JEFFERSON-Before the advent of motion pictures or even reliable radio service, attending court in Ashe County was a major source of entertainment for townspeople looking to hear the latest scandal or juicy gossip.
It was not that uncommon to see the back row of the courtroom lined with folks who came for the chance to hear the county’s dirty laundry aired between bickering lawyers and gavel swinging judges.
The old Jefferson court house, which is now home to the Museum of Ashe County History, was host to numerous high profile murder trials and was even the backdrop of the infamous Will Banks hanging that occurred around the turn of the 20th Century.
Today, the old court house, or museum, is not the bustling hub it once was, but local historians are trying to bring some of the building’s storied past alive again.
Numerous fundraisers have been held to help restore the building to its 1904 glory. Technicians have chipped away to the interior wall’s original paint and the floors have been restored to the their original luster. Efforts to retrofit the building’s stained glass are underway and plans are even in the work for living history cabins in a portion of the museum’s unused parking lot.
The building’s crown jewel – the upstairs courtroom – is still a work in progress, however. Crews have taken painstaking measures to ensure the building’s structural and historical integrity has not been compromised in bringing the courtroom to life once again, much like it was in the early 1900s.
Brick by brick, the old courtroom at the Museum of Ashe County History is moving closer to a complete restoration thanks to one of the organization’s longest running fundraisers.
For the past 15 years, the museum has been selling inscribable bricks for $100 each. The purpose of these decorative bricks was to allow buyers the chance to write, within reason, a personal message on them for all to see on display. These bricks were then coated with pottery paint before fire kilned. Finally, these bricks are being laid on the museum’s west exterior wall. To date, 160 bricks have been sold, generating $16,000 in funds for the courtroom restoration, said museum director Ramona Renfroe.
“We are thrilled to finally have them up on the wall,” said Renfroe. “Mike Herman has built a facade for them that matches the front of the museum. It goes well with the columns.”
Despite the overall success of the brick campaign, it has not come without its headaches.
“One of the big things with this was there was a big push for it when it first got started,” said Renfroe. “So many people bought bricks at the very beginning, but they became frustrated when they didn’t see them going up. We have to have a lot of them to be able to put them up. It was frustrating not to see them.”
But now, Renfroe said organizers are “really excited to breath life into the campaign” once again.
To help generate even more funds for the courtroom, the museum is also spearheading a seat restoration drive for $250 a piece. These seats were the original ones that lined the courtroom for years.
For years, the museum has faced ongoing challenges including where to put a full service elevator. Since the courthouse is on the national register of historic places, engineers can not place an elevator outside or on the front of the building or anywhere, for that matter, that might change the building’s original facade.
The old courthouse or museum is one of six of its kind still in existence and the only one being restored, said Renfroe.
“We are working towards restoration opposed to renovation,” said Renfroe. “There are lots of opportunities for people to help us with the restoration.”
To purchase a brick, a chair or to find out how else you can help with the restoration, call (336) 846-1904 or swing by the museum in downtown Jefferson.
Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.