bricks

Fayette County Circuit Clerk Danny Wright displays old bricks from a former version of the county courthouse. One brick is placed atop an 1893 edition of an early Montgomery newspaper.

The battle of the century in Fayette County — the 19th century, that is — was over the issue of where county business would be conducted.

If you believe Fayetteville has always been the natural seat of county government here, Circuit Clerk and Fayette County Historic Landmark Commission Chairman Danny Wright offers an intriguing history lesson.

The unofficial historian laureate of Fayette County was recently loaned some newspapers from the late 1800s by George Bragg. Those papers indicate support for establishing Montgomery as the Fayette County seat. In fact, an election on the matter was held in 1894.

Before spoiling the secret, Wright rewound time via his virtual remote control and traveled back to

Fayette County’s formation in 1831 from portions of Greenbrier, Kanawha, Logan and Nicholas counties. At the time, a temporary county seat set up shop in an old store building in New Haven, an area near what is now Ansted.

Soon thereafter, a more permanent location was desired, and three different locales were licking their chops at taking on the title — Clement Vaughn’s place just east of New Haven, New York native Abraham Vandal’s cabin where Fayette County National Bank now sits in Fayetteville, and Kanawha Falls.

A vote was taken in 1835 and no single candidate received a majority of the votes. Kanawha Falls and Vandal’s cabin each received 130 votes to Clement Vaughn’s 129.

Not satisfied with an inconclusive plurality, voters called for another election in 1837. That time around, Fayette County residents chose Fayetteville — then called Vandalia, for Abraham Vandal — as the permanent county seat.

Vandal donated a plot of land for the courthouse, pinpointed by its description in the legal terminology of that time as “a dead chestnut tree in a rye field.”

Miles Manser’s general store in Ansted served as the first temporary courthouse. The first permanent structure was built on Vandal’s rye field in 1838 for the astonishing sum of $3,000.

Just over two decades after its construction, that courthouse burned down during the Civil War. A sequel, built closer to the street, was erected on the same site. By the late 1880s, it was determined that the courthouse had insufficient space.

Citizens in Deep Water, however, made a bid in 1884 to have the courthouse moved to their up-and-coming metropolis. Fayetteville handily defeated its rival in yet another challenge to the county seat. In 1887, funds were allocated for a new courthouse. The second one, used from 1863 to 1887, was torn down.

Its replacement lasted only six years when, in 1893 the third incarnation burned to the ground. With Fayetteville seemingly afflicted with a pyromaniacal curse, the battle began in earnest to move the county seat.

A convention was held in Kanawha Falls that included delegates from all magisterial districts in Fayette County to decide the question of where county government should reside. Without dissent, not even from the Fayetteville district, the vote was unanimous on building the next courthouse in another city.

Enter Montgomery. Chagrined at being the largest city and not being the seat of government — joining such other notables as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City — the citizens of the river town pressed their case for recognition. The battle was fought with ink and paper rather than weapons of war.

One letter writer in particular, identifying himself only as “A Citizen and Taxpayer,” ripped Fayetteville in the pages of the July 13, 1893, edition of the Montgomery-based Fayette Democrat. Not only is it inaccessible and lacking in accommodations, he thundered, but it is a den of liquor-induced iniquity.

“Liquor traffic is more stringently enforced in Montgomery than in Fayetteville,” he argued.

“To attend court in Fayetteville, you have to plunk down a dollar for the luxury of a hack ride (type of carriage) or foot over the mountain which a Rocky Mountain goat would break its neck before reaching the top. There are no hotels, and people must beg door to door of citizens for hospitality should he need a meal or lodging.”

Montgomery, on the other hand, had traffic coming in by river, road and train. A hotel room could be had for $16 per month — board would run you an extravagant $4 more. There were 28 “handsome stores,” he added, that were fully stocked and up to date.

As the 1894 vote on the county seat question approached, the writer demonstrated premature confidence of the outcome. “Fayetteville will be buried so deep on election day there won’t be a corporal’s guard left to act as a pall bearer.”

Fayetteville ended up taking 54 percent of the vote and thereby put the final nail in the coffin of any further challenges to its reign as county seat. In May 1894, Wheeling resident Edward Franzheim started work on what has now been the courthouse for 112 years and turned it over to the county on Nov. 22, 1895, at a cost of $58,297.

— E-mail:

mhill@register-herald.com

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