Calhoun courthouse's end nears

PITTSBORO – By early summer, life should get much better for some Calhoun County employees.
For now, they work in a 72-year-old courthouse infested by black mold and malodorous scents. Floors are warped, file cabinets lean and many walls are cracked.
“I sometimes think there’s a huge pool of water under here,” said Circuit Clerk Deborah Dunn, looking at the stained carpets and sloped window frames.
Next door, construction continues on new $5 million facilities for county offices and courts.
The first phase isn’t likely to be ready until at least May, said Vaughn Long with Sanderson Construction Co. of Amory, the building’s contractor.
Dunn has waited nearly three decades the move.
“I’ve been complaining for 28 years,” said Dunn, who recently conducted an informal tour of the old white-plaster building and construction in downtown Pittsboro.
“There’s never been a time in my 28 years that rain didn’t come in.”
She said her doctor also blames the work environment for a series of serious health problems she’s developed across her career.
Office workers Dominique Shaw and Penny Nichols say that while they’ve hardly been in the building as long as Dunn, they experience side effects, too, such as sharp headaches and sinus pain.
“This doesn’t happen when I’m at home,” Shaw noted in a raspy voice.
Rarely in the building do you find an office without water-stained ceiling tiles. They also say water seeps in from where the exterior walls meet the floors.
Snakes, lizards and other critters aren’t uncommon visitors to the employee restroom downstairs, where wall cracks have allowed outside to meet indoors.
Upstairs, some rooms are stable enough to store documents but the floors are littered with debris from falling ceilings.
The upper west side of the 1939 structure looks like a chamber of horrors with the remains of the old jail and its rusting lattice iron doors.
Pittsboro, which hugs Highway 9 south of Bruce, is situated in the very center of Calhoun County.
As the county seat, it once boasted a handsome, multi-story courthouse, built in 1856. The county’s delegates to Mississippi’s 1861 secession convention voted no on every ballot until it was clear that they had lost this battle.
The building escaped the ravages of the Civil War but was razed by fire in 1922.
Nearly 16 years passed before a replacement structure was begun, this time by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration at a cost of $18,000.
It never compared with the building it sought to replace – not on the natural rise, where the former courthouse stood, and its plaster exterior a poor man’s substitute for the balconied brick and stately white columns.
Dunn notes that when more modern quarters were completed in 1974 for the chancery clerk’s office and supervisors, a grocery store sat between the facilities. Ultimately, it moved out and the county absorbed that space.
But conditions just got worse in the old building.
One day, Dunn said, she stepped into a small records room and stepped through the floor.
Small cosmetic changes were made. A three-fourths-inch plywood panel covered the floor hole.
Across the past few years, court moved to the former Methodist church just behind the courthouse and to a metal building once home to a Pentecostal congregation, a mile or so south on Highway 9.
One interesting feature of the ex-Methodist facility is immediately behind the judge’s bench – a large painting of Jesus, standing amid a flock of sheep, holding his shepherd’s staff with one hand and a lamb nestled in the crook of his other arm. The altar rail remains, complete with kneeler-cushions.
Barney Wade, president of the Calhoun County Board of Supervisors, said the new facility is a necessity, especially with the increase of computer technology, which uses a lot of electricity.
“We had fires breaking out and smoke going everywhere,” he admitted about the current structure. He also said officials worried about the security of old county records in the dilapidated building.
Wade said the board cobbled the funds for it from local bonds, as well as federal low-interest loans and grants. Tupelo’s Pryor amp& Morrow Architects designed the project.
Sanderson crews work in the cold of concrete and steel to complete Phase 1.
This facility will include at least three courtrooms, offices and other niceties associated with modern public facilities.
Phase 2 will absorb the old chancery-supervisor quarters and build around them for the remainder of key county functions to move back into.
Tax Assessor/Collector Bill Malone, who’s worked in the old courthouse for 29 years, said he’s looking forward to the move.
“It smells a little funny over here,” he noted, as he looked at the rotting exterior window sills.
Later this year, when Phase 2 is complete, Long said, the mold-ridden, cracked-walled, buckled-floor courthouse will be history.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com.

Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal