News Section: Community
Sunday Favorites: The County Courthouse
|The courhouse above is the oldest courthouse in Florida and located at the Manatee Historical Village.|
BRADENTON – As the county courthouse restoration project comes to completion, construction dust stirs the memory of previous criminals and the charges brought against them. Like today, their fates were determined with a majority vote and their sentences sealed with the single strike of the judge’s gavel, but historically prisoners were not pitied; instead they were hanged from the upstairs balcony.
Manatee County was established in 1855 and named for the Manatee River and the abundance of sea cows at that time. The earliest settlement was also called Manatee (present day East Bradenton) and served as the county seat. Ezekiel Glazier, a prominent citizen and community founder, built the first courthouse in Manatee circa 1859. The one-story frame building was a simple design, and constructed out of wooden planks from a nearby sawmill.
In 1866, the county seat was relocated to a town called Pine Level, which at the time, was a bustling community. Today it is part of Desoto County, but Desoto had not yet been incorporated, and the borders of Manatee stretched much further east and south than its current boundaries. The Pine Level courthouse, or at least its jail, was anything but secure and permitted the escape of several prisoners on more than one occasion from the two-story, framed building, which never had the luxury of being ceiled or plastered. The upper joists were hewn square and the courtroom ceiling was so low that the joist above the judge’s dais was sawed off so he would not hit his head when getting into his seat. The floor consisted of a layer of sawdust and people in the courtroom suffered greatly from fleabites. In addition, the lower floor often flooded and stagnant water mixed with prisoner excrement sat for days without draining during the summer season. The quality of the courthouse was so bad, it was considered the worst in Florida.
When Desoto County was created in 1887, Braidentown was named the county seat. At first, Manatee County Commissioners rented a room of the Gaar Hotel, which was the oldest building on Main Street (It was demolished in the 1980s). The proprietor, Mrs. A.J. Graham, was paid $300 a year rent. The county offices were upstairs and court was held downstairs. The seats were benches constructed of rough planks. When court was in session, Graham rented an extra room for the deliberation of the grand jury.
|In 1888, a wooden courthouse was erected on the southwest corner of Main Street and Manatee Avenue.|
Residents were not eager to receive a new courthouse. The interest and principal would have cost the taxpayers $50,000. The proposition was dropped. Later on, a proposal was considered for $10,000 to build a courthouse; it was voted on and lost by eight majority. The county commissioners concluded to make the first start towards a courthouse by building the Circuit Clerk’s office. The late Joseph A. Fletcher with his cart and his ox “Jerry,” hauled the first brick for that building. Some time after this building was completed the county commissioners approved the contract for a two-story frame house for approximately $3,500.
In 1888, a wooden courthouse was erected on the southwest corner of Main Street and Manatee Avenue.
In September of 1902, the County Commission adopted plans for a new “modern” jail. The bid was awarded to Pauley Corp., a jail-building contractor, at the price of $11,787.50. Residents were appalled by the dollar amount and the court granted an injunction that was later lifted. The very first legal hanging took place within the jail, located on 8th Avenue Drive West, in 1905. On Jan. 4, 1904 Ed Lamb, a mill hand at the Braden River Sawmill, murdered Dave Kennedy, a farmer, in cold blood. He shot him twice in the chest with a shotgun in front of several eyewitnesses and then he and his family left town. The Sherriff captured the fugitive, but feared he would not be safe; he took him to Tampa via train to await trial. Lamb was sentenced to death. On Oct. 27, Lamb was hanged inside the jail in front of approximately 40 other prisoners. The Sheriff’s wife carried out the sentence. The drop fell at 12 past noon, but the rope slipped and prisoner was raised a second time and shot.
|Above is the current courhouse with a cupola at the top.|
In 1912, the county commissioners began planning a new courthouse and jail south of Manatee Avenue in downtown Bradentown. The existing wood framed courthouse built in 1894 and located near the present day law enforcement memorial was insufficient to meet the needs of the growing county. It was eventually moved to a lot and purchased by G.D. Rogers where it became the segregated Lincoln Academy, serving grades 1 - 8. Grades 9 - 12 were added in 1931.
County Commissioners felt it was important to build a new and modern county seat during a period of economic growth and prosperity. The new courthouse would join several other newly constructed brick buildings changing the face of downtown Bradenton. They funded the project by levy taxes of five mills per year for five years to pay for the courthouse and despite a petition by seventy-five citizens to move the courthouse closer to the dividing line between Manatee and Bradenton, voted to keep it on the site of the existing courthouse.
Falls City Construction was given 200 working days to finish construction. They were notified that for every day over 200 days, the company would be charged $15.00 per day. The work included the first reinforced concrete construction in the county as well as a basement, courtroom, offices and a jail. Work proceeded steadily with few issues other than a petition by local citizens to make the steps out of terrazzo instead of concrete because concrete would "cheapen the appearance of the entire structure." It was agreed and the change order was applied.
Construction was complete in February 2, 1914. The jail was on the second floor and included a gallows where hangings took place.
Although the interior has been changed over the years, the exterior looks much as it did a century ago and current repairs and restoration have enhanced the historic look of the courthouse and enticed residents to know a little more about the enchanting brick building.
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