History of Marion County courthouse

By MARYANN HYATT,

Editor's Note: A reader recently asked us if we knew of a history of Columbia’s most iconic building, the Marion County Courthouse, and we found this written by Maryann Hyatt, which was published April 28, 1994, in The Columbian-Progress. In this Profile edition, which celebrates all the good things about Marion County, we figured it would be of interest to others. It is reprinted here with some minor updates.

The present courthouse, built in 1905, is not the first courthouse to stand on the site. There have been at least two, and perhaps three, structures built before it in the same place.

On Dec. 9, 1811, legal work of the territorial assembly was completed to officially make Marion County a Mississippi county from lands in the First Choctaw Session. Settlers had come primarily from Marion district in South Carolina by horseback or wagon. Many walked. Their provisions had to last for many months and consisted mostly of staples such as cornmeal, rice and flour supplemented by wild berries gathered en route, with an occasional feast of wild game. Women brought along seeds for growing vegetables, but also not to be forgotten were seeds of favorite flowers to brighten a home in the wilderness.

The first settlement was on the west bank of the Pearl River. Later, the high bluff on the east bank was found to be more advantageous for a permanent settlement. Perhaps those early settlers experienced torrential rains or flooding and deemed it wise to move to higher ground.

John Lott donated an acre of land on the east bank as a building site for the first courthouse with the stipulation that no part of it should ever be used for commercial sites or purposes. The settlement was known as Lott’s Bluff, and a year later in 1812 as New Columbia in honor of Columbia, South Carolina. Since many of the settlers came from Marion district of South Carolina, the new county was named after General Francis Marion, the Revolutionary War patriot known as the “the Swamp Fox.” In the 1816 territorial census, there were only 176 families in the county, including 108 slaveholders.

Records show that early citizens believed the county had build as many as four courthouses, if not more. It is believed one was erected just prior to the Civil War, which was possibly the second one in the county. Neither the courthouse nor county records have ever been destroyed even though early citizens said an attempt was made by Union soldiers who came through the county during the war to burn the building in use at the time. The story was they started a fire in one of the offices, closed the door, and left. The fire went out and no harm was done. A contract was let for a wooden structure in 1891 at a cost of $20,000.

Most of the commerce for almost a century occurred by river flatboat because there were few roads, which were little more than Indian trails. The coming of the first railroad, a branch line of the Gulf and Ship Island which extended from Maxie in the south to Mendenhall in Simpson County, made the products of Marion County easier to transport and brought in industry. The population increased from 507 in 1900 to an estimated 2,000 in 1906 largely due to two lumber plants, S. A. Jones and Brothers and O. C. Pantell Co. It was not until 1912 that the J. J. White Lumber Co. began operation. These plants brought in more people, more money, and more need for additional merchants.

A surge of civic pride in 1905 caused construction of a new school for $30,000 and a new concrete courthouse for $65,000. Supervisors 1903-1905 were, according to beats: One, J. L. Dodson; two, J. B. Dale; three, B. A. Summers; four, Joseph John Herring (grandfather of former Circuit Clerk Joe Herring). When it was built, the 1905 courthouse was completed with a Victorian dome-shaped, pagoda-like structure at each of the four corners. Later these were torn down. In those days, services were far fewer than they are today and one structure held them all.

On the first floor of the main courthouse are offices for the circuit clerk, tax assessor/collector and chancery clerk.

As the need for more space became more pressing, a separate building was built to the east of the courthouse and is known as the chancery building. It originally included offices for chancery judges, the U.S. representative for Congress for Marion County, the school attendance officer and the Veterans’ Administration.

In 1982, to meet the need for additional space for county offices, the Marion County office building was built as a separate building to the west. At the time of its construction, it housed offices for the county superintendent of education, justice court judges and department of public welfare.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported the 2019 population estimate for Marion County as 24,715 persons with the City of Columbia having a population of 5,941. This is quite an increase from the 176 families here in 1816. 

Pictured Above: Managing Editor Susan Amundson was walking by at just the right time with her camera in tow on March 10 to capture a bird perched atop the Marion County Courthouse with the American flag flying in the foreground. | Photo by Susan Amundson

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