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Today is December 12, 2018

Mississippi Seen

Icon of history: the county courthouse

Icon of history: the county courthouse

Benton County was established in 1870. Its courthouse in Ashland was built in 1871. The county has outgrown it as a functional courthouse but has not outgrown the need to keep it as a reminder of history and the orderly society such places ideally represent. Photo: Walt Grayson

Mama grew up in Fulton, about halfway between Tupelo and the Alabama state line, in Itawamba County. Although an interstate highway runs through Fulton today, as does the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, and Toyota parts are manufactured in Itawamba County, that part of Mississippi at one time was very isolated.

So it was kind of ironic back during the Cold War when two Itawamba County farmers were discussing whether or not to build a fallout shelter. One said he saw no need for it where they lived. The other was shocked! “Don’t need one! Why, don’t you know Fulton is one of the first places they’ll hit?”

“Why on earth would anybody want to bomb Fulton?”

“It’s the county seat, ain’t it?”

Well, that conversation may or may not have happened. I like it because I think it’s funny. But it also illustrates the lofty esteem our forefathers had for the stability and order government represented. The first public building in a new area, besides a church, was the county courthouse.

After I had been going around the state doing feature stories for a number of years, I began to notice that I had never been to Ashland, the seat of Benton County government. After a while I sort of made it a game to see how long it would be before my work actually took me there.

Long story short, I was amazed when I finally did make it because of the old courthouse in the middle of downtown Ashland. It reminds me somewhat of the Carroll County Courthouse at Carrollton and the old courthouse at Jacinto—and for that matter, the Itawamba County Courthouse at Fulton before it was encased in a renovation.

Carroll County still uses their courthouse after adding more office space. The old courthouse at Jacinto was no longer needed when they divided the original Tishomingo County into three smaller counties. Matter of fact, it was sold for scrap and only saved when people realized it was a treasure and a doctor put up $2,000 to keep it from demolition.

Actually, the folks in Benton County moved their functional courthouse years ago to larger quarters. But within the past year the old courthouse at Ashland has come back to life once again—not as an official county governmental building but as a museum.

The Benton County Historical Society recently started repurposing the downstairs of the old courthouse as a place to display the history and memorabilia of the county. There is also a gift shop that is beginning to blossom with more and more merchandise.

The plan is to eventually refurbish the entire building. The upstairs courtroom was fairly well cleaned up when someone donated a sizable model train display. It’s being stored up there right now. The train set itself will be a great addition to the museum’s collection once it’s put back together.

The old Benton County Courthouse at Ashland is open two mornings a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 9 until noon, with the bonus of a farmers market on the grounds on Wednesdays.

But of all the artifacts at the museum, the building itself is probably the most important. The county courthouse was always in the center of town, and ideally the community was a community because of the social stability it stood for.   

So with the courthouse representing that aspect of our values, it isn’t so far fetched to think if an enemy really wanted to disrupt our way of life, they would bomb the county seat first, no matter the size or the location.

Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Contact Grayson at walt@waltgrayson.com.

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