Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Oxford Olden Days: The Construction of the First Lafayette County Courthouse

OxfordOldenDaysAfter accepting the donation of fifty acres in the geographical center of the new Lafayette County, the Board of Police (the forerunner of the present day Board of Supervisors) authorized the plotting and selling of lots within the new city limits. This was on June 22, 1836, and the first public auction was to be held on August 16, 1836.

John Sobotka, in his history of Lafayette County, reports “the newly elected sheriff, Charles G. Butler, and two other men, Elisha Smith and Roberts Moore, were pressed into service to prepare the town land for sale.” These men laid out the grid for the city, which also included the Courthouse Square in a grove of oak trees. The land on which the city would be constructed had been donated to the people of the new county.

After the public auction process in August of 1836, the next order of business was to construct an appropriate building from which to conduct county business. A jail was also added to these plans. At a meeting of the Board of Police on October 22, 1836, bids were accepted for the courthouse and a separate jail.

According to Sobotka, “the permanent courthouse was to be a substantial edifice, fifty-two feet by forty feet, with twenty-six inch tick foundations. Further specifications called for a two story building with a cupolow (sic)….nine feet square of sufficient height on the Ocotogon (sic) plan.”

Delays were encountered in the construction, for while the firm Gordon and Grayson was awarded the building contract on October 22, 1836, with a programmed completion date of September 20, 1839, the work was not finished until June 12, 1840, when the courthouse and jail were surrendered to the county.

Thomas S. Hines, a former Oxford resident, in his 1996 book, William Faulkner and the Tangible Past, puts the cost of the building at $25,100. This, of course, would be a substantial price for the new city and county to pay, but they did have the sale of the city lots to offset the cost. Hines also states, “the most significant building in all of Faulkner’s works was the county courthouse, the symbol, he argued in Requiem for a Nun, not only of law and justice, but spiritually, psychologically, architecturally, the center around which life revolves.”

Faulkner also writes in his novel, the courthouse was “the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county’s circumference like a single cloud in its ring of horizon, laying vast shadow to the uttermost rim of horizon; musing, brooding, symbolic, and ponderable, tall as a cloud, solid as a rock, dominating all: protector of the weak, judicate and curb of passions and lusts, repository and guardian of the aspiration and hopes…”

Hines, who is a professor of architecture and history at UC Los Angles, and the son of a former Dean of Men at Ole Miss, states in a crucial passage in Faulkner’s novel, of all the county buildings, the courthouse “came first, and….with stakes and hanks of fishline, the architect laid out in a grove of oaks, opposite the tavern and the store, the Square and simple foundations, the irrevocable design not only of the courthouse but of the town too, telling them as much: in fifty years you will be trying to change it in the name of what you will call progress. But you will fail….you will never be able to get away from it.”

Faulkner goes on to write the courthouse was situated in the center of the Square “quadrangular around it, the stores, two-storey, the offices of lawyers and doctors and dentists, the lodge rooms and auditoriums, above them; school and church and tavern and bank and jail each in its ordered place.”

As a child in the 1950s, I remember seeing Mr. Faulkner standing in front of Blaylock’s Drug Store (now Square Books) leaning on a large mailbox with his arms folded, peering at the Courthouse. At the time, I wondered what he was doing…and now I know. He was pondering the building in front of him. “The focus, the hub” the “repository and guardian of the aspiration and hopes” of the City of Jefferson and his Yoknapatawpha.

Mayfield 34Jack Lamar Mayfield is a fifth generation Oxonian, whose family came to Oxford shortly after the Chickasaw Cession of 1832, and he is the third generation of his family to graduate from the University of Mississippi. He is a former insurance company executive and history instructor at Marshall Academy in Holly Springs, South Panola High School in Batesvile and the Oxford campus of Northwest Community College.

In addition to his weekly blog in Oxford’s Olden Days, Mayfield is also the author of an Images of America series book titled Oxford and Ole Miss published in 2008 for the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for restoring the post-Civil War home of famed Mississippi statesman, L.Q.C. Lamar and is now restoring the Burns Belfry, the first African American Church in Oxford.