The photograph was shot from the north view looking south. The old Christopher Hotel is shown on the right in the southwest corner of the square, and a store in the southeast corner to the left of the courthouse became Butt's Drug store later. (Courtesy Union County Historical Society)
What we call “the Old Court House,” now the home of the Union County Historical and Genealogical Society and the Union County Museum has occupied its present site in the center of the town square since 1899. Someone reconstructed a hand-made map of how the square looked one hundred and two years after the founding of Union County, the year 1934. Let’s take a visit this week to the town back then. It will help us get our bearings and appreciate the work and foresight of our forebears who really cared about the appearance and dignity of the county seat’s downtown.
Begin with the old courthouse itself. The modified Romanesque Revival style architecture stands out even today in its restored state as dignified and picturesque. The clock tower catches the eye first, pictured against the blue mountain sky, its arched windows on four sides once revealing the old bell that called attention to special meetings.
When that courthouse building was erected in 1899, these citizens served on the County Board of Commissioners: Jesse W. Souther (11-01-1840 – 03-07-1920) was county commissioner. Serving on the board with him were J. A. Butt, W. W. Ervin, and ordinary, John T. Colwell. Evidently then, commissioner and ordinary were two separate offices. These men put their heads together to try to come up with ways to finance the construction of the courthouse. They proposed bonds, but when the referendum was presented to the voters, it failed miserably.
They even considered a new site, rather than in the middle of the town square, on which to build the new building. After all, the older courthouse which had stood in the same spot, burned. It might be reasonable to find another location. They proposed buying lots diagonally to the courthouse square for $800, but that did not meet the public’s approval.
Mr. Stephen Major of Coosa District was generous and offered free land for the courthouse location if the citizens would but accept it. But again the offer of land, though with no cost attached, was defeated. So the commissioners decided to levy taxes to build a courthouse at the cost of $12,000. What a low price that seems to us in this twenty-first century. But then, the tax burden was heavy and many citizens had to sacrifice needed farm animals and other goods in order to keep their land and pay the accelerated taxes. To say the least, it wasn’t easy, building that grand edifice.
But the glorious old courthouse was built and it has stood, with modifications, for all these years since 1899. The center of court was moved to its new location in the new courthouse northwest of the square and the Historical Society undertook major restoration of the old courthouse. It was successfully placed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 18, 1980. Today, persons who want to research family history, examine displays of the county’s past, or enjoy the many cultural and artistic programs offered in the old courtroom have but to visit the old courthouse on the square. Thanks are due the citizens of the seventies and eighties and others since who have worked so unselfishly to maintain and perpetuate this portion of the county’s lofty past. C. R. Collins served as the first president of the Historical Society, and on the board then, during our country’s centennial year, 1976, were Edith Paris, Ronald Davenport, Herbert Dyer, Mary Smith, Ben F. Carr, Jan Devereaux, Bryan Webb, and Harold Nichols.
Now back to the year 1934 and that “in memory” visual trip around the town square and the old courthouse: Entering from the south, on the Gainesville Highway (recall that the Neal Gap Highway (now 129/19) was opened in 1925), a dwelling was on the right, and on the left a garage and another dwelling—this latter one once being the home of Judge Tom S. Candler. Proceeding around the square in 1934, visitors to the town would see a general store and a hotel building, with the jail a short distance behind the hotel. Next would be another dwelling, and on the corner, a general store. Next was a small café or lunchroom, a garage with a service station attached, and on the corner of the road leading to Young Harris, a drug store. Beyond that street, continuing around the square, another general store building, with an office building behind it commanded that space. I must mention that the Methodist Church was located just beyond this office building on the road leading to Young Harris. In later years, the location of the Methodist Church was moved just south of the square, and in the twentieth century, to its current Appalachian Development Highway location west of town.
Then continuing around the square, next came the Blairsville post office, an office building and a printing shop. A “lunch stand” was in the corner, and attached to it was a barber shop (Ben Wilson was proprietor and barber in the 1930’s). Next came a hotel (Akins), and then the street leading out of town and toward Murphy and Blue Ridge at the junction farther beyond town. On the southwest corner was a hotel building (Christopher) with another filling station attached, and a general store next door. Maybe someone in the readership can fill in names of people who owned these businesses and dwellings. The year 1934 was far too long ago, and I was too young to remember how the town square looked on some of my first visits to Blairsville from Choestoe to the south. But one thing I know and remember: A fondness for the place, its people and its history grew with each passing year. Here in 2010 I could wish for a time-machine so that I could return to those quieter days of yore when everyone knew his neighbor and all worked together, even to pay taxes that seemed impossible at the time. With a will the stately courthouse on the town square was erected, a substantial building that would be a monument to good government and a solid citizenry.
c 2010 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Mar. 25, 2010 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.