Lamar County, Alabama Courthouse
Courtesy of Samuel A. Rumore, Jr.
The following article, written by Samuel A. Rumore, Jr. appeared in The Alabama Lawyer in March 1992. Mr. Rumore has researched and written a history of Alabama’s courthouses.
Lamar County, in northwest Alabama, has two interesting distinctions. It is one of only three counties in Alabama, the other two being Colbert and Etowah, to have been created, abolished and then re-established. And it is the only county in Alabama to have had three different names-Jones, Sanford and Lamar.
If any one person could be called the "Father of Lamar County" it must be John Hollis Bankhead, the patriarch of the family which produced such eminent Alabamians as Senator John H. Bankhead, Jr., Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead and actress Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead's forebears were early Alabama pioneers who settled in the area near present-day Sulligent around 1816. He served as a captain in the Confederate Army and began his long career of public service in 1865 by winning a seat in the Alabama Legislature from Marion County. His political career continued until his death in 1920 when Bankhead was serving as a United States Senator from Alabama. He was the last Confederate veteran to serve in the United States Senate.
On January 21, 1867, the young and ambitious representative proposed the creation of a new county. The northern part of the county would be taken from Bankhead's own Marion County, and the southern part would be carved from Fayette County. He proposed that the new county be named "Stonewall" in honor of the Confederate hero, Stonewall Jackson. All went well until the third reading of the bill. Many "carpetbag" and "scalawag" members of this Reconstruction-era Legislature found the name Stonewall to be unacceptable, and so Bankhead's bill failed to receive the required two-thirds majority vote. A few days later, Bankhead resubmitted his proposal. This time, however, the word "Stonewall" was deleted. In its place he substituted the name "Jones". Elliot P. Jones of Fayette County was a prominent and influential member of the Legislature at the time whose support Bankhead needed. Bankhead was a master politician even from his earliest days, and he knew how to maneuver in order to obtain his goals. If the name he chose the first time hurt his efforts, then the name he chose the second time would ensure his success. On February 4, 1867 Jones County, Alabama was established.
By March 1867, Congress had passed the Reconstruction Act which ended Presidential Reconstruction and began the Congressional version. The civilian government of Alabama was now subject to Congressional Reconstruction policies. The actions of the newly created Jones County had to be approved by the Freedmen's Bureau and the military authorities, similar to Justice Department pre-clearance of political changes in Alabama today under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
On April 29, 1867 Jones County received approval from Wager Swayne, a commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau, to conduct an election to determine the site of a county seat. Major General Swayne instructed the county that no person should be denied the right to vote in this election because of race or color.
The site chosen for the county seat was a 30-acre tract of land centrally located within the county. The government of the county began its business on August 26, 1867. One of the first orders of business was the selection of a name for the county seat town. The name chosen was Swayne in honor of Wager Swayne, who by July 1867 had been appointed the military governor of the State of Alabama.
General Swayne was an educated man from a prominent Ohio family and a distinguished member of the United States Army. He graduated from Yale in 1856 and the Cincinnati Law School in 1859, and practiced law with his father in Columbus, Ohio prior to the outbreak of war. His father, Noah H. Swayne, served on the United States Supreme Court from 1862 to 1881.
The younger Swayne entered the Army on August 31, 1861 with the rank of major. He suffered the loss of a leg during the war and was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery. Swayne completed his military career as the military governor of Alabama from July 1867 to July 1868, and as commander of the Alabama Freedmen's Bureau until January 1869. He retired as a major general and returned to the practice of law. He died in New York December 18, 1902.
By September 1867 the town of Swayne was surveyed, the future location of a permanent courthouse was chosen, and the construction of a temporary courthouse was authorized. Fifty lots were sold to individuals at a public auction to raise funds. And, on October 3, 1867, the first county tax was levied for courthouse and jail construction.
Despite the progress Jones County had made, a movement arose in north Alabama to undo the action which created the county. On November 5, 1867, a Constitutional Convention convened. At the convention, a delegate from Winston County introduced an ordinance to abolish the county of Jones. The proposal was referred to a committee on counties and municipal organizations. The committee decided to return all political boundaries of Alabama to those existing on January 10, 1861, the day before Alabama adopted its Ordinance of Secession. However, an exception was made to the policy of returning to the pre-war boundaries. Counties which had purchased property for the construction of public buildings and had already assumed a contractual public indebtedness were exempt. Jones County did not fit into the exemption.
On November 13, 1867, Ordinance No. I of the Constitutional Convention of 1867 abolished Jones County and returned its territory to Marion and Fayette counties. General Swayne did not favorably view this action of the radical Constitutional Convention. On December 11, 1867 he sent a letter to the probate judge of Jones County informing the judge that he had attempted to use his influence to save Jones County, but was unsuccessful. He stated that he would try to get the county re-established when the Legislature met again, and suggested that the county should continue its business as if it had never been abolished.
The year 1868 was an interesting time in the life of the then non-existent Jones County. In May of that year, the state superintendent of registration sent instructions to the sheriff on how to draw jurors in the county. In July, the probate judge remitted to the state the county taxes he had collected. In August, the tax collector of the nonexistent county received instructions from the state auditor on conducting his job. And, during the year, the county government let contracts for a courthouse and jail.
