An Oak Tree, Bert and Barney, and A Clock That Rang 580 Times: Rabun County’s Five Courthouses

Rabun County built four courthouses between 1824 and 1908 even though the county was sparsely populated, poor and isolated from the world. One more went up in the mid-1960s. This total does not include the oak tree that served as the county’s first hall of justice.

When Rabun was established in 1819, the population of the new county was 524. Few people meant virtually no tax dollars for building anything. Consequently, the first Superior Court in Rabun County is said to have been held under the spreading branches of a red oak in 1820. The tree allegedly stood near the long-gone Bynum House hotel just outside of town on what is now Highway 76 West. Court sessions also were held in the home of a John Love, presumably when it was raining or too cold to be outside.

Log Courthouses on Public Square

Claytonville, founded in 1821 as the county seat, was renamed Clayton in 1824. At that time, the county began selling land to raise money for building Rabun County’s first courthouse, a small log structure on Clayton’s public square at the intersection of present-day Main and Savannah streets. The building deteriorated within a few years and was replaced by a similar log structure on the square in 1838.

The 1939 edition of the Gazetteer of Georgia described Clayton as having a courthouse, a jail and only 20 houses. Ten years later, George White in his Statistics of the State of George, an encyclopedic work still used as source material for historians, stated, “At the time of this notice, no trade of any kind was carried on at Clayton.”

White Frame Courthouse

With a county seat that was barely a speck on the map, Rabun County was able to use its second log courthouse for 40 years. In 1878, so the story goes, the dilapidated building collapsed while court was in session. Court was moved to the town’s Masonic Hall, while a wood frame courthouse was constructed. The new white building opened on the public square in 1879.

By the early 1900s, the courthouse was in a serious state of disrepair. However, Rabun County voters refused to approve a 1906 bond issue to finance construction of a new courthouse. In 1907, County Ordinary M.H. James unilaterally ordered a direct tax to finance construction of a new structure. Similar to the fate of many elected officials behind a tax increase, Mr. James was voted out of office.

Stately New Courthouse

Despite the unpopularity of the tax, a fourth courthouse was built that opened in 1908. The result was a Victorian-style courthouse that resembled those in many southern towns. Constructed of concrete block and steel, the building had octagonal corner pavilions and a central clock tower. However, unlike many southern towns, Rabun County’s courthouse was not built on the public square, most likely because it was too large for the available space. Instead, it was located near the site of today’s courthouse on Highway 76 West.

One of the most prominent features of the new courthouse was the bell tower clock, which rang on the hour and half-hour. Its importance to law enforcement is reflected in a 1913 city ordinance, which imposed a 9:00 PM curfew on children under the age of 17. The ordinance stated: “The Court House Clock shall be taken as a correct time when running, and when it is not running the large clock in the store of W.S. Long, which can be seen from the walk, shall be taken as the correct time.” In short, kids had to keep a sharp eye on the courthouse clock. If they didn’t, they could be jailed until 8:00 the following morning and fined $5.00.

Clock Rang Continuously 580 Times

But the clock did not always run properly. The most noteworthy malfunction occurred on a July evening in 1953. The Clayton Tribune reported the courthouse clock “went on a spree at eleven o’clock, and those who counted the strokes, say that it struck more than 580 times. Shouts were heard from the jail, ‘Stop that clock,’ and people were running around to see whose job it was to do something about getting it stopped.”

Finally, Sheriff Lamon Queen’s wife and two men were about to break into the courthouse when they realized the first floor windows were open. They clambered inside and pulled a switch to stop the pealing. The article concluded, “Since that time, the clock has been sobered up, time is marching on at a normal pace.”

Bert and Barney

During construction of the new courthouse, its white frame predecessor was auctioned off to members of the Bleckley family. They hired a W.F. Cunningham to move the building from the public square to a new site on Main Street across from the current location of Reeves Hardware. Mr. Cunningham failed to complete the job, and a second mover transported the courthouse to its new location with a team of six oxen. According to the Clayton Tribune, “the lead oxen, Bert and Barney, weighing in at 1,500 pounds each, were locally renowned.”

In its new location, the old courthouse was remodeled and opened as the Bleckley House hotel in 1908. It was moved in 1913 to a site on Savannah Street across from the train depot, where it operated until 1961. The building was moved yet again to a location on Livery Street when the knoll on which it sat was bulldozed to give Savannah Street access to the new Highway 441. The courthouse is privately owned today and used as an office building.

When the Jail Was Called Home

A new jail was built in 1912 near the courthouse. A 1914 article in the Clayton Tribune said the jail “is one of the best equipped in Northeast Ga.” Among its various features was indoor plumbing. John Beck Dockins was the first sheriff to occupy the jail that would be used until 1967. However, the jail’s most colorful occupant was Sheriff Luther Rickman. Described in a 1926 Tribune article as “ever a terror to evil-doers,” Rickman was elected Sheriff of Rabun County in 1917 and held that post until 1940. He later served as Clayton’s police chief.

According to the Clayton Tribune, two convicts escaped from their chain gang in October 1928, and after spending part of the night in Mountain City, the convicts headed back to Clayton around 2:00 AM. When they passed near the jail, “the Sheriff hastily dressed and overtook them.” Sheriff Rickman was asleep in the Clayton jail, because he lived there. Cells for prisoners were upstairs on the second floor, and the living quarters for the sheriff and his family were downstairs on the ground level. Sheriffs continued calling the jail their home for decades.

Public Square Eliminated

In 1918, the Clayton Tribune reported the town’s plan to eliminate the public square, which had been a vacant piece of property since 1908. “The old court house site (the public square) which has been an eyesore in the city of Clayton for the past ten years is being graded down, and Savannah Street leading (west) from the depot to the (new) courthouse will pass over the ground where the old court house once stood.” Savannah Street also was to be paved or “macadamized.”

The article noted that the Clayton Women’s Club had planned to create a park on the square. The story admonished the club that if it was so intent on beautifying Clayton, it should work on the town’s graveyards, “which are badly neglected and nothing would show our respect for the dead more than it would for us to make these needed improvements.”

Fifth Courthouse Opened in 1968

The 1908 courthouse was never adequately maintained, and by the early 1960s, it was reported to be beyond reasonable repair. Two bond issues totaling $500,000 were approved to finance construction of the county’s fifth courthouse. Built near the site of the existing building, the new courthouse opened in 1968. The old courthouse and jail were torn down, and a new jail was located in the courthouse’s basement. By 2004, the jail was overcrowded, and a new detention center was opened in 2005 on the southern edge of Clayton.

From an oak tree and log buildings to a modern facility, Rabun County’s courthouses have evolved over time. And along the way, the course of justice received a little help from a team of locally renowned oxen and a clock repairman.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Clayton Tribune on May 13, 2021.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.