History of the Historic Caswell County, North Carolina Courthouse
This historic old building has seen much. If these walls could talk many would listen. The Courthouse has seen proud times, troublesome times, and tragic times. It has endured occupation, murder, and fire. The first Caswell County public library was housed in its dark and mysterious basement. It was home to respected and loved Register of Deeds Burch Blaylock. And, it saw the murder of Senator John W. Stephens.
The Caswell County Courthouse was completed at the end of what has been called Caswell County's "Boom Era" -- from approximately 1830 until the Civil War. It is a handsome building, with a storied past. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it no longer functions as the hub of county business, which is sad. Many can still remember when the Courthouse was alive with governmental and political activity. Many can still remember court week, election eve, and, possibly, just getting their first driver's license there. It was where you found the sheriff, the tax collector, the register of deeds, the clerk of the court, and, many years ago, the Freedman's Bureau. The air was electric, the smell of the building distinctive, as government unfolded before your eyes.
To many it is the symbol of the greatness of Caswell County. To others it is a reminder of the absolute worst in the hearts of men. However, after all this, the majestic Courthouse remains standing.
As late as April 1857, the county was still considering making repairs to the old courthouse. That building, the third Caswell County Courthouse, had been damaged by fire that year, and there was local disagreement over whether to repair or replace it. The following is found in the minutes of the April 1857 session of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions ("Court"):
Ordered commission to be appointed to consider the propriety of repairing the Court House and to report the best plan of proceeding for the public convenience in regard to the courthouse and to procure and exhibit a plan or plans of alternative or repairs with the probable cost. Commission -- Wm. Long, N. M. Lewis, Daniel S. Price, Joseph S. Totten, Calvin Graves, Benjamin F. Standfield, Bluford W. Cooper, John Cobb and Wagstaff Maynard. Ordered that they have leave to employ architect to aid in preparing a plan.
This commission wasted no time and persuaded the Court that a new building was preferred over making repairs to the old courthouse. In its July 1857 session, the Court made the following order:
Ordered by the Court that a new Court House shall be built and that the old one be disposed of by the Commissioners herein appointed to the best advantage to aid in the erection of the new court house. Following persons appointed as commissioners for new building: S. P. Hill, Wm. Long, E. K. Withers, C. H. Richmond, and N. M. Lewis to employ an architect and contract for the building of the said Court House and they are also empowered and authorized to purchase a lot or piece of land if in their opinion it is necessary on which to build the new court house.
However, the membership of this commission soon was changed to add John Cobb, Wagstaff Maynard, and Dr. Nathaniel M. Roan. And, in October 1858, C. N. B. Evans was paid $4.50 for "publishing the letting of the building of the new court house." Presumably, this had something to do with the construction of the new building. Dr. Nathaniel M. Roan became chairman of the commission. His goal of purchasing a chandelier from England for the center of the courtroom was never realized, being interrupted by the Civil War. The interior furnishings of the courthouse were not completed until the 1870s.
In April 1859 the Court directed the County Treasurer to pay all drafts drawn by the "commission who have charge of building of [the] court house in payment of expenses and charges of said building" and that the County Treasurer be reimbursed for all such sums already paid. A similar order was issued in July 1859. Construction of the new courthouse was underway, and miscellaneous bills had to be paid. And, of course, taxes were levied to pay for the new structure.
At the July 1861 term of the Court, County Trustee Thomas D. Johnston reported a payment of $200 to William Percival, architect, and a payment of "about $25,000" to David McKnight of Greensboro, the contractor who built the courthouse. McKnight was a mason by trade and would have been around fifty years old in 1861.
It also appears that the Yanceyville post office had been housed in one of the rooms of the courthouse, because the Court in that same July 1861 session "ordered and directs that the Post Office shall no longer be kept in any of the rooms of the Court House and that the same shall be removed and the sheriff of said county is hereby directed to notify Alex McAlpin of this order by serving a copy of this order on him." Presumably, McAlpin was the postmaster. The same Court also appointed James L. McKee "to keep and take care of Court House and to attend to the keeping of the public clock in order for 1 year," for which he was to be paid $50.
While not related to the new courthouse, the in July 1861 the Court also appointed a committee "to aid and provide for the families of such soldiers as have volunteered to serve in the War against Abe Lincoln's scoundrels."
What became of the old courthouse structure is not known, but some believe that parts (such as windows and doors) were incorporated into various houses built in Yanceyville, especially the Roan House remodeling.
Until 1868, North Carolina counties were governed by the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, which was composed of justices. As few as three apparently made a quorum. And, the minutes of the Caswell County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions show from three to thirty-five justices assembled quarterly for a five-day session to transact county business and to act as an inferior court. In 1868, the North Carolina constitution was amended to vest county government in a board of county commissioners.