaking wet. Some 14 deed books, out of more than 2,000, were salvageable, said Superior Court Clerk LeShauna Jackson.
Hudson credits Jackson, who began work in January 2013, with limiting the county’s losses.
“Her training said, ‘Start digitizing records,’ and she did,” Hudson said. Most of the records that aren’t on a computer are on microfilm, but there are some gaps in the 1970s and 1980s, Hudson said.
Jackson said she was worried more about people than things.
“It could have been worse,” she said, “Because we were scheduled for court that morning. The fire could have started when we were in court that morning, and I’m glad it didn’t.”
For now, the county government is housed on the Oconee Fall Line Technical College’s Sparta campus. College President Lloyd Horadan said about 60 percent of the building is leased to the county for its operations, while the school provided furniture.
“We know that the courthouse is a critical part of the Hancock County community, and it made sense for us to do what we could to help,” Horadan said in a statement to The Telegraph. The college’s Sparta classes -- commercial truck driving and adult education -- continue.
When the courthouse was built, the county’s population hovered around 17,000 people. Now, the county’s population is close to half of that amount -- about 9,400. Once a rich community, Hancock County is now among the nation’s poorest.
But tales of rich and poor were with the courthouse almost from the beginning.
One picture in the Vanishing Georgia archives shows Confederate soldiers reuniting on the steps of the courthouse in 1900.
But inside the courthouse, a legal fight pushed a Georgia woman from the lows to the highs. Amanda America Dickson was born as a slave to a slave but was the daughter of a rich landholder. When he died, he willed most of his possessions to Dickson. Other family members -- white family members -- fought the will in an epic 1885 battle.
There, in the courtroom that resembled the one in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” lawyers for Dickson’s father fought some of his relatives.
Hudson said the trial transcript reached 1,500 pages. The Georgia Supreme Court ultimately decided there was no reason a man couldn’t provide for “his illegitimate child, whether that child be white or colored.” With the ruling, Dickson became one of the richest black people in America.
The legal fight began within the same courthouse walls that still stand today. Those same walls will be part of the rebuilt courthouse.
From the small building with the melted yellow siding behind the courthouse, Shondre Leslie, a clerk with Magistrate Court, can see the work that’s going on. She can see the promise of how the courthouse’s future lies partially with its past.
“It’s going to look good,” she said.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.