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7-14-09 Oconee County Courthouse Historic and Lots of Memories

To many of us who have lived here a long time, the courthouse has special meaning. It is an important part of the fabric of our community. Hopefully, we can continue to preserve that heritage and keep the current courthouse operational.

AVOC

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July 12, 2009

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Oconee County Courthouse – Historic and Lots of Memories

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By Wendell Dawson, Editor, AVOC, Inc

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The Oconee County Courthouse has a lot of history.   As a native, I have many memories of activities at the courthouse, i.e.:  election nights; court days, registering to vote; tag lines, voting lines, folks using it as a storm shelter, Christmas pot luck dinners in the Courtroom; water melon cuttings, the shade trees in front, the benches in front of the courthouse; street dances, political speeches (Herman Talmadge and M. E. Thompson in late 40’s and Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1998) and many folks who worked there over the decades.

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Courthouse shade trees and benches were popular in the 1960’s-70’s.   The man sitting here was a regular for years.   The ‘walking man’ lived a couple of miles out of town and walked to the courthouse daily.

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 Officials Sheriff Charles Holcomb, Commission Chair Roy Berry and Commissioner Wendell Dawson, courthouse benches, Ca 1975

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The school superintendent, sheriff and county agent were all in the courthouse when I started practicing law across Court St in 1970.   Many of those folks became lifetime friends.   My father, Rayford Dawson, served as a voting registrar for 36 years, 20 as Chief Registrar.He served with many people on that board.   The last board before we went to a Board of Elections consisted of Shannon Thomas, Rayford Dawson and D. Edgar Weatherford.    They worked a lot in the courthouse in the 70s and 80s and I always enjoyed stopping by and talking with them.    The atmosphere in the courthouse was informal and cordial.The Registrars were recognized for their service in a special ceremony at the Board of Commissioners’ meeting on February 22, 1994.

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Voting Registrars Shannon Thomas, Rayford Dawson & Edgar Weatherford were a frequent sight in the 70’s-80’s era.   Dawson served for 36 years.

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Registrars recognized at retirement ceremony at Commissioners’ meeting on February 22, 1994

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A lifetime close friend, Jimmy Christopher, served as Tax Commissioner from the late 60’s through 1976 when he chose to continue his profession as a CPA.   He was succeeded by the incumbent now, Harriette Moon Browning, also a longtime friend who grew up on Hog Mountain Road, near Butler’s Crossing, as I did.   The School Office was adjacent to the Tax Office.   That is how Special Ed Teacher Gayle Weiser, a Pennsylvania ‘Yankee’ caught Jimmy’s attention.  They married and today are very dear friends to me, Betty and Jennifer.

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Jimmy Christopher was Oconee Tax Commissioner in the 70’s.  He is seen here with his assistant, Harriette Moon Browning who has served since 1981.

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Tags arrived in bulk and were kept in the Tax Commissioner Office.  Jimmy Christopher is seen with the 1976 tags.  Jimmy is sporting a Centennial Beard – as were many local men.

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The Oconee County Courthouse is on the site of the first Clarke County Courthouse.   When Jackson County was split to form Clarke County ca 1801 the courthouse and county seat were located in Watkinsville.   Lawyers and Judges would stay at the Eagle Tavern when there for court.   When Clarke wanted to move the courthouse to Athens, Oconee citizens did not like it and in 1875, the Legislature created Oconee County, west and south of the Oconee River.   The Courthouse then became Oconee’s courthouse.

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The very first courthouse was constructed of logs in 1801. Oconee's second courthouse was built at this location in 1826.  Fire destroyed the building and many nearby businesses in 1887.  The next courthouse overlooked an oval park with a well and gas lanterns at both ends. The dirt road circled the park.  In 1938 this courthouse also burned. The courthouse standing today was built in 1939 under the Public Works Administration of Franklin Roosevelt.  The Commission Chairman during construction was Dave Weatherford, father of Voting Registrar Edgar Weatherford.

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This picture of the courthouse ca 1911 was on a Post Card addressed to Claude Anthony at High Shoals.   The card was later given to Clerk of Court Sandra Glass who displayed it in her office.

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Mr. Robert Nicholson and other officials, Clerk Bessie O’Dillon, Judge Barrow, Burnell Brown, Charles Holcomb, my father and others told many stories about the courthouse of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.   One described Judge Burger as using courthouse spittoons and being very circumspect when a large and prominent land owner left the county to take up with a younger woman in the early 40’s.   That event led to a lot of follow-up stories and some land tracts owned by the gentleman became property of the first wife and her descendants.

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Over the years, we saw many criminal and civil trials at the courthouse: murder- one in which son killed his mother in the 50-60s, the escaped murderer who lost his feet to frostbite after an escape in the early 90’s, causing alarm throughout the community.    Judge Barrow held a lot of hearings in Watkinsville on Saturday.   Athens Lawyers didn’t like it much but I did.   Usually we had to go to Athens for Court.   In later years, we tried to change some of that.

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In the 70’s and 80’s, all divorce petitions required an appearance and testimony by the Petitioner before the Judge.Judge Barrow held many of those hearings in Oconee in those days.   Once we didn’t have a key to the courthouse and the Judge granted the decree on the front steps.   Judge Barrow put in a lot of long hours and would love to ‘slip off’ to spend some time at his family farm in Oglethorpe County.   I have humorously described the Oconee Saturday Hearing day as a reason to be in Watkinsville and out of Athens.  He would leave Watkinsville via Barnett Shoals and Wolfskin Road headed to Oglethorpe County.

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Longtime officials posed for this picture when the renovated courthouse was reopened and dedicated in November 1998.

L-R, Wendell Dawson, BOC Chair; Judge James Barrow, Clerk of Court, Sandra Glass, Probate Judge Reba Hammond, Sheriff Charles Holcomb, and jailer, Willie Mae Carson.

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To many of us who have lived here a long time, the courthouse has special meaning.  It is an important part of the fabric of our community.   Hopefully, we can continue to preserve that heritage and keep the current courthouse operational.

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The County Website has pictures and more information about the Courthouse and Oconee County History.

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Billie Brown, longtime librarian, sits among book stacks in the little library building (Ca 1974) (‘Warden’s House’, now used by Extension Service) behind courthouse.  This picture and space problems led to a citizens effort that resulted in a new library on Experiment Road in 1976


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