SEARCY — The White County Courthouse is at the center of Searcy, both literally and figuratively. Constructed in 1871, the classical revival-style structure has borne witness to the town’s best and worst of times.
During the holiday season, the imposing cut-stone and brick building is festooned with thousands of tiny lights, much to the delight of locals and visitors alike. In September, throngs of residents descend on the courthouse square to watch the White County Fair ushered in with a parade, and again in October to celebrate Halloween at Trick-or-Treat on the Square.
After it was deemed by a committee in 1859 that White County had outgrown its courthouse, the contract for construction of a new building was awarded to Stephen Brundidge with a budget of $12,000, according to records from the Arkansas Historic Preservation website. The Civil War delayed construction until 1869, leaving the county to rent the Masonic Lodge for the sum of $450 annually until its new home could be erected. When the job was rebid, Wyatt Sanford of Searcy was awarded the contract for the sum of $25,000, which is said to have been exceeded before the building was completed in 1871. Renovations in 1912 included additions on the north and south sides of the structure in the same design style.
An elaborate clock tower was constructed atop the courthouse with a bell dated 1855 that resembled the Liberty Bell. The courthouse bell was traditionally rung to commemorate special events, such as New Year’s, national victories and the beginning of circuit-court sessions, historical records state.
A memorial to Confederate soldiers stands on the courthouse square. Recently, a 6-ton granite statue honoring the White County soldiers who died in World War I, World War II and the Korean War was added to the grounds. A memorial to veterans of the Vietnam War is also present on the courthouse lawn.
The courthouse’s first story features a cut-stone exterior and was originally reserved for county offices, a vault and social functions. The brick second floor houses the courtroom, which has been restored to its original 19th-century condition with hardwood flooring and oak benches.
It was in that courtroom that the infamous “Cobbite trial” was held in 1877, according to the Arkansas Historical Society’s website. As the story goes, the Rev. Cobb, or “the walking preacher,” as he was said to prefer to be known, brought his followers in 1876 to an area on the outskirts of Searcy, where they resided peacefully until fall of that year.
Cobb reportedly claimed to have received divine inspiration and awoke before sunrise each day to summon the sun to rise. His followers were said to believe that they had been “sanctified” and could not be harmed.
When a drought struck the county, the “Cobbites,” as area residents came to call followers of Cobb, were convinced that the sinful ways of the locals had brought the plight upon them. Subsequently, travelers passing by the Cobbite compound were said to have been dragged from their carriages and horses and forced to pray and repent before the Rev. Cobb.
Legend has it that one night, two inebriated residents, Carter Humphries and Rufus Blake, decided to take it on themselves to rid the community of the Cobbites’ unruly behavior. Upon arriving at the Cobbite camp, a fight ensued. Black is said to have escaped unscathed. However, Humphries was not so lucky. He reportedly was caught and decapitated by the Cobbites, his head impaled on a fence as a deterrent to “Imps of Satan.”
Humphries’ brother allegedly formed an angry mob that attacked the Cobbites, resulting in the deaths of the Rev. Cobb and his son-in-law. The surviving five Cobbites were indicted for Humphries’ murder, and stood trial in the White County Courthouse on Jan. 26, 1877. On July 28 of that same year, they were acquitted, with the reasoning that the Rev. Cobb and his son-in-law were the
perpetrators and punishment had already been exacted on them by their deaths. The Cobbites are said to have left White County after the trial was over and taken up residence in Randolph County.
The White County Courthouse is included on the National Registry of Historic Places in Arkansas. The structure is said to be the oldest functioning courthouse in Arkansas.