The city of Charlotte prides itself on its historical roots. One of its most prominent testimonies to such a claim is the 1885 Eaton County Courthouse, in the center of downtown Charlotte. Reigning over the city with masterful authority, the courthouse stands 273 feet tall, with two levels of orange brick, one of beige, and a white peak with a statue of Lady Justice at the very top.
Now, however, it has been over 30 years since any gavel knocked against the black walnut wood of the court room. Maintained by the Courthouse Square Association, the now-museum is home to a number of exhibits dedicated to the life and times of Eaton County and Charlotte.
On the linoleum tiled floors of the first level are four exhibits: the Eaton County Hall of History, military/veteran commemoration, and two temporary exhibits that change on a yearly basis. On the second floor is the main attraction; the circuit court room. There is also a law library, judge’s chamber, an example of a one-room school, a late 1800s kitchen, and other exhibits on the second floor.
“Most exhibits, especially the ones on the second floor, are permanent,” said Jeri Bohms, the executive director of the Courthouse Square Association. She said the next exhibit this fall will commemorate D.W. Gibbs, the designer of the building. The display would be one of the temporary exhibits on the first floor.
Bohms said that even the tiles you step on when you walk in have history. According to Bohms, a fire broke out on July 4, 1894; 11 years to-the-date after the first stone was laid. In the wake of the fire, the bell that once sat atop the now-museum fell through the stained-glass ceiling, below the second floor, through the first floor and into the basement. This caused the tiles in the center of the first floor to have to be replaced when the county restored its courthouse. According to Bohms – and the visitor’s guide – visitors can therefore see two different tiles and tile patterns. The center tiles are from 1894 and the tiles on the “wings” of the building are original tiles.
“It’s really interesting; you can just feel the history,” said Troy Betz, 36, a resident visiting for his first time. He said his favorite room was the courtroom, where he could only imagine what it was like “back in the day”.
A visitor’s guide said that the pews where visitors can sit are not original to the courtroom, but other furnishings – like the jury’s chairs and judge’s bench – date to the time of restoration in 1895. Behind the judge’s seat are three paintings from that time that have been preserved – Justice, on the left, the State Seal, in the center, and Mercy, on the right.
The museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “When people think of Charlotte, they think of this building,” said Bohms. The courthouse became a museum in 1976, when the county realized that the small building could not keep up with the administrative needs of the county’s increasing population.
Bohms said council members had voted unanimously to tear down the building, but a man by the name of Ed Morey helped to keep it alive. Upon deeming the 1885 Courthouse a museum, the county became the only county in all of the state to have three county courthouse buildings in its county.
The Courthouse Square Association also hosts community events and fundraisers at the courthouse. The fundraisers help pay for the upkeep of the historical artifacts (all of which are donated by members of the community) as well as restorations.
Some upcoming events: the organization plans on hosting a wine-tasting event on April 24. It is displaying the work of a local artist, Meredyth Jones, in April. In mid-June, the courthouse will be hosting a musical performance on its lawn for the city’s annual Celebrate Charlotte event. Bohms also said they will also host an annual History Day Camp for kids in the community in August.
Making note of why it’s important to keep the museum around, resident Ken Betz, 66, said “I’m a firm believer in the old saying ‘to know where you’re going you must first know where you’ve been’”.