April 1974: Fate of courthouse hangs in the balance


Less than two weeks after reporting that the Walker County Courthouse had been condemned after being deemed "unsafe to the basement," the Daily Mountain Eagle was forced to backtrack.

"Courthouse likely to undergo reconstruction" was the main headline from the April 23, 1974, edition. 

Before getting into the facts, staff writer Skip Tucker had a bit of fun at the Walker County Commissioners' expense.

"Finding the new County Commission conference room amongst all the relocated offices in Jasper is not difficult. Just go to the Municipal Auditorium and ask for directions to the ladies' room," Tucker began. "The long-suffering Commissioners, deposed from their traditional courthouse home by the tornado, had insult added to their injury when the nly suitable, adequately roomy and private enough office for their weekly meeting turned out to be the dressing room for female performers at Municipal Auditorium."

As a reminder from last week, the auditorium was also housing the Jasper City Commission and Jasper Police Department at the time.

The main topic at this unusual meeting was the courthouse. Its unofficial status had been upgraded to "structurally sound though decidedly unsafe."

Insurance adjusters were still working on a damage estimate, but the insurance company had given its OK to remove the courthouse's third floor.

"It is generally agreed that the third floor, knocked awry by the Force Seven winds, constitutes the greatest menace and must come down before work can proceed," Tucker reported.

Demolition began on April 30, 1974. T.M. Burgin Demolition Company, which had recently torn down the old Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham, was in charge of the project.

The hotel had been leveled by explosive charges, but Burgin assured the Eagle's readers that neither explosives or wrecking balls would be necessary to bring down a floor of the courthouse.

Burgin described the process as "construction in reverse."

First, all furnishings were removed. Workers then removed the exterior stones, the light gray slabs that cover the outside of the building.

The concrete roof and brick sidewalls came off next. Finally, the steel framework was dismantled with blowtorches.

The demolition was expected to take four to six weeks.

I'll stop my recap here. I don't want to venture too far beyond the April 1974 book for the purposes of this column. Suffice it to say, the courthouse survived. The story of why might provide fodder for another column down the road.

I will point out that it wasn't until May 7, 1974, over a month after the tornado, that the Eagle had its first headline regarding the future of the Carl Elliott Regional Library.

"The much-publicized destruction of the Courthouse has all but overshadowed the fact that the library building, just across the alley, was also destroyed," staff writer Mike Kelley reported.

Decades later, most assume that the tornado brought about the construction of a new library but the May 7 article points out that the building was "doomed for destruction before the tornado swept through, as a new addition to the Courthouse was to be built on the site." 

At the time, the library's administrative office was being housed in a double-wide trailer on a corner of the First National Bank parking lot. Most of its book collection was being stored in rental trucks parked beside the makeshift headquarters or at the local vocational school on Highway 69.

Patrons seeking books were encouraged to visit branches in Carbon Hill, Sumiton, Haleyville, Addison, Double Springs, Cordova or in the Frisco community of Jasper.

Administrator Willa Dean Daniel asked that people who had books checked out at the time of the tornado keep them until a book drop could be established. Any overdue fines would be forgiven.

In the short-term, Daniel was making plans to buy a new bookmobile. The old one, which had been damaged in the storm, has expected to cost $4,250 to repair, and Daniel didn't see it as a wise investment considering the wear-and-tear on it.

Dean asked the commission for funds to either purchase a new one or fix the old one at the board's meeting on May 6.

Chairman Grover McMillan announced that the county already had the land on which to build a new library but funds had not yet been allocated.

Library board member Harry Sherer urged commissioners to take a long-range view while making its plans.

"We're planning for 20 years ahead. We don't want to build a crackerbox," Sherer said.

More specifically, the board wanted to see a 20,000-square foot facility. Commissioner Joe Meeks estimated that would cost at least $700,000 and outside sources of funding would have to be secured.

By April 1976, the Eagle was reporting that the new library had been completed thanks to a group known as "Friends of the Library" raising $75,000 in match money required for a federal funding given for construction.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.