Fire twice claims Prentiss County courthouse

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

Editor’s note: This is the 13th in a 16-part series about Northeast Mississippi courthouses.

By Patsy R. Brumfield
Daily Journal
BOONEVILLE – Three courthouses have occupied Prentiss County’s downtown square since the county’s birthing from Old Tishomingo County in 1870.
Alcorn County also emerged during this jurisdictional surgery from territory acquired in the 1832 Chickasaw cession.
Historian Diane Garvin notes the county’s first courthouse was constructed in 1872, one year after Booneville was incorporated.
Building a centralized courthouse was one of the first responsibilities of the new Prentiss County Board of Supervisors.
The property was purchased from its two owners, Col. C.W. Williams and the Mobile & Ohio Railroad Company. Williams was paid $534 and the railroad $266. The structure’s winning bid, the lowest, was $15,850 from J.E. Grisham and G.W. Patrick.
An order in the minutes of the board of supervisors allowed for the purchase of two desks at $40 apiece for the chancery and circuit clerks to place in their offices in the new courthouse.
The first Prentiss County Jail also was built on the court square.
The first courthouse was much grander than the current building – with large ornate columns on two sides. It faced east toward the railroad and was a sprawling structure that overshadowed downtown. The court square had a fence around the perimeter that can be seen in the small number of pictures that survived.
After a disastrous fire in 1903, part of the facility was destroyed and the remainder was condemned and torn down.
Also destroyed by fire, the second courthouse was completed in 1905 for about $35,000. Garvin says few photographs exist of this structure, but it’s believed to have been similar to the current courthouse except with a third floor and a huge clock tower on top.
Today’s red-brick courthouse, which faces west, was built in 1925 for about $60,000.
It may not be as grand as its predecessors, but it anchors the downtown area and surrounding offices of attorneys, who often transact business there.
The court square is dotted with monuments dedicated to the men and women who fought to protect America. Large trees shade the historical 225-by-225 square. The cornerstone of the old jail is placed as a remembrance of that building’s history.
The courthouse’s main floor still holds offices for the usual county functions, although some years ago the chancery clerk’s office was moved across Main Street into more spacious quarters.
The current courthouse has experienced various upgrades and cosmetics through the years, including the addition of an elevator to the courtroom and court offices upstairs.
A major renovation from 2001-2003 restored many authentic historic features to the building. The latest challenges are two-fold: security and acoustics, says Chancery Clerk David “Bubba” Pounds.
Pounds says that at Chancellor John Hatcher’s request, officials at the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Physical Acoustics studied the courtroom and made recommendations on how to improve the sound.
“The big problem,” Pounds notes, “is that the room is so big and its ceilings are so high – the sound just bounces all over the place.”
NCPA offered various fixes, from additional acoustic tiles around the ceiling and wall-mounted absorbers to draperies to hold some of the sound waves.
But courthouse security has taken a higher priority, so the sound project is on hold.
Pounds adds that he’s not sure when the stalled upgrade might begin, but county officials say they hope to use free labor with school vo-tech classes, when they do.
“The court square has seen a history of fire repeated, numerous wars, the great depression, and several social and political changes,” Pounds said during the 150th observance of Booneville’s founding, “but it is as ready for whatever the future holds.”
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com