Putnam County Court HouseThe photo to the left is of the Putnam County Court House and was taken sometime in 1900, probably not long after its construction was completed. The third court house in the county caught fire and burned on 13 May 1899. Many of the records housed in the court house were destroy.

The Cookeville Press printed an article about the fire in the newspaper dated 18 May 1899. The following is a transcription of the article that appeared on the front page of that paper.

Our Temple of Justice Burned to the Ground
Generally Believed to be the Work of an Incendiary.
Only a Very Small Per Cent of the Documents Were Saved.
Loss to the County Cannot be Estimated in Dollars and Cents.

Last Saturday morning between the hours of one and four the court house of Putnam county, in the town of Cookeville, was destroyed by fire, together with nearly all the public records and documents.

How the fire originated is a mystery. It is most absolutely certain that it was set on fire by some villain who was desirous of destroying court records, but who did it no one knows. There was no fire in the building and had not been during the day previous.

Several persons on the square as late as midnight, before the burning, saw nothing unusual about the court house. About 1:30 in the morning the fire was discovered by some of the residents on the square and and [sic] an alarm was given, which, strange to say, did not bring out many people, owing to no doubt to the unusual hour -- a time when all are asleep. There was not exceeding twenty-five persons on the scene at one time, and many people who lived in the immediate vicinity of the court house knew nothing of the catastrophe until the morning.

The first officials on the scene who had offices in the building were Clerk & Master Watts, Register Thompson, Circuit Clerk Carlen and Deptuty County Clerk Davis. Sheriff Alcorn and Judge Puckett were also on hand. Efforts were at once directed toward saving the records, but owning to fact that the fire had gained such headway, filling the offices with smoke, it was exceeding difficult for any one to remain long inside. All of the books in the Register's office were saved except three books -- letters, K, L, and M. These, however, are very important. Much credit is due to Charly Gracy for getting out the records in the Register's office. He did efficient work and his services should be recognized by the county court.

Not a single book or paper from the Circuit Clerk's office was saved as nearly everything was upstairs in the court room where circuit court had been in session the day previous, and it was upstairs, it seems, that the fire was first discovered, as that part of the building burned first. The County Clerk saved three books and no papers, while in the Clerk & Masters office all of the valuable land records, depositions and books were all lost with the exception of three or four books.

The loss the county has suffered from the destruction of its records is irrepairable and the damage cannot be estimated in dollars and cents. There were the reocrds of the business of the county in the courts from the foundation and they can never be duplicated. The loss of the building is insignificant compared to that sustained by the loss of the records. Take for instance the Clerk & Master's office, There were papers and accounts on file there that represent the title to the real estate of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of acres [sic]. Witnesses whose depositons were on file are dead, and notes destroyed, which will be impossible to ever recover or duplicate. Thus it will be seen that endless litigation and disputes may arise from such sources. The same conditions are true in other offices.

Many of the county officials sustained personal losses in the destruction of the notes and contracts, also cost bills, and work done and unpaid for which of course will not be paid. These items alone will amount to nearly one thousand dollars in each of the offices.

For some time it liked some of the property on the north side of the square would be burned from the falling sparks, but owing to the fact that a heavy rain had fallen -- everything being wet -- and the prompt work of the fire brigade prevented a disastrous conflagration. But little wind was blowing, yet, notwithstanding this large flakes of burning shingles showered on the north side for a distance of several hundred yards.

During the morning hours quite a crowd came in to view the ruins -- broken, blackened walls, that represented the remains of the temple of justice. Some of the walls had fallen, others were leaning and in a dangerous condition. So lines were fastended on them and they were pulled over. When each fell a roar and cloud of dust, brick and mortar filled the air.

Monday morning Sheriff Alcorn had a force from the chain gang put to work on the ruins, cleaning the brick and stacking them up nicely, getting them ready to go into a new and modern building.

There was no insurance on the building nor any of the furnitutre, fixtures, etc. The total loss.

