WALTHALL — Several hundred people crowded the halls and offices of the new Webster County Courthouse in Walthall on Sunday afternoon as county officials held an open house.
“We think that we have built a courthouse that is very pleasing to Webster County and will last 100 years, like the old one did,” said Pat Cummings (District 2), president of the Board of Supervisors. He thanked everyone who worked together to make the new facility possible.
All five county supervisors and other dignitaries klcked off the official grand opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the courthouse steps.
Paul Crowley (District 4), vice president of the board, led those gathered in prayer before the ribbon cutting. He also shared a Scripture-inspired quote that was fitting for the occasion: “Our strength is the greatest and we stand the tallest when we’re on our knees.”
County offices moved into the new building on July 19, which was 6½ years after fire destroyed the old courthouse on Jan. 17, 2013.
The new 17,000-square-foot, two-story brick courthouse bears a resemblance to the old courthouse. The new building, designed by JH&H Architects of Flowood and built by Benchmark Construction, has arched windows and entrance features reminiscent of the old building.
County offices and the Board of Supervisors boardroom are on the first floor. Two courtrooms, judges’ chambers and the jury room are upstairs.
“I couldn’t be any happier,” Circuit Judge Joseph Loper said as he looked over the large second-floor circuit courtroom. It is built in a traditional style, with dark wood benches and furnishings, but has modern features including an electronic evidence presentation system and good acoustics.
Loper hasn’t held court there yet. He will be the only one of two circuit judges and three chancellors to have presided in both the old and new courthouses.
After the fire, the early sentiment was to attempt to restore the old structure. But, Loper said, “Long after we are gone, this building will still be here.”
Chancery Clerk Russ Turner, like other county officials, said he regrets the circumstances that brought about the new courthouse, but is pleased with the new building.
The total cost of the building and infrastructure was almost $6 million. The new building was built with insurance proceeds from the fire, and a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission paid for infrastructure improvements.
Circuit Clerk Sherry Henderson greeted visitors at the counter in her large office. County offices spent more than six years in cramped temporary space.
Tax Assessor-Collector Barbara Gore said, “We have more room. Our space is just arranged better.”
While they celebrated the new courthouse, visitors also fondly recalled the old one. Emmy Eidson Stephenson said she grew up playing on the old courthouse steps. Her grandmother lived across the street, and she lived within sight of the building. Her grandfather, M.M. Eidson, was Webster County circuit clerk in the 1940s.
“A lot of my memories are about that courthouse,” Stephenson said. “There wasn’t a lot to do in Walthall. We would go sit on the courthouse steps at night.”
She cried when her sister called in the wee hours of the morning to tell her that the courthouse was on fire.
The old Webster County Courthouse was a landmark for Perval and Garland Hunt, who now live in West Point.
“That’s where we became Mr. And Mrs. Hunt,” she said. They have been married for 76 years. Walthall Mayor H.T. Morehead performed their wedding at the Webster County Courthouse on April 24, 1943. She turned 93 on Oct. 7, and he is 95. When she heard about the open house for the new building, she knew that she had to attend.
Part of the brick entrances and a small magnolia tree remain at the site of the old courthouse. The village of Walthall has converted the site and surrounding grounds into a park with the assistance of the Mississippi Department of Transportation. It is nearing completion and Cummings encouraged those present to go by and see it.
During Monday’s regular monthly meeting, the Board of Supervisors brought the three courthouse employees who planned the open house into the boardroom for recognition. The board passed a resolution commending Kristi Johnson of the tax assessor-collector’s office, Wanda Robinson of the circuit clerk’s office and Irene Surma of the chancery clerk’s office for doing an “outstanding job” on the open house.
Editor’s Note: This article includes reporting by Beverly Pettigrew Kraft, public information officer for the Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts, and WPT News Editor Russell Hood.