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Courthouse updates make way for Bedford’s future

By ZOË HAGGARD - zhaggard@t-g.com
Posted 1/15/22

Having been shaped by storm winds and rioters’ fires throughout the County’s 200-year history, the Bedford County Courthouse today stands as a testament to the men who built Bedford up from the time of Tennessee’s frontier to its present-day industrialization.    

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Courthouse updates make way for Bedford’s future


Having been shaped by storm winds and rioters’ fires throughout the County’s 200-year history, the Bedford County Courthouse today stands as a testament to the men who built Bedford up from the time of Tennessee’s frontier to its present-day industrialization.    

For this reason, early Bedford County leaders in 1810 made sure the Courthouse was in the direct center of Shelbyville’s town square in a unique traffic design known as the “Shelbyville plan,” according to County archivist Carol Roberts.    

“Our courthouses were the first ones to be in the square — not off to the side. And we are unique in that the streets are square,” said Roberts. For example, Wilson, Williamson, and Washington counties have their courthouses on the side of their squares, according to Roberts.    

Burned and rebuilt  

The first Courthouse on Shelbyville’s Square was built with logs. Drawings today, as depicted by former County historians Tim and Helen Marsh, show a rustic, frontier structure, which would have been appropriate for the time, according to Roberts. It was built on the “ridge of the river,” making it an ideal location to be high and dry, Roberts said.  

A brick building was put into place by 1813. But it was destroyed by a tornado in 1830. A second brick building was built three years later. But that was destroyed in a fire started by Confederate soldiers trying to keep warm that March of 1863, Roberts explained. Finally, the County built a brick and stone building in 1873.    

Fires were common back in the day, Roberts explained, as people used coal to keep warm and because of the supplies they maintained — such as hay, wheat, oats. At minimum there were four fires on the Square, Roberts said.  

But some fires were intentional, as was seen when rioters — calling for the hanging of E.K. Harris who allegedly raped a young Shelbyville girl — burned the Courthouse in December 1934. It left only the shell of the original 1870s building, according to Roberts.  

Again, County leaders understood the importance of a Courthouse, and by March 1935, reconstruction began — this time with a new interior of steel, concrete, and fire-proof brick, Roberts explained.    

“There were substantial vaults already built into this building for the records. They knew the damage; they knew they lost some in the 1830s and Civil War. So, they started building rock-solid buildings in it,” Roberts said. This New-Deal Era construction was done by a Nashville-based architectural company, Marr & Holman, who were building skyscrapers in Music City.    

“They were very forward-thinking in that almost immediately; they were already in the process of saying ‘we will rebuild the building,’” said Roberts.    

But the original foundation stones remain, still bearing many black markings and cracks of the 1934 fire.     

“Some of it is soot. But this definitely to me is the burn because it’s cracked,” Roberts said about a sone lintel over one of the doorways in the basement.  

Renovations continue  

And on those wide, century-old stones are renovations once again being completed today. From the basement to the attic, new walls, pipes, HVAC, electrical are being added so County offices can be housed in the Courthouse.  

“The commitment was to not do like Manchester and move everything off the square,” said Commissioner Linda Yockey. “The Courthouse is the hub of the universe and the vitality of the downtown.”  

In the end, Yockey says they hope to have a sound building that still has a historic 1930s flair in design, symbolizing the area’s history, and highlighting the area’s assets.    

“We got a river here that we’ve never really shown off from the Courthouse,” Yockey said. “And things are happening. People are buying property that are going to up that river, so that the river is really part of the Courthouse and the Square, rather than something over there behind those bushes.”  

Roberts said she does not have any original interior pictures of the Courthouse, so recreating what the Courthouse would’ve looked like comes from exterior pictures and hand-drawn architectural drawings from Marr & Holman found hidden behind “Woodruff doors,” in large, vaulted filing cabinets.    

From there, “You put the pieces together,” Roberts said.  

To revitalize the 1930s style, Yockey said she would like to see the original jury chairs placed on the balcony of the main courtroom. The original courtroom benches are already getting redone with a good sanding and coat of stain. Yockey marveled at their quality.    

“Because if you let them get gone, they’ll be gone in a heartbeat,” she said. Costing a total of over $1.8 million so far, the Courthouse renovations have all come from state grant money, said Robert Daniel, finance and budget director of Bedford.    

Preserving records  

A big difference can be seen in the attic. A lot of records in the attic are past their retention date. But there’s a lot of records people want to see as well, tucked away in cabinets with hand-written notes on them saying, “Please do not block, we still need access to these files.”  

“These are records people want to see because they’re wills, or estate settlements. We’ve had to pull divorce cases,” said Roberts. She recalled a time when “one man had been divorced four times, and I had to come up here until I finally found his fourth divorce was in Moore County.”    

Roberts calls certain areas of the attic “black holes,” but they remain a testament to how organized the files are — alphabetized, docketed, and sequenced.  

Yockey added, “We knew, as a commission, some of these delicate records needed to get out of here because you’re dealing with 120 degrees in the summer and zero in the winter,” But, Roberts said, the attic is remarkably dry.  

One of the final things to be done is restoring the terrazzo floors on the first floor.    

“I love these terrazzo floors. They’re works of art,” said Roberts, referring to the first-floor colorful map of Bedford County districts in the 1930s.  

For the window treatments, they’re going one floor at a time. Yockey said the grant “escalated from like $60,000 to $160,000,” costing more than expected.    

Yockey said they restructured the plan to be completed in phases. She is hoping by the end of this upcoming spring that they can begin moving County offices into the Courthouse — but that’s hoping, she said.    

And to Yockey’s disappointment, the supposed “secret tunnel” connecting the Courthouse to the jail has not been found...yet. 


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