The First Courthouse on Court Square
By May 25, 1779, Rockingham justices decided to build a new courthouse at Thomas Harrison’s two miles away. The justices had proposed three separate locations for a courthouse, but a majority voted for “the plantation of Thomas Harrison near the head of the spring.” Harrison soon deeded two and a half acres of land near his home, including the big spring, to the new county. Commissioners were appointed to choose not less than two acres of land on which to build the courthouse and jail. Timber and stones from Harrison’s land were to be used to construct the buildings.
November 1779 court minutes explain that "taking into consideration the dangerous and malignant fever that for some months past has raged in the family of Daniel Smith, Gent., and the apprehension of the people that there is danger of the disorder being contagious, to remove any obstruction to the administration of justice and to quiet the minds of the suitors and others who may have business at Court, are of the opinion that the Court should be adjourned to the plantation of Thomas Harrison and it is hereby adjourned accordingly."
Justices met in Thomas Harrison’s stone house on the next day and continued meeting there until the first permanent courthouse was completed.
The court had originally planned to build a two-story 26 by 36 foot stone courthouse, but they soon decided to change the building to a 20 by 30 foot courthouse built of “square logs with diamond corners.” The upper story, perhaps considered a half-story, was used for jury rooms. This building, built by Robert Campbell, had a dirt floor “as far as the lawyer’s bar.” About that same time Cornelius Cain built the first county jail for Harrisonburg in the courtyard.
In June 1780, Benjamin Harrison and William Herring were appointed to meet with builder Robert Campbell to change the plan for the jury room. It was decided to leave out the jury room, as originally planned, and sink the joist of the upper room from the gable of the east end over to the front doors so as to make a jury room above, or two rooms if the space permits. Stairs leading to the upper room were built into an interior corner of the building.
The new courthouse was first used during the winter of 1780–81. Final payment on the building was ordered March 27, 1781. It seems that the justices and officials may never have been completely satisfied with the simplicity of the courthouse as it was originally finished. Many additional improvements were ordered over succeeding years.
The court approved paving the floor “on the back of the lower bench” with flagstones in 1783. This area extended from the lawyer’s bar to the chimney. Andrew Shanklin was assigned to arrange for the work, which included installing two windows on either side of the judge’s chair. Shanklin hired Charles McClain to do the work. The windows contained 12 lights each, eight by 10 inches, “to be finished in a workmanlike manner with suitable shutters, &c.” Additional work was ordered in August 1783. The lawyer’s bar was to be widened with four boxes to keep papers in. Two gates were added on either end of the bar with a box for the sheriff. Two seats were added at each end of the jury bench.
The work was finished by September. Colonel Benjamin Harrison and Andrew Shanklin were ordered to inspect the work, including the two windows and the paving work. It was found satisfactory and Charles McClain was paid £7, 19 shillings.
*Excerpt from Dale MacAllister’s Courthouse Square in Early Harrisonburg and Activities Connected with Court Days.