By J. Lynn West
NEW ALBANY – The Union County courthouse is quite possibly unique in Mississippi in that it may be the only such building not constructed on a court square.
That’s because New Albany was founded and incorporated in 1850, two decades before Union County existed, and before the town was designated the county seat.
The town naturally grew up from the area around the Tallahatchie River, moving up the hill to fill in the area between the river and what later was Col. Faulkner’s railroad, and between the Frisco rail tracks and the so-called Jockey Yard a couple of blocks south where livestock and all manner of other trading went on along with socializing as well. A gorge was just east of the railroad (it still is, if one looks) traversed by a wooden bridge. There simply was no good place to add a square without remaking the entire town.
Union County was established July 7, 1870, still during the reconstruction era, and was named, according to some accounts, because of the union of parts of Pontotoc and Tippah counties. Records from one of the men responsible, Nimrod Wilkins, suggested the name came from Union District, S.C., from which many of the residents came in 1840. In 1874, part of Lee County was annexed as well.
According to a county history, “A large frame building was constructed at the west end of Cotton Street (now Bankhead Street), and this served as a courthouse until 1872 when a new two-story brick courthouse was built on the present courthouse block.”
History compiled by the late Edgar Stephens, former attorney, state representative and historian, reveals the courthouse housed not only the county offices, “but also the law office of Young and Dalton as well as the New Albany Democrat Newspaper office.”
This likely makes Union County unique as well with commercial businesses housed in the courthouse. This frame structure was destroyed by fire on Oct. 28, 1881, and it is believed the fire was set by someone who wanted to destroy criminal records. Lost in the fire were all of the county records, and until a new courthouse could be constructed, business was done by county officials’ temporarily setting up offices in the home of Dr. Mumford Wilson.
The usual county offices were included, and the courts apparently saw a good deal of business because New Albany got somewhat rowdy. Street and saloon fights were fairly common, and one of the town’s physicians seems to have been a repeat participant.
A completion date was not recorded for the second courthouse other than 1882, but it was in service for less than 20 years before being demolished to make way for the building there today.
The cornerstone for the new building with its distinctive copper roof and marble wainscoting was laid Sept. 5, 1908, and the building was accepted on June 2, 1909.
It is not clear why the relatively young courthouse was replaced, but speculation attributes it to the rapid growth the community experienced thanks to the influence of millionaire Paul Rainey. Rainey, when not big-game hunting in Africa or off on other adventures, constructed the large Rainey Hotel, a bank, a pants factory, furniture factory and his activities provided jobs.
The current courthouse contained all county offices until 1985 when the then-recently-constructed Union County Library on the site of the former old jail was concerted in the Chancery Court Building. A new library was built on King Street, where it is now, and the chancery and justice court offices, along with county supervisors, moved into it.