WOLFE COUNTY'S COURTHOUSE DISASTERS

After the formation of Wolfe County on 1 July 1860, the first business at hand for the infant county was to build a courthouse to serve as their bastion of justice. Local tradition states that the first courthouse was constructed of logs. As the county matured, the need for a larger and more architecturally advanced building became apparent. In 1869, a brick courthouse was built at a cost of $11,000, which was quite a sum for that time . Judging by the cost, this courthouse must have been quite large and one of the most appealing of any standing in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Through years of use, the courthouse started showing signs of wear during the 1880s. Early in 1885, extensive renovation of the building began. By the end of April the work was completed. The courthouse was said to be the best and handsomest in the entire judicial district.

On Sunday night, 26 December 1886, Wolfe County's first brick courthouse went up in flames. The building was a total loss, and all the county records were destroyed. Arson was suspected and the blame quickly fell on two brothers, William and Robert Byrd. An existing edition of the 5 January 1887 issue of the Hazel Green Herald tells the story.

The court house of Wolfe County, together with all records and contents therein was burned on Sunday night, December 26th. The fire is supposed to have been the work of two men, William and Robert Byrd, brothers, were arrested on suspicion. They had their examining trial last Saturday, but with what result we have not been informed at this writing. The former was until recently Deputy Sheriff. The loss to the county can not now be estimated, as nearly every property holder had valuable papers in the custody of the clerks which it will require time and money to duplicate. The Circuit Court, which convenes on next Monday will be retarded in its business, but Judge Lilly will nevertheless proceed with all suits ready for trial, and we learn there will be several, the papers having been in the hands of the several attorneys at the time of the conflagration.

It seemed the parties responsible for the fire had not completed their mission and further attempted to destroy any remaining county documents. The 9 February 1887 edition of the Hazel Green Herald tells what happened next in the saga.

It seems that some evil spirits, not satisfied with the utter destruction of the county records and our court house by fire recently, are still on their refarious mission, and last week cut a sash from the window of a room in Campton where the books and papers of the court were stored and in genuine cracksman style went through everything. It is supposed they were on the hunt of the indictments returned by the grand jury at the recent term, but fortunately they failed to find them, as they had been placed elsewhere for safe keeping.

The wheel of justice turned slowly for the Byrd brothers. They were acquitted of burning the courthouse a year later.

On 7 February 1887, Judge Swango called a meeting of the magistrates to address the erection of a new courthouse. A committee was elected to handle the matter. One request was clearly stated to the committee - purchase fire-proof safes for the county clerk and court clerk's offices. By mid-April, construction of a new courthouse had started. Supervising the construction was G.T. Center, a noted carpenter of the area and Wolfe County Sheriff at the time. Center also helped build the Wolfe County jail in 1907. By September, the brick work was underway with Jim Hall, a renowned Eastern Kentucky bricklayer, at the helm. Hall, using a kiln and native clay, fired the brick on the spot. By the end of 1887, Wolfe County had a new courthouse. The total cost of the building was $7,000. The structure included a tower but no clock. Fearing the worst, the Wolfe County officials quickly insured by the Hoffman Agency in Mt. Sterling.

This courthouse was destroyed by fire on 29 May 1913. The Hazel Green Herald was published on the day of the fire but managed to add a brief mention of the disaster before press time.

The court house at Campton was burned this a.m. at 1 o'clock; incendiary; $7,000, insurance $6,000.

It appears the damage was estimated at $7,000, but the structure was only insured for $6,000. The next issue of the Hazel Green Herald, which probably describes the incident at length, has not survived time. Once again, the county soon built another brick courthouse. Supposedly, this structure was dynamited and damaged on 10 March 1934, though I have no documented proof. If this act indeed occurred, it is probable that the damage was minimal and did not require rebuilding. Most records, if not all, survived this catastrophe.

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