Musing of the museum: A look at the Monticello Square
As I drove around the Square during the Fall Festival Saturday I was again struck by the beauty and significance of this little oasis recently refurbished and renewed and still sitting in downtown Monticello as a symbol of its past and its future. I thought I’d review its earlier history for newcomers in the community.
The Square is located in the actual center of the original 83-acre tract of land donated by Fountain C. and Polly Austin in 1849 for the establishment of the city of Monticello as a “proper” county seat. The town was laid out with 35 numbered blocks and one unnumbered block for a courthouse square. This square was to be a 170 foot square.
Lots were soon sold to provide funds to build the first courthouse (little more than a cabin) and jail. At that time the enormous sum of $634 was allotted for construction of that first courthouse and it was occupied in October, 1850.
By 1856 Drew County had outgrown this first building so a new one was constructed at a cost of $3,400. This courthouse was more impressive than the first because it was a 40’ by 65’ two story white framed building with a painted roof, gutters and a cistern. It was carpeted with “bagging” and surrounded by a fence. (“Bagging” was a coarse cloth used in making bags, flour sacks, grain sacks, cotton sacks, etc. I imagine that it was pulled tight and nailed to the floor.)
By 1870 the old plank courthouse was deemed too dilapidated and plans were made to build a new courthouse on the site. The old frame courthouse was sold and moved to the west side of the square where it was converted into shops and offices.
When the county court (quorum court) appointed a committee to develop plans and hire an architect for a new courthouse, they allotted $25,000 for the project. Committee chair David S. Wells contacted the Jones and Baldwin firm of Memphis, Tenn., to draw plans.
Their design for the courthouse was the fashionable architectural style of the times —Second Empire—coming out of the second French Empire of Napoleon III. It featured a tower with a mansard roof that was steep and sloped, and which provided the main entrance of the building. It resembled a French castle.
Although the construction contract was awarded to L. W. Lisenbee of Little Rock, much of the work was done locally. Bricks for the building were made locally in Jordan’s field located about one mile north of the square. Windows and door frames were built by Joe Laude, a Monticello furniture dealer and a native of France.
The 120-foot tower contained a Seth Thomas clock with four faces and a bell that struck the hours, as well as sounding fire alarms, calling courts to session, tolling for funerals and welcoming the New Year. (Incidentally, that bell is now located by the pond on the UAM campus.)
The grand 1870 courthouse, in addition to being the seat of county government, served as post office, ballroom, skating rink, banquet hall, lecture room, polling place and concert hall when the need arose. Two wells were dug on the square-one for livestock and one for people. It was truly the center of community life for a time.
The courthouse cornerstone was laid on October 20, 1870, amid day-long festivities filled with music, speeches, food, visiting and games. A delightful eye-witness account of the day was later written by Miss Minnie E. Wells, a young girl at the time. This account may be read in the files at the Drew County Archives building located west of the museum.
The total cost of the courthouse was $35,689.25, including a $749.25 architect’s fee. Soaring over the square in red brick, it gave a grand view of the town. It was the focal point of the county and folks were proud of it. The local newspaper, the Monticellonian, predicted a 25-50 percent increase in property values because of it. The county court passed ordinances threatening fines for writing or spitting on its walls.
There are several old photographs and paintings of this 1870 courthouse at the museum and archives; the most noted being the 1876 painting entitled “Election Day”. This painting depicts the courthouse in all its glory with exquisite details. The flag above the courthouse shows 25 stars and the voters are milling on the grounds.
Regrettably this grand old courthouse was destined to be replaced at a later date. Some thought it too small for its governmental space needs. Signs of wear and safety concerns also began to mount. In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, a new courthouse was built on South Main Street. The contents of the cornerstone of the old building were removed and placed inside the new cornerstone. (This is the courthouse currently in use today.)
Now the question to be answered was the fate of the regal old 1870 courthouse. Although some argued that it should be repaired, preserved and used in some way until times were better and it could be restored, their wishes were ignored and the old building was razed. The late 1930s saw a beginning of interest in historic preservation of many old, noble structures, but this was too late for the old courthouse. It was gone forever.
It took nearly a year to clean up the center of the Square after the courthouse was torn down and it took three years to complete the present civic center. This was finished in 1937 and the Square is now a source of pride for Monticello.
The Square has served its community as a gathering place, festival site, farmer’s market, location for political and other meetings, including weddings, and a new Friday night music venue, over the years. After a more recent renovation it is a restored area of beauty and serenity amid the bustle of downtown and an anchor for the community.
I want to acknowledge several newspaper clippings from The Advance Monticellonian, articles from the 1987 and 1999 issues of the Drew County Historical Journal, and remembrances of friends for the information found in this article.
Have a great week! Thank you, veterans, for your service to this great nation, “And the star-spangled forever shall wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Amen!