By Floyd Ingram/Chickasaw Journal
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth in a 16-part series about Northeast Mississippi courthouses.
Houston and Okolona are separated by Chuquatonchee Creek, and in a day and age when rain often prevented traffic between the two towns, courthouses were created in both communities.
There are now seven all-weather roads linking Houston and Okolona, but the county still is served by two courthouses.
“You can’t be two places at once, but it is convenient for people on both sides of the creek when they need to do business with the county,” said Chickasaw County Clerk Wanda Sweeney, who has an office in both the Houston and Okolona courthouses. “Computers have made it a lot easier to get documents back and forth between offices, but people still have to sign those papers. That’s where it is sometimes easier to go to Okolona or Houston.”
County offices found in both Okolona and Houston include Chancery Clerk, Circuit Clerk and Tax Assessor/Collector. Both buildings have full courtrooms with jury rooms, judges chambers and simple offices for attorneys and witnesses.
“There are days you need to be both places,” said Sweeney. “There are pros and cons to having two courthouses. You have to have good staff both places to make it work.”
The Houston Courthouse was built in 1911, and the lawn of the grand structure has grown to become the backdrop for most community events including the July 4 Veteran’s Homecoming, the Christmas parade, Easter Egg Hunt and National Day of Prayer.
Granite steps leading into the building regularly serve as risers for choirs providing holiday shows and community events where organizations and schools recognize accomplishments.
The yellow sandstone columns on the east side frame the formal entrance, but the building has double doors at all points of the compass.
Offices for tax assessor/collector, chancery clerk and circuit clerk can be found on the first floor. The second floor is occupied by justice court offices and formal courtrooms.
The building has a stately dome with a clock that chimes the hour day and night. The structure is topped by a giant gold-guilded eagle that faces east.
The basement houses records and computer equipment.
“We only have records that go back to 1870,” said Sweeney. “When Union soldiers came through, they put all the record books on a wagon. The wagon was captured and burned just off Starkville Road.”
For years, there have been rumors of a secret tunnel from the courthouse to a local mansion. Sweeney said she has heard that story. Though she has worked for years at Houston’s courthouse, she never has seen a tunnel.
Okolona grew quicker than Houston and had a courthouse for the Union Army to burn when it swept through in 1864.
The building was rebuilt but was destroyed in a fire that burned most of downtown Okolona in 1924.
“Construction of a fine new three-story brick courthouse at the same location on Main Street was begun by the Masons,” said Okolona businessman and historian Walter Chandler. “Businesses always have occupied the bottom floor, the county has the second floor, and the Masons have the third floor.”
Chandler said he remembers when a 5-and-10-cent store occupied the ground floor, and a drug store also occupied the space at one time. Chandler said his furniture store even rented the space years ago.
The first floor currently is occupied by the Mississippi Department of Human Services. The second floor houses county offices and a large courtroom. The top floor belongs to the Okolona Masonic Lodge and stays locked.
County officials say they own the roof because they are asked to fix it every time it leaks.
“It really is a grand old building and was built with a lot of craftsmanship and style,” said Chandler. “It’s been remodeled and renovated a number of times. The foundation and support structure of the building are as strong as ever.”
Sweeney said she like going to work in both buildings.
“They have such elegance and are just so beautiful,” said Sweeney. “A lot of people have signed marriage certificates, deeds to their homes and filed wills in these buildings. They really do hold a lot of our history.”