1982 Courthouse Fire Part 2

Tue, 04/14/2009 - 3:21pm
By: Carolyn Cary

Everyone chips in to rebuild burned courthouse

It was on Easter Sunday, April 11, 1982, that a criminal broke into our Courthouse late that evening, intent on destroying it. It seems he had a burglary trial coming up the next morning, and he was intent on destroying records.

He brought someone with him to assist in this endeavor and then tried to have the fellow burned up in the fire so there would be no witnesses.

The fellow lived, however, although he was burned on 15 percent of his body and spent over a month in the Grady Burn Center in Atlanta. It's strange, though, that he promised that if he received immunity, he would testify against criminal number one in court. Court records show, however, that not only did he end up claiming no knowledge of the intent to destroy our Courthouse, he said in court testimony that he didn't know it was a courthouse when he saw it. He thought they were at a picnic area. You can check this out in the criminal case number 9-82-95, page 12.

Meetings between the county commissioners and the Fayette County Historical Society continued, and the society was named as the official funding agent and given carte blanche in obtaining the necessary money to restore the courthouse. The society was to be consulted as to the historical restoration with the board, of course, making any final decision. Fourteen months after their first meeting, on April 12, the two groups jointly announced the Dedication of the Restoration to be July 3, 1983.

Local citizens began pitching in the very next day after the fire. Jake Heaton moved his construction equipment in and over the next several days, picked up debris and moved it to the Prisoner Work Camp at McDonough Road and Hwy. 54 East. There was no charge to the county for his service.

The Fayette County firm of Benefield and Guthrie, all Fayette Countians, were chosen to put "The Queen" back together again. Earl Strother Jr. was chosen as the project engineer. He had been in charge of the changing of the inside of the courthouse in 1965 when it was restructured from two floors to three floors. The new floors of steel and concrete kept the fire to the third floor.

There are 100 cornices around the building, where the roof meets the top of the four walls. Each one is in three separate pieces. Because each one was hand-made and the three pieces welded together, the only way to duplicate them was by using the same process. The Tip Top Roofers in Atlanta took on the project, and made 100 new ones, all by hand. "I'm not sure we made any money on this project, but it was really a labor of love. All of us were very proud to have been a part of this project," said the company vice president, Bill Scupine.

Another item that had to be put back was the weathervane. Ronnie Hammond, a sheet metal fabricator in Morrow, had to make it on his Hand Bending Break in his home. The piece is 18 feet tall and it took him over 18 hours to make it.

"This is the first weathervane of this type I have made," Hammond said, "and I felt pleased to have been the one asked to make this special one."

One of the first items decided on for souvenir sales, was a t-shirt. It was blue, with an oval on the front. Society member John Lynch chose the words: arched across the top of the oval was "I Helped Save" and underneath the oval, "The Courthouse." The courthouse tower was shown in the oval itself.

The society ended up purchasing several thousand of the t-shirts at the cost of $2.50 each and sold them for $5 each. So many citizens wanted to help and this was an inexpensive way they could contribute. The shirts were sold at the corner of the Courthouse lawn each Saturday throughout the long, hot summer. Though the entire square was cordoned off, they were allowed one corner for this project.

The Fayette State Bank commissioned a oil painting of the courthouse, and auctioned it off. The $1,525 raised was donated to the cause.

Also during the summer months, members of the society would sit out in the hot sun at the Work Camp scraping burned bricks and roof tiles to be sold. The bricks were sold for $25 and came with a small gold plaque telling about the occasion.

The roof tiles were used in two ways; if it was chipped or broken, we painted the same oval on it as on the tee-shirt, and gave these as a gift to those who went "above and beyond."

The still-perfect tiles were used to put back on the roof - the darker tiles are the old ones.

Because this was the oldest courthouse building in Georgia, the fire news made it into many newspapers across the nation. The newspaper, "USA Today" was quite new, and took a picture of me in one of the t-shirts.

"Cross your arms," the photographer said, "and look real mean." Not a problem.

As a result of this publicity, many donations came in from everywhere. It was amazing how many people had come through our fair town at one time or another, remembered the building, and sent a contribution.

The cupola on top of the tower had to be built, along with getting another bell and clock facings. The size of the cupola was so big it had to be made in Birmingham and trucked to Fayetteville. When completed, it came in at over 17,000 pounds. A bell was obtained from the same foundry as the 1908 one that had fallen down in the fire, and the new one had been molded in that same 1908 mold.

Picking it up from the ground and setting it on top of the newly rebuilt tower was like threading a 17,000 pound needle. Dixie Crane began picking up the cupola about 10:15 a.m. and sat it down right on the dime, one hour later. There were three men holding on to guy ropes to try to keep the cupola "squared" which was not easy to do on a windy day.

The crane operator said he had one week's notice that he would be the one for the job. "I couldn't wait," he said, "the thoughts of having the honor of getting to do it really made me excited. I have lifted heavier things than the cupola, but none has given me more pleasure."

As one observer put it, "that guy was so good, he could have threaded a needle with that crane!"

The landscaping project was given to Fayette native, Steve Stinchcomb. Instead of 8 foot bushes that were in the original plans, he put in 7 foot bushes, and used the difference in funds to install an underground sprinkler system. Several diseased trees were removed, and limbs trimmed before putting down 36,000 square feet of centipede grass.

Steve and I planned to put the fallen bell among the landscaping at the northeast corner. It had been taken right after the fire to the Work Camp, along with all other debris. However, it came up missing when we were ready to install it.

So herewith a plea - I'm sure someone has it in their basement, and if you would be kind enough to return it, I would be most grateful and no questions asked. I'm in the phone book.

The reconstruction took nine months, from late August to the next May. With thanks to Alan Benefield, Howard Guthrie, dozens of workers and subcontractors, and over $30,000 in donations received from people all over the United States, "The Queen" was once again in business on July 3, 1983.

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