Historic Square helps define the ’Boro

The Murfreesboro Post, June 24, 2007

While many residents don’t know it, the Rutherford County Courthouse is one of the most historically significant spots in Middle Tennessee.

As part of the Murfreesboro Post’s effort to give readers a “sense of place,” here are the Top 10 interesting facts about the courthouse – plus one.

1. Built in 1858, the building is only one of seven pre-Civil War courthouses left in Tennessee. The others are located in Roane County (Kingston), Hawkins County (Rogersville), Giles County (Pulaski), Williamson County (Franklin), Claiborne County (Tazewell) and Dickson County (Charlotte). A brick clock tower was added in 1860 and was replaced by the current metal cupola around the turn of the 20th century. The east and west wings were added in 1960. The building is basically Greek revival in style with Corinthian columns. The massive columns on the east and west side of the structure were cast in sections.

2. Did you know that Murfreesboro was once Tennessee’s state capital? Yep, the town was selected because of its central location and served from Sept. 26, 1819 to Oct. 15, 1825. The legislature met in the courthouse originally built on the spot. When it burned in 1822, the legislative sessions were moved to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, then located on East Vine Street at the current site of the old Murfreesboro City Cemetery. A small obelisk on the west side of the courthouse commemorates those years.

3. Where did Rutherford County get its name? A monument on the northwest side of the courthouse green tells the story of Gen. Griffith Rutherford. During the early days of the Revolutionary War, Rutherford commanded all of the colonial forces west of the Allegheny Mountains.
Rutherford lead 2,400 soldiers against the Cherokees in 1776 and defeated the British at the Battle of Ramseur’s Mill. Fighting under the command of Gen. Horatio Gates, he was wounded at the Battle of Camden and taken prisoner. Later exchanged, Rutherford expelled the last of the British forces at Wilmington, N.C. In 1786, he moved to Sumner County, Tenn. In 1794, he was commissioned by President Washington as a member of the council of state of the Southwest Territory and was subsequently named council president.

Rutherford County was named in his honor in 1803. He died in 1805. The town of Rutherfordton, N.C. and Rutherford County, North Carolina, are also named in honor of the general.

4. Before dawn on July 13, 1862, Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked a Federal garrison occupying Murfreesboro. A state historical marker tells the story:

“A task force of Col. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Brigade, consisting of the 1st Georgia Battalion (Morrison) and led by Forrest in person, charged rapidly to this area at daybreak, where they overcame one company of the 9th Michigan Infantry and two companies of the 8th Kentucky Cavalry, released a number of Confederate civilian prisoners and captured the area commander, Brig. Gen. T.T. Crittenden, and his staff, while other units of the brigade busied themselves elsewhere.”

Among the Union prisoners was Lewis Maney, a physician who owned Oaklands plantation.

The Murfreesboro raid was Forrest’s first major victory under independent command. It was also his 41st birthday.

5. Originally built as a two-story structure, the courthouse underwent a major renovation in 1908. The turn of the century was a time when many Tennessee counties demolished their historic courthouses and replaced them with larger, “modern” structures. A third floor was added to make room for more offices. The work was done in a way the outward appearance of the building with its porches and columns was not substantially altered. Serving on the building committee was A.M. Overall, Leland Jordan, Dr. J.J. Rucker, W.J. Carney and J.C. Ransom.

It is possible that the metal cupola, that currently crowns the building, was added then during that renovation project. A cast iron fence surrounding the courtyard had been previously removed. Horses tied to the fence had damaged it. Hitching posts were erected in 1872 to eliminate this problem.

6. Vestiges of the old horse and buggy days still remain on the courtyard. Ever notice the big, concrete flower planter on northwest corner right next to the street? That’s no planter. It’s a horse-watering trough. The restored, hand-dug well that supplied water for the trough is located nearby. It was rediscovered a decade or more ago during major renovation work downtown. The Main Street program in cooperation with local property owners and city and county government launched in the mid-1980s a $2.6-million effort to update the Square’s infrastructure, adding new sidewalks, brick crosswalks, handicap ramps, planters, and landscaping. All utility lines were placed underground and turn of the century style lamp posts were erected. That’s when the forgotten well was rediscovered. The late 1990s found the county undergoing a huge restoration project at the courthouse. The project won major national awards as the historic structure was returned to its antebellum roots.

The restoration crew discovered where a cannon ball damaged a column during Forrest’s Raid. A .58 caliber minie ball was found on top of another column’s capital.

7. On March 20, 1913 a major tornado struck downtown Murfreesboro. A large portion of the east side of the square was devastated and First Methodist and First Presbyterian churches suffered heavy damage. While some debris was blown on the roof of the courthouse, the only damage was to the railing around the courthouse clock.

8. The most distinctive monument on the square is “Johnny Reb,” one of the very few Confederate monuments in Murfreesboro. Erected during the period of reconciliation following the Civil War, J.P. Bivouac, The Ladies Memorial Association and The Sons of Veterans funded the memorial, which was first placed at the East Main entrance to the Square. With the advent of motorcars, city fathers found it necessary to relocate the monument. “Lest we forget,” proclaims the monument, which was moved to its current site where the always-diligent Confederate faces north poised against possible aggressors. The front of the limestone base says: “In commemoration of the valor of Confederate soldiers who fell in the great battle of Murfreesboro Dec. 31, 1862 and January 2, 1863. And in minor engagements in this vicinity. This monument is erected.”

9. The Confederate memorial isn’t the only commemorative to Rutherford County’s war dead. On the opposite corner of the courtyard stands a monument honoring soldiers who died in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. “These our war dead in honored glory rest.” A quotation from a Medal of Honor winner, who played a fleeting role in the history of the Square, is carved on the monument as well.

“I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I do know the glory of their death,” said Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

10. In 1951, MacArthur visited Murfreesboro along with his wife, Murfreesboro native Jean Faircloth and their 11-year-old son, Arthur. The MacArthurs were paraded in a Rolls Royce around the square and down East Main Street where the famous general delivered a few remarks. The hoopla that advanced his visit scared off some of the crowd, but still a significant number of greeters cheered the national hero in the first event of its kind in Murfreesboro.

11. Just who was “The Human Fly?” In the spring of 1923, a stranger arrived in town and began to visit downtown merchants. Billing himself as “The Human Fly,” the young stunt man said he would climb to the top of the Courthouse for a small fee.

The money was collected and “The Human Fly” began a nighttime ascent under illumination of a powerful fire truck spotlight.

The young stunt man nimbly climbed the building’s exterior, safely making it to the top of the cupola where he waved to the cheering crowd. Unfortunately, he slipped on the clock tower and fell to his death. He had no identification and no one knew his name or where he came from.

In an attempt to identify him his embalmed body was displayed in the storefront window of Sweeny’s Funeral Home on the Square for several days.

He remains unidentified to this day.

His body was buried in an unmarked grave in Evergreen Cemetery on Greenland Drive.

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