Historical Courthouse Information
The Present Courthouse
The present courthouse in Harrisonburg is actually the fifth building on Court Square that has served as the seat of government for Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg. Court records indicate that the first courthouse was built in 1780, although it was not the first courthouse in the County.
All information on this page is from Dale MacAllister’s Courthouse Square in Early Harrisonburg and Activities Connected with Court Days.
The First Building to Function as a Courthouse
The first building to function as a courthouse is thought to have been a log building on the Daniel Smith estate about two miles northeast of Harrisonburg. Daniel Smith was married to a daughter of Robert Harrison, and it is possible that the first courthouse had been built as a building for Harrison. The initial meeting at Smith’s, near where “Smithland” still stands, took place April 27, 1778.
By May 25, 1779, Rockingham justices decided to build a new courthouse at Thomas Harrison’s two miles away. The justices had proposed three separate locations for a courthouse, but a majority voted for “the plantation of Thomas Harrison near the head of the spring.” Harrison soon deeded two and a half acres of land near his home, including the big spring, to the new county. Commissioners were appointed to choose not less than two acres of land on which to build the courthouse and jail. Timber and stones from Harrison’s land were to be used to construct the buildings.
November 1779 court minutes explain that "taking into consideration the dangerous and malignant fever that for some months past has raged in the family of Daniel Smith, Gent., and the apprehension of the people that there is danger of the disorder being contagious, to remove any obstruction to the administration of justice and to quiet the minds of the suitors and others who may have business at Court, are of the opinion that the Court should be adjourned to the plantation of Thomas Harrison and it is hereby adjourned accordingly."
Justices met in Thomas Harrison’s stone house on the next day and continued meeting there until the first permanent courthouse was completed.
The court had originally planned to build a two-story 26 by 36 foot stone courthouse, but they soon decided to change the building to a 20 by 30 foot courthouse built of “square logs with diamond corners.” The upper story, perhaps considered a half-story, was used for jury rooms. This building, built by Robert Campbell, had a dirt floor “as far as the lawyer’s bar.” About that same time Cornelius Cain built the first county jail for Harrisonburg in the courtyard.
In June 1780, Benjamin Harrison and William Herring were appointed to meet with builder Robert Campbell to change the plan for the jury room. It was decided to leave out the jury room, as originally planned, and sink the joist of the upper room from the gable of the east end over to the front doors so as to make a jury room above, or two rooms if the space permits. Stairs leading to the upper room were built into an interior corner of the building.
The new courthouse was first used during the winter of 1780–81. Final payment on the building was ordered March 27, 1781. It seems that the justices and officials may never have been completely satisfied with the simplicity of the courthouse as it was originally finished. Many additional improvements were ordered over succeeding years.
The court approved paving the floor “on the back of the lower bench” with flagstones in 1783. This area extended from the lawyer’s bar to the chimney. Andrew Shanklin was assigned to arrange for the work, which included installing two windows on either side of the judge’s chair. Shanklin hired Charles McClain to do the work. The windows contained 12 lights each, eight by 10 inches, “to be finished in a workmanlike manner with suitable shutters, &c.” Additional work was ordered in August 1783. The lawyer’s bar was to be widened with four boxes to keep papers in. Two gates were added on either end of the bar with a box for the sheriff. Two seats were added at each end of the jury bench.
The work was finished by September. Colonel Benjamin Harrison and Andrew Shanklin were ordered to inspect the work, including the two windows and the paving work. It was found satisfactory and Charles McClain was paid £7, 19 shillings.
Ten years later, in 1791, a second courthouse was built on Court Square. The first courthouse had apparently been damaged by fire because records indicate that it was “unfit for business.” The justices decided to repair the damage and court was held temporarily in the home of Andrew Shanklin.
Market Street originally extended straight through the middle of Court Square in an east-west direction. The second court building was located near the middle of the square but on the north side of Market Street “near the Maypole.” It was a two-story structure, 26 by 32 feet, built of stone by Brewer Reeves, a tavern keeper in Harrisonburg. Each story had 9 windows. The first floor windows had 18 lights each. Those on the second floor had 15 lights. The ground floor was 13 feet high, and the second story was 9 feet high. The stone building was roofed with wooden shingles “clear of sapp wood 6 inches to the weather” that were painted Spanish brown. The cornice around the eaves was painted white.
In October 1791, John Rush, Charles McClain, Henry Ewin, John Hopkins, and John Boyd, who had been appointed to examine the Courthouse and pass judgment on the job, presented their findings to court. The report included mention “that neither the painting at present nor the mason work in the East gavel [gable] end from the square up is sufficient.” Brewer Reeves made the repairs deemed necessary by that December, but the justices from around the county were requested to assemble on Court Day in February to see what was needed in order to complete the Courthouse. At that meeting it was reported that Reeves had completed the painting in a “workmanlike manner Agreeable to the Contract of undertaking.” In March 1792, Reeves was paid £116, 2s as part of his “allowance” for building the Courthouse.
In September 1792, court minutes indicate that additional work on the Courthouse was needed to complete the project. Andrew Shanklin was given permission and £45 to buy materials and finish the job. In June of 1793, however, court officials were still not completely satisfied that the Courthouse had been finished properly.
