We climb up and up, hoping to reach the top of the clock tower at the Monroe County Courthouse in Clarendon. The view is good up here, and I'm quick to thank Clarendon resident Jeremiah Moore for allowing Skip Rutherford and me to make the climb. Moore, whose ancestors began farming in this part of the state in the 1850s, knows the courthouse caretaker and was able to talk him into letting us go to the top.
It's no secret that most east Arkansas counties are bleeding population these days. From 2000-'10, Monroe County lost the highest percentage of population of any Arkansas county. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Monroe County has lost an additional 15.3 percent of its residents since the 2010 census. The population is down to 6,900. A century earlier, there were 21,601 people living in Monroe County.
The county has plenty of company. The Census Bureau says that eight Delta counties have lost more than 10 percent of their population since 2010. Another 10 east Arkansas counties have lost between 5 and 10 percent of their residents since that census.
If you want a reminder of a period when the political and economic power of the state was concentrated in east Arkansas, visit some courthouses. These magnificent structures were built to exude wealth and prestige. It was a time when the Delta was to Arkansas what the northwest corner of the state is today.
I've been to three of these east Arkansas courthouses in recent months. All of them could be movie sets for something along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird. They bring visions of distinguished Southern lawyers in seersucker suits, tobacco-chewing members of the jury and articulate judges with their reading glasses pulled down on their noses.
The Monroe County Courthouse was designed by famous Little Rock architect Charles Thompson in 1910. The $118,000 construction contract was awarded to W.A. Prather & Co., a construction firm out of Memphis. Construction was completed in 1911 on a plot of land that had served as the home of four previous courthouses. One predecessor was destroyed by Union forces during the Civil War. Another burned on New Year's Day 1895. Thompson designed a clock tower that extends seven levels high and topped it with a copper weather vane.
"The courtroom is the heart of the building," Jared Craig writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System. "An elegant, domed skylight of stained glass is centered over the room. The room is also lit by multiple hanging brass chandeliers with tassels; others are wall-mounted. The walls, pilasters and layered ceiling are white, with the judge's bench and other furniture standing out in dark oak. A balcony stands at the rear of the courtroom and includes a brass statue of Lady Justice, a common figure in courthouses across the United States."
During the Great Flood of 1927, a number of Monroe County residents lived on the courthouse's upper floors for a time.
Farther to the south in Desha County, I visited an equally beautiful courthouse that was built in 1900 at Arkansas City. It also housed people during the 1927 flood. The Desha County seat had once been Napoleon, which was near where the Arkansas River runs into the Mississippi River. Napoleon was abandoned by the 1870s due to frequent flooding, and later was swallowed by the river. The county seat moved to Chicot City in 1873, Watson in 1874, and finally the Mississippi River port of Arkansas City in 1878. John Dickerson donated land for the courthouse. The first courthouse, built in 1880, was destroyed by fire.
The Desha County Quorum Court voted in October 1899 to build a new courthouse. Little Rock architect Rome Harding designed a structure with a four-story clock tower, round arches and decorative patterns in the brick. The W.D. Holtzman Co. of Little Rock completed the courthouse in 10 months at a cost of $23,369. Numerous grants during the past two decades have been used to restore the building.
The east Arkansas courthouse with which I have a family connection is the Prairie County Courthouse at Des Arc, where my grandfather occupied the county's judge's office from 1937-41. Charles Thompson had also designed a courthouse at Des Arc in 1904. The building was destroyed by fire in 1911.
"The present courthouse was erected on that same site in 1913, with architect R.P. Morrison as the designer and C.S. Proctor as the builder," Craig writes. "Construction costs totaled $27,500, and builders used debris and the foundation from the old courthouse in the construction. It was built with a high foundation to protect it from White River floodwaters. The courthouse's most prominent feature is the clock tower. This, along with white Doric columns and porticos against the red-brick exterior, is reminiscent of a governing house from the colonial era. ... The building's interior is rather plain, especially in comparison to the elegant exterior."
To be fair, Prairie County is one of those counties with two county seats, and there's a much smaller courthouse at DeValls Bluff. White River floods made trips to Des Arc difficult for those in the southern part of the county, so DeValls Bluff was made a county seat in 1885. The courthouse there, hidden in a residential area, was constructed by the Works Progress Administration in 1939. The building is plain with Craig noting that the WPA "frugally constructed the courthouse using recycled materials from the [original] 1910 building."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 06/05/2019
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