By Floyd Ingram/Chickasaw Journal
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth in a 16-part series about Northeast Mississippi courthouses.
WEST POINT – The Clay County Courthouse looks and is newer than most of the grand old structures across Northeast Mississippi, but it does have a lot of style and a rich history, too.
The Clay County Courthouse was built in 1957 and is a good mix of function and fine form. It has an appeal that has stood the test of time – even if it is only 55 short years.
“I would call the style international,” said West Point attorney and historian Rufus Ward. “The style is useful – simple and useful.”
When the first yellow brick was laid, the country was in one of its great economic booms and West Point was experiencing a lot of growth in industry – meat packing, textile and boiler manufacturing, to name a few.
Things new and things modern were all the rage as a culture that was mainly rural prior to World War II began coming to town for jobs and modern amenities.
Built at the beginning of the Cold War and Baby Boom, the Clay County Courthouse has always sported the yellow-and-black Civil Defense sign. The bottom floors served those daily functions of any courthouse – tax collection, chancery clerk and even a concession stand. The upper floor houses a central courtroom, Circuit Clerk’s office, jury rooms and judges’ chambers.
The current courthouse replaced a much older and smaller building.
The old two-story courthouse sported columns and wrought-iron railing. A photo of the 57-foot by 82-foot building hangs in the lobby of the current courthouse. The old courthouse was built in 1876, shortly after Clay County had changed its name from Colfax County.
“I’ve been told leaders at the time said the building was about to fall apart and they needed to demolish it and build a new one,” said Ward. “But the man hired to raze it told people he lost money on the deal because it was so well-built and hard to tear down.”
But two main features of the old courthouse were incorporated into the new Clay County Courthouse – the safe and stairs.
The old safe was a massive structure on wheels. It was built into a wall in the current Chancery Clerk’s office and is used today.
The old iron steps were placed inside the new structure and wrapped around an open area that has always served as a lobby.
A concession stand in the lobby was manned by Carl Gallop from 1944 to 1977. Mr. Gallop was blind and made change by feeling the edges of coins when a purchase was made. A plaque honoring Gallop’s years of service also hangs in the lobby.
Chancery Clerk Amy Berry said her office sports a larger fire-proof room that houses county records.
“People don’t realize how much of the county’s history is in this room,” said Berry. “The old records are all written in this beautiful script. I always wish I had more time to read them. They really do tell a lot of interesting stories.”
But not all history of the Clay County Courthouse is rosy and warm.
At the height of racial unrest in the early 1970s, the Clay County Courthouse was bombed. It occurred in the middle of the winter and the middle of the night. The explosion on the north side of the building scraped out a hand-width-size hole in the reinforced concrete foundation. The damage was never repaired and is covered from view by an air conditioning unit.
No one was ever arrested for the crime.
Becky Riley, a historian at the Bryan Public Library, said she was working at an insurance company across the street when the courthouse was bombed.
“It really didn’t hurt the building,” said Riley. “It did blow out all the windows on that side of the building and in every office on Court Street. I remember coming to work the next morning and how cold it was and how everybody drove by that day to see what had happened.”
The Clay County Courthouse is located on Court Street – a West Point street lined with law offices and other state and federal offices.
Court Street is designated as a historic district with the Clay County Courthouse anchoring the north end. The area is adjacent to Commerce Street and the courthouse crowd helps fill downtown restaurants at noon each day.
But the courthouse itself has not changed much since the day it was built.
An elevator was added in the mid-1990s to meet federal handicapped accessible rules. A ramp was also added to allow access to the building for all.
The lobby now sports a number of old photos and every office has some kind of history hanging on its walls.
And the Clay County Courthouse continues to be a place that blends old and new.