Old courthouse has long and storied past

Published May 28, 2007

Three patrons in a local restaurant were recently overheard talking about the need for more space for judges and the clerk of court in Hernando County.

One remarked: "The first courthouse burned during the Civil War." Another corrected him, saying that the purpose of the fire was "to keep the Pasco County people from getting the records."

Neither of these stories is correct. But here's a bit of history about our courthouse.

When Hernando County organized in 1843, the Territorial Legislature designated the home of Isaac Garrison at Chocachatti as the place for court. In 1846, the County Commission was urged to build a suitable courthouse.

Finding a permanent location proved difficult, and subsequently court was held in the communities of Desoto, Melendez, Pierceville and Bayport.

By 1856, the commission decided to erect a permanent structure and selected Bayport as the site. Reaction was negative. In July, a storm washed away roads, destroyed crops, flooded fields and left many farms beneath 12 to 15 inches of sand.

By the early fall of '56, businessman Joseph Hale and planter John L. May, both living north of Pierceville, offered to sell to the county 30 acres of hilltop land. The agreement was struck, and the new town surrounding the courthouse site was called Brooksville.

The name was in honor of Preston Brooks a South Carolina firebrand congressman.

The new community was "laid out into lots and blocks" by local attorney Joseph M. Taylor.

County Judge P.G. Wall offered for sale lots around the new town center.

1857: Courthouse bids

Appearing in the July 11, 1857, edition of the Tampa Peninsula, a weekly newspaper, was this advertisement: "Sealed Proposals will be received by the Commissioners of Hernando County to build a court house ... Said building to be 50 by 35 feet, two stories high ... first story 10 feet and the second story 15 feet, between joists ... The windows to be furnished with good substantial rolling slat blinds, painted green ... to be completed by September 1858."

No one knows for sure who won the contract to build the courthouse. However, James M. Breaker, the builder of the Hillsborough County courthouse in 1854 and minister of Union Baptist Church, may have been the builder.

Breaker did oversee construction of the church on block No. 4 of the town and the Brooksville Academy on block No. 5.

The 3, 500-square-foot courthouse served the county well until Saturday night, Sept. 29, 1877, when fire destroyed the structure and all its contents. Tuesday was to be the opening session of the fall term of the circuit court. One issue to come before the court was the murder of a local black leader, Arthur St. Clair. With documents, sworn statements and the jury list destroyed, no court was held.

The County Commission rented space from C.C. Seward for three months and then from the Union Baptist Church.

After the 1877 fire

On May 5, 1878, the commission authorized seeking bids for a new two-story 50- by 35-foot structure. A revised building description was adopted at the following meeting. The new plan described room size, internal hallways and courtroom furniture. The new structure would have to be complete by March 1879.

On July 15, three bids ranging from $3, 800 to $3, 000 were submitted. R.E. Quinn won the contract with the lowest bid, and began construction with plans drawn by J.M. Wilson.

The new courthouse, on the same parcel as the old one but farther to the east, was fenced to prevent livestock from wandering about the building and grounds.

For the next 30-plus years, the courthouse served the needs of government. It was the site of many interesting trials, executions, shootings and pranks.

One memorable prank involved Circuit Judge James T. Magbee, who had lost his effectiveness with the people of Hernando County.

According to F.B. Coogler: "One night just before court was scheduled ... there was a little jackass strapped sitting up in the judge's chair with his feet on the desk. The judge came in (the next morning), looked at the jackass and walked out- called for the clerk to get his horse and buggy.

"The clerk said, 'Judge how am I going to get your horse and buggy - where is it?' 'It's down there in that stable.' The clerk replied: 'No sir, come here I'll show you.' He took him around behind the courthouse. There was the buggy hung up in an oak tree, and the horse was gone. The judge said: 'Mr. Clerk, get my horse and buggy or I will leave this town and I will hold no court.' "

Magbee left town and never returned.

1911: A new building

On March 6, 1911, the commission authorized a new courthouse, financed with a special five-year 5-mill tax levy.

On May 1, the architectural firm of Chamberlain and Co. of Birmingham, Ala., was selected to draft plans for a new fireproof structure and to direct construction.

On June 10, the old courthouse sold to the highest bidder, W.E. Law, for $620 and was moved from the construction site.

Difficulty between Chamberlain and the commission arose. Chamberlain had exceeded the scope of the project and was dismissed. In September, the commission hired W.A. Edwards as the new architect and told Edward that the new structure was not to exceed a cost of $45, 000.

In December, J.F. Jenkins of Gainesville won the bid at $42, 100 for the 16, 140-square-foot brick classical revival structure. Edward "Ned" Williams of Brooksville oversaw the construction.

To beautify the "courthouse yard, " Jenkins received an additional $4, 000 to place concrete sidewalks around the block and other amenities. With the old iron fence now removed, the Brooksville City Commission was asked to keep livestock from the streets of the city.

The full-time custodian for the new structure was Washington Mobley.

The new courthouse's position on the property produced an interesting issue for the city of Brooksville. According to F.B. Coogler, who sat on two charter committees for the city, the original city limits were a half-mile square starting at the front of the courthouse door. The new courthouse was in the middle of the block, so the city limits had changed. Accordingly, they shifted 105 feet from west to east.

Renovations in 1974

From 1913 until 1969, the old brick structure served the county. By 1969, it was in need of updating, and the lack of space for various departments became critical. That year, the basement was converted to usable space, and an elevator was added.

With a population exceeding 17, 000 in Hernando County, the County Commission hired John W. White of Brooksville to renovate the old courthouse and add space. The 1974 addition gave the county a total of more than 26, 000 square feet.

Within 14 years, space again had become an issue. The commission purchased the land east of the courthouse, closed a portion of Brooksville Avenue and added the more modern-looking government center, housing both administrative (1988) and judicial (1990) personnel. Total space for government functions went to 132, 000 square feet.

Time to build again?

In 1993, the old courthouse was refurbished to its original splendor, with terrazzo floors, high ceilings and polished woodwork.

Now the county population is more than 165, 000, and various administrative departments of the county dot Hernando's landscape.

The need for additional judicial space is critical, and perhaps it is time once again for a new courthouse.