The 1859 Rutherford County Courthouse
Condensed from “Annals of Rutherford County., Volume I” by John Spence
In 1991, the Rutherford County Historical Society published three books developed from the various diaries of lifelong Murfreesboro resident John Cedric Spence.
The reader will notice errors in spelling and sentence structure. However, the Rutherford County Historical Society felt it was important to reproduce the original Spence manuscripts in the style in which Mr. Spence has written them.
The following history of our Rutherford County Court House, built 1859, is condensed from the John C. Spence diaries:
P. 87 The commissioners, having disposed of the lots in town, on twelve months time as required by law, reserving the center of the public square, two acres, for court house and stocks, and one other lot for prison and stray pen. The proceeds of lot sales were used, defraying the expense of building court house and prison, which were let to the lowest and best bidder, J. M. Ditches bid off the contract for building court house. David Dickinson Esq. building the prison. The commissioners superintending the construction of each building. Contract calling the dimension of courthouse fifty feet square, two storys [sic], twelve and fourteen feet high, of good brick, a chimney on each corner, stair way leading from the lower room, above, roof terminating to a point at the center, a cupaloe [sic] proportionable hight [sic], the top finish, iron rod with a spread eagle. All other parts regularly finished. The building completed, made a handsome appearance
for a new country. The expense about four thousand dollars.
In this house (state capital), the general assembly convened the thirteenth session on Monday Sept. 1st 1819, Representative hall lower room. The upper room, the senate chamber. No offices in this building for clerks.
The prison undertaken by Mr. Dickinson—a two story building on College street, north of the present prison. It was used in this way till 1855, a new house was built, then sold and converted into a dwelling.
P. 192 A short time previous to the meeting of the General Assembly, a misfortune happened, by the burning of the Court House, which was used by that body, the Legislative halls. The act, by some unknown person, suspicion resting on a man, Harris. Supposed he was leagued with Nashville. He had been some time about town without any visible signs of business. Shortly after the fire, he disappeared from Murfreesboro.
The people of Nashville were anxious to have the capital removed to that place. The supposition, if the court house be destroyed just at the time the members were about meeting, it being the only large building in the place, in that event, the Assembly would adjourn to Nashville immediately. Hence, the impression the Man H. having received a bribe to do the act. He was seen, to the time of the fire, loitering about town. After that was seen no more. Be the thing as it may, was never found out.
The halls had been fitted up with tables, chairs and other necessary articles in readiness for the reception of the members when the house was fired. The best of plans may at times be averted and cause disappointment, which
happened the case in the present instance. At this time, the new Presbyterian Church, a two story brick building, large, with a gallery two sides and end, easy access, the pews removed, a floor laid across the open space in the gallery, the work of a short time. When completed, in all respects, making a more convenient place for the meeting of the Legislature than the court house, the former place.
Tables and chairs were furnished. by this arrangement, no time lost. The
Assembly met the regular time allotted for meeting. Business commenced and carried on to the close in regular manner as if nothing had happened to retard the movement.
P. 199 This year  a regular meeting of the Assembly. Hon. William Brady, Representative of Rutherford. The new court house, having been completed, the building greatly enlarged over the former size. The Senate chamber and House of Representative, each in the second story of the building. The court house or capital was thought to be a well arranged house, that time, for which it was intended. State business in the upper story. The business of courts in the lower one, not likely clashing with the other.
At such times as the meeting of the Legislature, business was livened, affording a market to the country people for what they may have to sell. Farmers having an opportunity of making a few dollars, keeping horses on pasturage for the members. Tavern keepers and boarding houses were crowded with members and visitors. There being a race tract a short distance from town, great numbers attending the races, there were sportsmen of all kinds following on. Great improvement in grade. Merchants doing a better business, taking in more ready cash. Every thing in short wearing the appearance of prosperity.
Annals of Rutherford Co., Volume II by John Spence
P. 139 1859 The County Court, determined upon making an improvement, by removing the old Court house, and erecting a new and larger building of greater convenience to the public. Unnecessary going into a minute detail, as the house is standing and may be seen any time. Enough to say, time it was erected, few Court houses in the state would compare with it in point of taste and elegance, being ornamental in the structure, a credit to the workmen having a hand in the construction of the building.
It may be in place to remark a corner stone was prepared and laid with the usual ceremony by the Masonic Fraternity, the I.O.O. Fellows participating in the ceremony by invitation, being present, witnessing the scene. After the mystic scene was concluded, there were many deposits of articles placed in the box of the stone, by societies and individuals, filling the box, which was then closed. It being a fine pleasant day, there were a large concourse of people in attendance on the ground.