To further complicate matters, after the first Jones County was abolished in north Alabama, a second Jones County was created by the Alabama Legislature in south Alabama. On August 6, 1868, the name of Covington County was officially changed to Jones County in honor of Josiah Jones, a local political leader and former legislator. Jones, however, did not want the county named for him. Therefore, in 1868 Alabama had a nonexistent Jones County in north Alabama which was functioning and seeking to be recreated, and an existing Jones County in south Alabama that its namesake wished to disavow. To end the confusion, Jones County in north Alabama was re-established on October 8, 1868, but was renamed Sanford County, while on October 10, 1868, Jones County in south Alabama again became Covington County. The Reconstruction Era was certainly an unsettling time in Alabama history!
The new Sanford County was named for Henry C. Sanford. He was a native of the Greenville District in South Carolina, a pioneering settler in Cherokee County, Alabama, a minister and a teacher. But, the most important apparent reason for the selection of his name for the new county was that he was a sitting member of the Alabama Senate in 1868. The Alabama Legislature at that time had a particular propensity for honoring its own.
With the county getting a new name, it was decided that the county seat town should also have a name change. On November 10, 1868 the name of the town of Swayne was changed to Vernon. The county commissioners had met to choose a new name when one of the local residents, Edmon Vernon of Vernon, England, asked that they name the town for him and his native city. The commissioners agreed and the town today remains Vernon.
The first courts in the county convened in a log house belonging to Daniel J. Molloy until a temporary structure was built. The county paid L.H. Jackson and Thomas W. Finch $300 for the temporary courthouse. The first permanent courthouse was designed to be located on the public square at Vernon. Daniel J. Molloy and Jesse Little Taylor established a brickyard at Vernon for making the courthouse construction materials. The courthouse and jail were completed by 1870, and the total cost was approximately $14,000.
The Reconstruction Era ended with the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. John Hollis Bankhead was not in the Alabama Legislature at that time, but he was a person of tremendous political influence. Bankhead never quite forgot the compromise he had to make concerning the name of the county he helped to create. In 1877, he decided to exert his influence to let the world know his personal sentiments as well as the sentiments of his country concerning the Confederacy and the post-war period. With his urging and support, on February 8, 1877 the Alabama Legislature changed the name of Sanford County to Lamar County. This action was to honor Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar of Mississippi.
Lamar was a native of Georgia who moved to Mississippi to seek greater opportunity. His father-in-law was president of the University of Mississippi, and Lamar taught mathematics at the Oxford school while establishing a law practice. He was elected to Congress prior to the Civil War but left to join the Confederate cause. He served in the Confederate Army and was also a Confederate diplomat to Russia. After the end of the war, he again taught at the University of Mississippi and by 1872 was in Congress again. His actions in Congress helped bridge the political divisions between North and South. A congressional tribute which he delivered for the late Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts abolitionist, won him national recognition. In many minds he represented the healing process required to make the country whole again. By choosing his name, Bankhead and the Alabama Legislature symbolically indicated that a period of political bitterness was drawing to a close.
The illustrious career of Lamar continued after the county on the western border of Alabama was named for him. He became a United States Senator in 1877, secretary of the interior under President Cleveland in 1885, and served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1888 until his death in 1893. Lamar was indeed a worthy recipient of the honor suggested for him by John Hollis Bankhead.
The 1870 courthouse in Sanford (later Lamar) County did not serve the county well. Almost from its completion complaints were made that it was too small. For over 20 years dissatisfaction simmered. Several towns in the county called for the removal of the courthouse. By 1894, the problem became even more acute because the structure had developed leaks and cracks.
In April 1894 bids were sought for a courthouse renovation project. D.S. McClanahan of Columbus, Mississippi submitted the low bid of approximately $2,300. He added four rooms, remodeled the older part of the building, and then was authorized to make other improvements. The cost overruns required the county to issue bonds to complete the project.
By the early 1900s, Sulligent in north Lamar and Millport in south Lamar vied to become the county seat and take the courthouse from Vernon. However, Sulligent soon became the only rival in a petition for a courthouse election that was circulated in the county. A counterpetition opposing an election was also circulated. Both petitions were submitted to Governor B. B. Comer who appointed the state examiner of public accounts to certify the signatures of the qualified electors. Those who supported Sulligent wanted an election and those who supported Vernon opposed an election. Millport residents sided with Vernon to keep the courthouse from being moved to Sulligent. The result was that more qualified electors opposed an election than requested one, and so the issue of courthouse removal was closed.
In 1909, a new courthouse was built in Vernon. This courthouse was of Classical design with four large columns, a pedimented portico and an impressive dome. The architect for this structure was Chamberlain and Company of Birmingham and the builder was B.C. Bynum Construction Company, also of Birmingham.
In 1948, this courthouse was modernized. The classic dome and columns were removed and a third floor was added to the structure. The architect for this project was William 1. Rosamond, and Daniel Construction Company was the contractor. The renovated 1909 courthouse serves Lamar County to this day.
Mr. Rumore is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Alabama School of Law. He is in practice in Birmingham with the firm of Miglionico & Rumore.
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