County Courthouse History


courthouse 1908We are very proud of the fact that the Montgomery County Courthouse is on the Registry of Historic Buildings. It was built in 1907 and opened for business in 1909. The original Montgomery County Courthouse was a wood structure and was built across from the present Presbyterian Church on Washington Street in Mt. Vernon. It was not painted, and was used for quite some time in the early 1800′. Once the first county courthouse was outgrown, and the building needed quite a few repairs, a second county courthouse was built in 1857. It was a two story wooden structure, and was painted white. The 1857 two story wood courthouse was located on the land where the present courthouse now stands in downtown Mt. Vernon. In 1857 downtown area of Mt. Vernon consisted of John Wesley Morrison’s store and the courthouse. The 1857 wooden courthouse was used until 1909 when our present courthouse was put into service. In 1907 the old wood courthouse was actually moved backward a short distance so it could still be used while the new courthouse was being built. The new courthouse was built in front of it. Once the new courthouse was completed, the old wood courthouse was demolished and the court began using the present brick courthouse. Building the new courthouse in 1907 was an intense manual labor operation. Once the foundation and the second story were completed, an elevator was installed. This elevator was run by a wood burning steam engine. This steam operated elevator was used to hoist materials to the upper levels of the structure as the building began to take shape.

The opening dregistry plackay for the courthouse was set for July 4, 1908, even though the building wasn’t completely finished. On that day there was a heavy down pour of rain that started early and lasted for several hours. This delayed a parade that was scheduled. The parade finally started in the late afternoon. This record rainfall was known for years as the Fourth of July Rain, and was compared with big rains that followed for many years. On the opening day a guided tour was given to groups of people all day. People were taken up to the dome where the large bell was being rung continuously. Since 1907, the Brick Courthouse in Mt Vernon has been used daily. The picture shown here was taken in 1908. By the late 1980’s our courthouse was sadly in need of repairs. The structure had not had any maintenance for many years. The commissioners started a renovation project to restore the beautiful old building to its original luster.

1990s Courthouse Renovation Project

By the 1980s the Montgomery County Courthouse building was showing the signs of many decades of use, and very little maintenance other than patchwork fixes as needed. The building had gotten in very bad shape, and was desperately in need of repairs. Eye witnesses from the time were heard to say that it was in such bad shape it looked like it was about to fall down. The massive four sided clock hadn’t worked for years, the roof leaked, and the floors were in terrible shape. The upper floors had considerable water damage, caused by the leaky roof. Except for the dome, and the downward sloping areas around the sides of the top, the Montgomery County Courthouse has a flat root. Drain pipes from the roof went straight to the ground beneath the courthouse. During certain times of the year rainy weather would cause the ground under the courthouse to become. For years water had been standing in the open areas under the bottom floor in the crawl space and basement. This ever present moisture situation caused rot and termites to get into the old wood substructure.

During the renovation process most of the pine wood flooring was torn out and replaced because of this water damage and termites. In some places the floor was rotten, warped, or had large cracks between the boards. During the renovation the drain pipes from the roof were rerouted to the drains at the street. Water no longer would stand under the bottom floor. Today a sump pump keeps the area dry. The Windows were also in bad shape and the glass rattled on windy days. It was said that the courtroom was so dilapidated that if an attorney shouted loud enough during a trial, the windows would rattle. The building had so many cracks and openings in the upper levels of the building that birds sometimes flew around in the courtroom during trials. There was no air conditioning in the building, and space heaters were used for heating. When court was held in the summer months the windows had to be opened, and old fashioned handheld church fans were used for cooling. These hand held fans were stored in the backs of all the courtroom benches. A sign on the courtroom door stated “Don’t Remove Fans from the Courtroom”. In the summertime court would sometimes have to be temporarily stopped when log trucks passed the courthouse, because of the noise. The renovation addressed the heating and cooling problems by putting in central units. This stopped the noise problem and added considerably to courtroom comfort. The building’s electric power panels were located in a large open space in the basement. As new power was needed, add-on service panels were attached to the existing panels to supply power.