The stone foundation was undertaken by Green Clay. The brick work of the
courthouse was undertaken and executed by January & Drumright. The wood work, under the superintendence of Cap. Jno. Jones. Stone work about the porticos, and paving, same by M. Baker. Iron columns, eight in number, made by Thomas Brennon of Nashville, each forty feet in length. The whole costing about eight thousands dollars. Tin Roofing by John Frost. Painting by John Rather.
On the top of the building a cupaloe [sic], sixteen feet at the base, running up, presenting four sides, on which is painted clock dials, corresponding. On the inside there is an elegant eight day clock and large bell, used for striking time, and ringing for courts and general meetings. The highth [sic] of this edifice, from the ground to the tip of the cupaloe [sic] is one hundred and ten feet. Two court rooms, eight rooms for offices, clerks and jurors, three fire proof vaults for safe keeping of books and county papers. And all other structures necessary for a well finished court house. The whole completed presenting an imposing and elegant appearance, costing the county about forty thousand dollars.
The court square is elegantly enclosed with an iron fence, well set in stone,
substantial iron gates, on each square, passing in and out the yard, wells et with shade trees and a fine stand of blue grass over the lot.
This court building was fully completed a short time before the war, but during the existence, it met with many abuses, destroying all of the inside fixtures in the court rooms, leaving nothing but the bare walls and they were greatly damaged by the soldiers, scratching and writing on the plaster.
It was made quarters for soldiers the greater part of the time, and a place for keeping prisoners. Doors and windows cut and broken, scarcely any glass left in the windows, the tin roofing taken off, by the wind, of half the building, leaving it exposed in this manner more than a year, causing the plastering to fall over head. Brick picked out of the wall round the house. The stair way near destroyed by pulling off the railing, and parts of the steps. The house generally leaky all over, caused by the walking of soldiers
on the top. Upon the whole the court house, having much the appearance of an old deserted, waste building, by the closing of war four years, this kind of usage making a great change.
Tennessee County History Series: Rutherford by Mabel Pittard p. 27
By 1813 the courthouse was completed and ready for occupancy. No pictures or descriptions of this first building exist. In 1817 Murfreesboro received incorporation status from the Legislature meeting in Knoxville. This same year court members authorized extensive renovations and repairs. From 1819 to 1822, when it burned, this first courthouse served as the capitol building for the state of Tennessee. After the fire of 1822 work started immediately on a second courthouse which served the county until the present one was constructed in 1859.
P. 37 . . . Even the court members were interested in improving the cleanliness of the courthouse. Minutes of that period indicate that Blackman Coleman, for the sum of $25 per year, was ordered to keep the building clean. . .
P. 39 . . . The General Assembly held its sessions in the Rutherford County courthouse until it burned in 1822. Following this unfortunate incident the Legislature met in the Presbyterian Church on East Vine Street. James K. Polk, who as a student had attended Bradley Academy in Murfreesboro, served as clerk of the Sentate for a time during these capital years; Sam Houston was adjutant-general; and David Crockett was a member of the Legislature. Andrew Jackson was a frequent visitor in Murfreesboro while the Legislature was in session. At one time while the Assembly was meeting in Murfreesboro, swords were presented to General Jackson for his gallantry in the War of 1812. During one of the legislative sessions, Jackson rode on horseback from his home at the Hermitage to appear before the Assembly and announce his candidacy for the United States Senate. The Assembly left Murfreesboro in 1826. . .
P. 63 A contract for a new jail was awarded to T. J. Bulgett on September 11, 1852, at a cost of $8,000, and in 1858 a committee composed of V. D. Cowan, F. Henry, E. A. Keeble, W. F. Lytle, and George Smith was appointed to study the need for a new courthouse. The committee reported that a new and larger structure was an absolute necessity, and a contract to construct the building was awarded to E. E. Dandridge of Nashville with James H. Yeaman named as supervising architect.
A completion date of January 1, 1859, was set for the project, but the building was not quite finished by that time, and Yeaman was given an extension of thirty days. Upon completion of the structure, which cost $50,000, the architect was paid $585.50 for his services and an additional $100 for “efficient and faithful performance of his duties.” This building, with the exception of minor renovations and the addition of the north and south wings in 1960, is basically the same courthouse in use today.
P. 69-70 is description of Forrest’s raid on Murfreesboro and the release of prisoners from the Courthouse.
P. 107 Renovation of the Courthouse took place in the 1920s.