By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh in a 16-part series about Northeast Mississippi courthouses.
By ADAM ARMOUR
Itawamba County Times
FULTON – Enclosed within the walls of Itawamba County’s courthouse is Itawamba County’s original courthouse.
That is, its original-original courthouse. Turns out there have been several “original” courthouses in the decades since the structure was built.
As it stands, the two-story courthouse – which like most courthouses, holds most of the county’s major offices – is a blockish, non-nondescript building nestled among the aging buildings in downtown Fulton. Most would agree that it lacks the historic charm of many of its surrounding structures; but the courthouse has a long and varied history to match any structure in the county.
Step inside the front entrance and there’s the original brickwork, right there. Much of the current structure was simply built around the old – a shell atop a shell.
According to Bob Franks, a member of the Itawamba County Historical Society, the original courthouse was constructed in 1852 by architect J. Blythe, who also designed and built Tishomingo County’s original courthouse. The two Federal-style brick structures mirrored each other almost exactly – two-story, box-shaped buildings with bungalow shaped roofs topped by cupolas which themselves were topped with weathervanes.
Prior to the construction of a proper courthouse, county business was conducted inside a small storehouse in the Van Buren-Cardsville area, just west of the Tombigbee River. That was in 1836. When the city of Fulton was organized in 1839 and named the county seat, business was conducted inside a small wooden structure on which the courthouse was later built.
The courthouse became the pulsing heart of the community. Life was built around it. In an article published in the June 30, 1966, edition of The Itawamba County Times, columnist Zereda Greene described the practical uses of the structure beyond the usual conducting of county business:
“For many years, when we would be washing, long before the advent of the washing machine, water heaters, etc., we would check the weathervane on top of the courthouse to see the direction the wind was from before we build a fire around the washpot, then build the fire on the side the wind was from so it would blow under the washpot,” she wrote.
As the years marched on, the courthouse needed to expand. In 1936, work began on the first major renovation to the building – a WPA project that added 42 feet to the south side of the building and gave the structure a modern stucco exterior (an overt example of the Art Deco visual design popularized during the period) which was built around the original brick exterior. During the two-year period in which construction took place, county business was conducted inside Itawamba Agricultural High School. Chancery court, meanwhile, was held in the school’s auditorium.
In the spring of 1938, the courthouse reopened and all offices and their records returned to their proper places.
But, according to Greene’s writing, the process of transition back to the newly renovated courthouse proved a bit disastrous. During the process, many of the county’s oldest records were damaged so badly they eventually had to be burned.
In 1956, the courthouse was modified again, adding a two-story west wing to the building. At the time, this addition housed the welfare department and the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation and Soil Conservation on the first floor, and the offices of several county agencies – including the breeding technician and forestry department – on the second.
In 1972, the Itawamba County courthouse was given its third and final makeover. This was mostly an aesthetic change which resulted with the covering of the outdated stucco walls with rock and native Tishomingo stone.
After so many changes, there’s seemingly little left of Itawamba County’s original courthouse … the original-original courthouse that is. As it stands, the building certainly looks nothing like it once did. There’s no bungalow-shaped roof or weathervane-topped cupola by which to plan for laundry day.
Even so, that building – around which the county was built – is still there. It’s an old soul wrapped in a new body.