The building’s wiring was another matter. The old electrical wiring had paper insulation for covering. Its insulation was so old that it was getting dangerous to the point of becoming a serious fire hazard. The building electrics were redone during the renovation. The fill dirt in the substructure under the courthouse front entrance steps had started to wash out from decades of rain and excessive water from the roof to the point that the front entrance steps were in danger of collapsing. The courthouse building was in a really sad state of affairs. Something had to be done. The question facing the county commissioners at the time was whether to renovate the old county courthouse or to build a new, because there would be lots of additional office space if a new courthouse was built. But it was finally decided that the county should renovate the old courthouse, and preserve its historic beauty as close as possible. Renovating the old courthouse was approved by the voters in 1988 in the form of a one-cent sales tax to finance the renovation project. The one-cent sales tax was renewed in 1991. The renovation of this historic building was underway.

Much of the pine wood flooring was torn out, especially in the massive hallway downstairs. Wear and tear along with water damage in the hallway and entrance was found to be extensive. During renovation the stone squares in the front entrance were replaced and restored to their original look. The rotten sills and washed out dirt under the front entrance were also replaced. In addition to the massive hallway, and the stately appearance of the building, the courtroom is the building’s most impressive feature. During the restoration process, the courtroom floor was preserved, along with the balcony, and the four fireplaces. Lumber was salvaged from all parts of the building’s structure, and reused as much as possible throughout the rebuild process. The pine wood floor in the courtroom was repaired with existing flooring. Lumber salvaged from other parts of the building was also used as much as possible. These repairs brought the courtroom back to like new condition while restoring its original look.

During the renovation time period, portable trailers were used for courthouse office personnel since the renovation was so extensive. The renovation repairs of the early 1990s preserved the entire Montgomery County Courthouse complex as close as possible to its original historical details in every respect. They had put this magnificent old structure back to as near to original as they possibly could. The 1990s restoration project was complete in every detail including the short brick wall surrounding the courthouse lot. This short brick wall was erected the same time the courthouse was built in 1907. At one time a rail ran between the pillars of the wall to make a hitching post for horses. This wall was also restored, minus the rails.

Several of the offices have roll top desks. There is an old roll top desk that still sits in the downstairs hallway of the courthouse. This roll top desk is believed to have been placed in the courthouse when it was originally built. It was used up into the 1990s. The vintage items in the hallway are from the same turn of the century time period. Today the Montgomery County Courthouse is once again starting to show its age. The roof is leaking and is soon to be repaired.

Reprints From: Courier Herald Newspaper – August 26, 1993 – Historic Preservation Without Reservation
Special Thanks To: Keith Hamilton and Dwight Newsome

This renovation project was completed in 1994. This renovation created a functional courthouse while maintaining the historic nature of the building. The courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historical Sites in 1981.

Historic Tourist Attraction

restored_courtroom Before the great depression, before the roaring twenties, before world war one, even before the sinking of the Titanic, the Montgomery County Courthouse stood in Mt Vernon Georgia. The Montgomery County Courthouse is on the Registry of Historic Buildings. It was built in 1907, opened for business in 1909. Some building maintenance was done to the structure in the late 1940s. The courthouse was completely restored to its original luster in the early 1990s.

The Montgomery County Courthouse is one of the few remaining courthouses still in existence today that is complete in every historical feature. This magnificent building is a must see for any tour through South Georgia. Only 100 miles west of historic Savannah Georgia, our courthouse is one of the few courthouses in the region that still looks as it did when it was first built in 1907.

In addition to the massive hallway, and the stately appearance of the building, the courtroom is the building’s most impressive feature. The courtroom floor has been preserved, along with the balcony, and the four fireplaces, back to the way it was when it was originally built. The only addition to the courtroom is central heat and air. Even the lumber used in the restoration is original. Lumber was salvaged from all parts of the building’s structure, and reused as much as possible throughout the rebuild process. The pine wood floor in the courtroom was repaired with existing flooring. Lumber salvaged from other parts of the building was also used as much as possible. These repairs brought the courtroom back to like new condition while restoring its original look.

The courthouse clock was reworked and made to keep very accurate time during the courthouse renovation. Each of the four faces of the clock measure ten feet across. The clock was built by the E. Howard Company of Mass in 1907. It was originally entirely mechanical, using huge weights and a pendulum to keep time. It was converted to an electric clock motor arrangement with a small weight and mechanical pendulum for use during power outages, at the time of the courthouse renovation. The clock will keep correct time when the power goes off for up to twelve hours by use of this mechanical arrangement. The large clock bell chimes out on the hour.