[ The Cookeville Press,18 May 1899, Vol. XIII, No. 20, Page 1]


Putnam County Tennessee was established 2 February 1842 by an Act of the General Assembly. It was later declared unconstitutional. Richard Fielding Cooke introduced a bill calling for the re-establishment of Putnam County. It passed the Senate on 12 January 1854 and then passed the House on 11 February 1854. The Act authorized a committee to select a spot for the Court House of which was to be placed not more than two and one-half miles from the county center.

The committee eventually narrowed the selected spot down to two locations: 1) a uninhabited and heavily wooded area owned by Charles Crook and 2) the Buck Property, known as "Monticello" which was located two miles East of the Crook property. After much campaigning by the partisans and deliberations of the committee, the Crook site was chosen has the location for the court house. County Court Chairman R. D. Allison purchased 40 acres from Crook for $100. (See deeds from Crook: Deed Book A Page 9, Deed Book A Page 219)

On 11 December 1854, J. C. Copeland won the contract to build the new county's courthouse to be completed in the spring of 1855. The total cost of the job was approximately $6000. Unfortunately, the court house did not last long, as it caught fire and burned to the ground in 1857. The county then rebuilt the court house using the original plans and for the same cost as the first court house.

During the first year of the Civil War, a regiment of African-American soldiers, on their way from East TN to Nashville, stopped and camped overnight on the lawn of the court house. The next morning after they left, the court house was ablaze and again burned to the ground. It would not be rebuilt until the war was over.

In 1866, David L. Dow, the owner of a brick kiln, erected a two story court house complete with two staircases and entrances on the both the north and south sides. A grainy photo of Putnam County's third court is displayed below.

PC Court House

This court house remained in use until the fire that occurred early in the morning of 13 May 1899. A committee consisting of C. C. Fowler, J. W. Puckett, Jesse Arnold, Joe F. Dyer, William B. Ray, and Prettyman Jones choose James H. Yeargan, designer of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, as an architect. The contract of constructing the $15,000, three story court house was awarded to Joe F. Scott and William Smoot. Using brick and sandstone, and limestone from Pilot Knob quarry, the builders completed the new court house in the spring of 1900. The clock tower was added later.

Once the contract was awarded the following article appeared on the front page of The Cookeville Press [ The Cookeville Press, 3 August 1899, Vol. VIII, No. 31, Page 1].

Contract Awarded for Putnam's Temple of Justice.
Will be the Most Magnificent Building this Side of Nashville.
Messrs Smoot & Scott, of this Place, Secure the Contract.
Work Will Begin at Once and be Pushed as Rapidly as Possible.

Last Saturday evening at eight o'clock, according to the advertisement, bids for the erection of a Court House in Cookeville were closed. Seven bids were handed in to the Committee.

Every bid and item was carefully considered, and after mature deliberation the contract was awarded to Messrs Smoot & Scott, of this place, they being the lowest bidders, it being for $14,159.00.

We are indebted to Mr. Fowler, Chairman of the Committee, for the information given below:

Following is the list of bidders and their respective bids: Smoot & Scott, brick, stone trimmed, $14,159.00; Cumberland Buff Stone Co., Brick, stone trimmed, $14,751.00; stone faced, $14,953.00, with concrete in foundation, left lout estimate $200.00, making on completion brick and stone trimmed $14, 951.00; stone faced, $15,153.00; Segraves & Quaintance, $15,095.00; Roberson & Chandler, $15,610.00; Geo. Moore & Son, with single heater, $16,485.00; S. H. Bowers, $16,215.00; Woody & Vaughn, with single heater, $19,320.00.

Competing price for plans and specifications was awarded to James H. Yeaman for $250.

From the above will be seen that the gallant builders of Cookeville are able to demonstrate the fact that they are able to handle large contracts as well as small ones against all competition.

