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Reflections by Sammy Way: Courthouse plays important role in Sumter's history

By SAMMY WAY
Posted 8/25/19

Reflections remembers when the courthouse became an integral part of Sumter County history and chronicles the building of its facilities in the Sumter community. The area of Sumter between Law Range and Canal Street was the site of many important …

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Reflections by Sammy Way: Courthouse plays important role in Sumter's history

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Reflections remembers when the courthouse became an integral part of Sumter County history and chronicles the building of its facilities in the Sumter community. The area of Sumter between Law Range and Canal Street was the site of many important judicial events as the growth and expansion of the city took place.

To complete this report, the author used The Sumter Item archives, including numerous photos and articles written by Robert Raymond and W. G. Barner with the support of Anne King Gregorie.

"The first court to be conducted in Sumter County was held in a farmhouse" facing Canal Street. This home belonged to John Gayle, and it was there that legal cases were tried more than a century ago. Sumterville (Sumter's name until 1855) practically grew up around this facility. The site was selected by a commission that was allocated $5,000 to build a courthouse and a goal (jail) in the geographic center of the Sumter District. The Gayle property was considered by many to be in a "low and poorly drained section, quite a distance from a navigable steam or highway. When the Gayle House was torn down, the materials were used in the construction of the house next door, on the same lot, but fronting on Main Street. Its merit was its central location in the heart of the district."

"When a proper site was chosen, there was no time to erect a courthouse before the beginning of the November term in 1800. So, court was held in the Gayle home, and existing records indicate that at least two civil cases were heard there. When the Sumter District was created, all cases which had been pending in the courts of Claremont, Clarendon and Salem, comprising what is now a half-dozen South Carolina counties, were transferred to the new district." The seat of government was originally located in Stateburg, and the first clerk was an Irishman named John Horan. "On Nov. 27, 1800, Horan's Stateburg house burned, destroying all of the public records. Some of the community's residents had retained copies of their original deeds and other documents which they brought to Sumterville and had them re-recorded."

The initial courthouse building was completed in 1806; however, it was in dire need of repairs before it could be used. "Some of Sumterville's early business buildings including a store opened by a Jewish settler known as John Spann and a tavern operated by a man named Scott." Originated in the vicinity of the new courthouse, Scott's tavern was a very busy place during the time court was in session. It provided accommodations for the visiting judge, numerous lawyers and anyone having business before the court.

Plans were made to construct a second courthouse by the 1820s, this time utilizing the skills of the highly acclaimed South Carolinian Robert Mills. Mills frequently referred to his courthouses as "temples of justice." The new courthouse was completed in 1821 and was located in the middle of the block facing Main Street across from the Sumter Opera House. Anne King Gregorie notes in History of Sumter County that "the bricks used in building the courthouse built by Robert Mills are said to have come out of a big hole that used to be just beyond Turkey Creek." The building was later sold and eventually housed several enterprises including the Farmers Bank and Trust Co., NBSC, Elks Club and WFIG Radio Station; the structure was eventually razed to make room for the expansion of Edwards Department store.

The A. A. Solomons Property and Law Range

The third courthouse was opened in 1907 "and at that time was a modern courthouse with ample space for county governmental functions." This facility was remodeled and expanded in 1964 because of the rapid expansion of county government and the need for additional space. When the building was completed it provided housing for all judicial offices and doubled the amount of space available. Sumter County bought this property from three sisters, Kate C., Augusta I., and Maude C. Solomons, to build a modern courthouse. The county paid $25,000 for the land and property. "A carriage house stood at one side, and a narrow lane ran down to it. Twenty lots were set aside on the lane for Sumter's attorneys. It became known as Law Range and continues as one of the best-known streets in Sumter."

Part II will address Sumter County Judicial Center and the growth and development of Law Range.