The tile designs in the hallway floor match the tile designs in the entrance walkways. The courthouse restoration project was complete in every detail including the short brick wall surrounding the courthouse lot. This short brick wall was erected the same time the courthouse was built in 1907. At one time a rail ran between the pillars of the wall to make a hitching post for horses. This wall was completely restored, minus the rails. Several of the offices have Roll top desks. There is an old Roll top desk that sits in the downstairs hallway of the courthouse. This Roll top desk is believed to have been placed in the courthouse when it was originally built. It was used in an office up into the 1990s. Sister Roll top desks from the same time period are still being used today in some of the other offices. Other vintage items in the hallway are from the same turn-of-the-century time period.

The Courthouse Clock

clock faceIt may look small from the street but the Montgomery County Courthouse Dome is a large building in itself. Inside the dome on all four sides are the faces of a hugh clock. domeEach of the four faces of the clock measure 6 feet across, with an 18 inch wide 1 foot deep surround beyond that. Effectively the clock (including the surround), is 9 feet wide. The courthouse clock was built by the E. Howard Company of Mass. The clock was originally entirely mechanical. Like a huge grandfather clock, this time machine was powered by a pendulum and weights. The weights were 65 pounds of iron suspended by a cable. The timing for this arrangement was controlled by a pendulum and escapement wheel. This controlled the speed of the cable drop, making it take a week for the weights to fall three floors distance. Then in order to keep the clock ticking the pendulum would have to be cranked back up to the top by maintenance workers, using a hand crank. This was a very difficult job, and was supposed to be preformed once each week, but since it was so labor intensive it sometimes was not done on time or at all. This led to the clock not showing the correct time, or sometimes being stopped all together. Over the years, the clock began to show the ravages of time, didn’t keep correct time, and began to not work at all. Several repairs were made to the old mechanical system, but it was badly worn and needed to be replaced. By the 1950s the clock had been converted to a half electrical, and half mechanical operation using two electric motors and some of the mechanical gearing for the “Time Side”.

clockworksThis system of two electric motors worked fine if the power didn’t go off. But when the power went off, even for a few minutes, the clock would have to be reset, since the mechanical pendulum wasclock_mainframe no longer in service and the clock would stop. Over the years from the 1950s into the 1970s few repairs were made to the way the clock worked. Some patch repairs weren’t holding up and some of the parts were worn out and others missing. By the 1980s the clock had stopped working all together, and seemed to be lost forever. The entire courthouse itself was in very bad shape because of its age and needed repairs. A courthouse renovation project was on the commissioners agenda in the late 1980s. The old clock was included in the courthouse renovation project which was well underway in the early 1990s. The clock finally would chime once again. Bernie Tekippe and Bob Tuchow of the Classic Clock Company of Atlanta Georgia removed most of the gears from the clock’s mainframe in October of 1990. They cleaned the clockworks, repainted the frame, discarded two old electric motors, and rebuilt the main clock’s ‘Time Side’ with new gears etc., for more accurate time keeping. They reassembled the clock, and did some substantial alterations to the clock housing area inside of the dome of the courthouse. Presently, the main clock housing is inside a cabinet in the courthouse dome. In this rebuild of the clock mechanism, they brought back the pendulum, used one electric motor, and a small twelve pound weight, and small pendulum. When power would go off, the twelve pound weight would fall and keep the clock running. For momentary power interruptions, after the weight falls a few inches, a peg in its cord strikes a switch which turns on a small motor that pulls the weight back up to its starting position. Should power stay off for an extended period of time, the weight can fall as far as the floor below and keep the clock accurate for up to twelve hours.

Today the clock is run by one electric motor which sits on the top of the clock frame. This means that we still have a pendulum clock of sorts, that’s also electric. The present day courthouse keeps very good time.

A Huge Chime

bell The striker side of the clock is operated directly by the electric motor, so the clock will not chime the time when the power is off. But the notched mechanism which determines the number of strikes is running from the mechanical time side, so the clock would strike the correct hour after the power came back on. The striking mechanism has operated basically the same for many years, with very little changes to the way it operates. Each hour the motor runs a cog which pulls a cord from the floor below. 

There a levered hammer taps the bell. Commissioner Names on Bell The large bronze bell which chimes each hour was manufactured in 1907 by the Buckeye Bell Foundry and weighs 500 pounds. It has the names of the county commissioners on it from the time period it was built. The name of the construction company is also inscribed on the bell. The Clock Project was a small portion of the renovation project undertaken at the time, (early 1990s), to restore the historic Montgomery County Courthouse.

Reprints from: History of Montgomery County Georgia to 1918 Vidalia Advance – January 3, 1991 “The Clock Tells Time”
Copyright © Montgomery County, GA.