March 7, 2011
By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer
Fifteen years after the Henry County courthouse closed in uptown Martinsville, a standing-room-only crowd of about 175 people celebrated its rebirth on Sunday.
The crowd included current and retired judges, lawyers and clerks, people who had worked in the building and people who had worked to restore it. They came to see the renovations that have occurred since the building closed in 1996 and the historical displays and exhibits that now fill its rooms.
The courthouse dates to 1824, and the restoration takes it back to its 1929 form, according to Henry County Board of Supervisors Chairman Debra Buchanan.
Buchanan observed that two of the courthouse tenants now are the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society and the New College Institute.
“Could we have a better example of our rich past and our hope for a rich future?” she said. “It is fitting that both of these groups are now part of this wonderful facility.”
Many of those in present reminisced about their times working in the old courthouse, and they greeted former co-workers who, in some cases, they had not seen for some time.
For instance, David V. Williams, chief judge of the 21st Judicial Circuit who worked in the building as a lawyer, prosecutor and judge, told the audience about some of the great lawyers he saw try cases there — William F. Carter, Jim Young, Jackson Kiser, A.L. Philpott, W.R. Broaddus and others.
“You could learn how to try a case by watching them,” Williams said.
And it was a pleasure to try cases before the judges who presided there, he said, mentioning John Hooker, Kenneth Covington, Frank Richardson, Frank Greenwalt, Charles Stone, Junius Warren and others.
“They say you never forget your first love. I always loved this old courthouse,” Williams said. “ ... You brought my old love back to life, and I appreciate that.”
Covington, now retired, said it was “unbelievable to see what you’ve done here.” Then, he added, “It’s unbelievable to see this old room look so clean,” to the laughter of the crowd.
He remembered first being in the room in 1946 when his father was on the jury for a murder trial. Covington was allowed to watch the case for two days.
“I was able to watch the performance of two great lawyers, W.R. Broaddus, the prosecutor, and Hannibal Joyce, the defense attorney. It was a great experience” and inspired him to go to law school, Covington said.
He also remembered how, in the days before air conditioning, the windows and doors in the courtrooms were opened on hot days. But when Lester Lumber Co. trucks came up Franklin Street, the court proceedings had to stop because of the noise, only to resume once they passed.
“This old building has witnessed good times, it’s seen some of the worst times. Now it will be here to see the (area’s) resurgence. I know it will come,” he added.
Del. Ward Armstrong presented the historical society with a Virginia flag that has flown over the state Capitol in Richmond.
It was accepted by Virginia King, president of the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society. She and her husband, Dr. Mervyn King, received a standing ovation for their extensive efforts to restore the building.
Virginia King said the society formed in 1996, the year Henry County moved out of the courthouse and into a new building on Kings Mountain Road. The building was in poor shape, and there was talk of demolishing it, she said.
A 2004 grant was used to tear down an annex and stop the damage to the building from a leaking roof and poor drainage. Four years later, the society received another grant and Harvest Foundation funds, totaling nearly $200,000, to enable it to begin the renovations in earnest in 2009.
The work was a labor of love for contractors and volunteers alike, King said. Through conservative bids and volunteer help, the money was enough to complete all the renovations and on July 1, 2010, the Henry County Supervisors deeded the property to the historical society, King said.
Since then, the building has been put in a historic preservation easement and will be maintained in perpetuity, she added.
Part of the building has been named the Historical Center and Museum.
In addition to the displays and exhibits, facilities are available for rent for special events, meetings, parties and other uses, King said.
“We’re very proud of our courtroom,” she said, adding that now it will “create happy moments.”
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