published Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Wanted: Pieces of Hamilton County history

Gina Hatler holds up a picture from Chattanooga's bygone days as she talks about preparations for the centennial exhibit of the Hamilton County Courthouse.
Gina Hatler holds up a picture from Chattanooga's bygone days as she talks about preparations for the centennial exhibit of the Hamilton County Courthouse.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

HOW TO HELP

Officials are looking for any items or documents related to general county government history and the history of its courthouses. If you have any items you would like to contribute to the exhibit, contact Hamilton County Public Relations Manager Gina Hatler at ginah@hamiltontn.gov or 423-209-6117.

WHAT’S NEXT

The yearlong centennial celebration of the Hamilton County Courthouse will kick off Nov. 15 at the courthouse. Other events are planned for the upcoming year, including a Christmas open house and a Fourth of July celebration on the courthouse lawn.

Lifelong residents of Hamilton County: Now may be a good time to clean the attic, air out the yellowed scrapbooks and crack open the dust-caked lids of Grandma’s old photo boxes.

County officials are on the hunt for historic snapshots and memorabilia of Hamilton County’s history as they prepare to celebrate the centennial of the courthouse, whose cornerstone was laid in 1912.

But there is only so much they can find in the county’s records and in the file cabinets of library archives.

“There are lots of missing gaps I wish we could fill in,” said the county’s public relations director, Gina Hatler, as she sifted through stacks of old newspaper clippings and old maps piled in her office.

She and a committee have spent the past 12 months collecting and planning an exhibit that will be housed in the courthouse for a year.

Hatler is looking for any documents, items or personal knowledge about the general history of Hamilton County’s government and its various county seats and courthouses over the decades.

“Our county has a fascinating history, and there are a lot of families who have been here for a long time. It could be that someone’s uncle or grandmother kept records of events that happened early on in our county,” said Hatler.

The first courthouse for Hamilton County was at Poe’s Tavern in 1819. Later, a log courthouse was constructed at the farm of Asahel Rawlings in the old town of Dallas before the county seat was moved to Harrison in 1840.

Court later was held at various locations around Chattanooga until the “Grand Courthouse” was built at the current courthouse location in 1878. That building burned to the ground when struck by lightning in 1910, and construction on the current building was started two years later and finished in 1913.

Hatler is looking for documents — especially pictures — from throughout these time periods, and from the early days of the current courthouse.

“People may not realize what they have. I’d love to use all kinds of things ... Maybe someone has an old rocking chair in their house from the early days,” said Hatler.

County Clerk Bill Knowles, who initially brought attention to the centennial and is on the exhibit planning committee, has developed a passion for the county’s history and plans to use some of the items he has gathered in the exhibit.

“The history of this place is something I’ve always cared about, something I’ve always been interested in,” he said.

Many things have changed since Knowles came to work in the courthouse in 1974. He has seen the structure of the governing body change several times until it reached the current nine-member county commission. He has watched the county school board move out and seen old criminal court chambers transformed into civil courtrooms.

Knowles and his staff have taken on the painstaking task of collecting and digitizing all of the county government’s minutes, dating to the early 1900s. He even has the minutes from the meeting when the County Court Justices of the Peace discussed spending about $350,000 to construct a “new and modern, up-to-date courthouse on the site of the old courthouse” which was “recently destroyed by lightning, fire, etc.”

The fire is just one reason why it’s difficult to find documents from the county’s early era, Knowles explained.

“A lot of records were destroyed then. Our marriage records, for example, only begin in 1857,” he said. “I hope people have some of that things we’re looking for.”

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