The original log courthouse on the square was still used for several years, but in 1799 the court ordered that the old structure be sold at auction and removed from courthouse square.
The third courthouse was built 1833–1834 for about $4,000. In 1832 the second courthouse was so rundown that it was seen as unsafe. The court decided to replace it with a 40 by 50 foot “plain, neat, brick building.” Isaac S. Pennybacker was assigned the job of superintending the construction.
By January 1833, Jacob Rush, David Henton, John Kenney, and Peachy Harrison, commissioners, advertised the old courthouse for sale. It was scheduled to be sold to the highest bidder on regular Court Day, the third Monday in January. The buyer had to remove the structure by March 15th to have the square cleared for the contractors who would begin construction of a new courthouse.
Philip Armentrout did the foundation work. Jacob and William Newman laid the brick, and Adam Lushbaugh, of Staunton, did the woodwork. James Payne plastered the interior and N. Sprinkle & Brothers did the painting. Strother Effinger and Daniel Piper installed the tin roof, while William Reherd performed the iron work throughout. Harrisonburg gun maker John Crummey, with assistance from George S. Logan, made the ball and fish weathervane for the brick courthouse.
1859 Courthouse Improvements
In September 1859 the courthouse underwent some improvements “determined by the County Court.” The front and rear doors were removed leaving only one entrance to the building, the one facing the “law offices” in the court yard. The Rockingham Register commented that the changes “might add to the comfort of persons in the building, but they will by no means improve the outside appearance of the court house.”
The Telegraph Office
The court yard was the site of numerous small buildings over the years. Some of these were commercial in nature and not part of county government. One of these buildings was the Western Union telegraph office on the southeast corner of the square. This small, brick building was originally intended to be the office of a county official, but it was soon converted for use as a telegraph office when Harrisonburg was connected to the outside world by telegraph lines. George Ribble, Frank Robinson, and Allan Thompson were the telegraphers.
A Town Clock
In 1868 the editor of the Register lamented the fact that there was no town clock in all of Harrisonburg. He called for one to be installed in the steeple of the courthouse, stating that one there would be both “useful and ornamental. . . . The money could be raised easily.”
The much-needed clock was soon installed in the courthouse tower. Twenty years later, in January 1888, the courthouse clock was the villainous character in an event that could easily have turned tragic. Weights, which powered the clock and were described by The State Republican as “huge,” loosened from their chains and fell under the inevitable pull of gravity toward mother earth. The massive weights crashed through every floor of the courthouse and ended up lodged in the earth under the ground floor. Fortunately, no one was injured. The newspaper commented tersely, “Such death traps should be abolished.”
One may have noticed that several of the writers quoted thought of the courthouse yard as a park, a meeting place for leisurely congregating and passing the time. State laws had been passed requiring court yards to be convenient places for gathering.
After leaving office, county surveyor and former Superintendent of Schools Jasper Hawse spent considerable time and effort resurveying the original courthouse square and its metes and bounds.
The Fourth Courthouse
By 1873 the third courthouse had become so dilapidated it was viewed as being unsafe. Judge James Kenney ordered that court proceedings should be temporarily moved to the Federal Court-house.
This Federal Court building was the former Northern Methodist Church building that had been built on the hillside on south side of West Market Street just beyond the railroad tracks when the Methodists split into Northern and Southern branches. Following the War they reunited in the church on German [Liberty] Street.
Early in 1874, Judge Charles T. O’Ferrell, who had replaced Judge Kenney, concluded that the courthouse was unsafe and needed replacement. Bids were quickly gathered, and the job was awarded to the construction firm of Holmes and Rust of Charles Town, West Virginia.
This fourth courthouse, also of brick, cost $11,450.
The Fifth Courthouse
By March 1896, slightly less than 20 years after its construction, the fourth courthouse was in need of replacement. The Clerk’s Office was moved temporarily to the town council building on the west side of Court Square and other offices were moved to nearby buildings. Court sessions were held in the new Federal Courthouse that had been erected at the corner of North Main and Elizabeth streets.
The fifth and current courthouse building was built 1896–97 for $96,826.24. It underwent a major renovation costing $93,000 in 1931 and another update, including the addition of new windows and air-conditioning, in the 1990s.
When the old, brick courthouse was razed in 1896, three other buildings were removed from the court yard. These were the two-story clerks’ office on the west side of the yard, the telegraph office on the southeast corner of the yard, and the Rescue hand pumper and council chamber building on the northwest corner of the yard. The city council met in the upstairs of the pumper building, a space also used for the mayor’s office and for fire company meetings. Another small building was previously located on the northeast corner of the court yard.
Court Square Improvements after 1900
Austin Loewner, who was born in 1906, painted a series of pictures of early Harrisonburg. He also wrote down some of his memories about the city from the first quarter of the twentieth century. The first paved walks after the boardwalks were removed were paved with yellow bricks or concrete blocks. The streets were not properly paved until Harrisonburg became a city of the second class in 1916, the same time city schools separated from the Rockingham County School system. Before this, crushed stone was spread on the streets, but in rainy weather mud would seep up through the top layer of the gravel. The crushed stone was pulverized by hand. A pile of the stone would be dumped off a wagon at various places in the middle of a street. Workers would sit on the pile and use their napping hammers to break the stone into smaller pieces that would be scattered around the nearby section of street.