The building committee is confident that it has secured plans and contract for a court house that for convience (sic) and beauty will compare with and discount nay court house in the State of similar cost. The outside construction is red pressed brick and buff sandstone trimmings, with sufficient ornamental work.

The dimensions are 92x86 feet, with seven rooms, four vaults and county court room on first floor. Above are four rooms, circuit court room and two galleries. Grand jury room either above or below. The galleries are novel and a pleasing feature in this building, making the court room, with the galleries, equal to any and all occasions. Conventions will no longer be held in canoeing factories with "fence rail seats."

No uncertain constructions as no experiment was entertained by the committee and now if plans are carried out we will have a thing of beauty. The plans were highly complimented by Nashville bidders. $400 will put a clock in the house. Why could not a part of this be made up by subscriptions supplemented by the county court? C. C. Flower.

Chairman Building Committee.
The committee seriously considered the bid of the Cumberland Buff Stone Colk which was for a building of s(t)one, but concluded that they could not award the contract to this company as the completion of the building would have been above the limit prescribed by the county court. This would have been a magnificent structure and was in high favor with our people.

As it is we will get a building that we all may be proud of. It will be the finest and best arranged and equipped court house this side of Nashville. The committee has performed its labors well, and is to be congratulated upon its success thus far.

The contractors are well known builders of this place, and their reputation is such that it is a guarantee the work will be done according to specifications. Work on the foundation will be commenced this week. The building is to be completed by the first of January next.

It is understood that Robt. and T. M. McCarrel will have charge of the excavations, concrete and stone work. They are arranging to begin work both on the ground and in the quarry at an early date. This will prove a very desirable arrangement. They are without doubt among the best builders in the South. They know what work is and how to do it.

James H. Yeaman, of Nashville, is the architect.

Upon completion the following article appeared on the front page of The Cookeville Press.


We herewith present a North West-view of the Putnam County Court House at Cookeville.

The Building is on the classic order of architectures, of Nashville red pressed brick, and trimmed up with native buff and stone; has galvanized iron cornices and slate roof and heated with warm air. The building proper covers an area 66 x 90 feet.

In the basement there is a large central furnace room, and from this ducts for war air pipes radiate to all the court rooms, offices, corridors, etc. The Scates warm air system of twin set furnaces is used, and at the rooms the heat is controlled by adjustable registers. This reduces the cost of heating to a minimum; each office, jury and waiting room is provided with a mantle and grate for private heating so that either system can be used.

The first story contains the following office rooms, Clerk & Master, County Clerk, Circuit Clerk, Register, Sheriff, Trustee, Grand Jury, and County Court. The Clerk & Master and County Court Clerk each have a prove office and vault attached between their public office and the County Court room, and is so arranged with sliding doors that the County Court room can be used as Chancery Court room as well.

A large corridor runs through the building from East to West, with central corridor intersecting at the center, and opposite entrace to County Court room from the South. At the East and West ends the main corridor intersects with the right and left corridors in which is located the ornamental Iron Stairway leading to the court above. There is ample vault accommadations for all the above offices.

On the second floor is located the principle court room with a capacity of seating over 700 people. This room has a tall ceiling laid off in pannels (sic) with deep recesses and will be a thing of beauty. Both the County Court room and this room have a central bay window, in which the judge stands will be located.

The court room is lighted on four sides by windows, notwithstanding all the necessary jury and witness room are connected on this floor, and will have to be see to be appreciated. entrances are at either end from corridors and each of these corridors have a gallery overhead with a large seating capacity and two rooms at ends of galleries. This makes four witness and jury rooms in connection with main court room, and four rooms is connection with the galleries. These are of many access from stairways which lead up to the galleries.

The tower is 96 feet high and located on the North West corner, and prepared for a clock. This lower forms a fine observatory as the entire range of mountains can be see the with naked eye. Ample stairways and ladders are supplied in this tower. The interior is plastered with Acme all plaster and finished in natural oak in hard oil.

The main court room has an incline floor and asbestos fire proofing in same.

All modern appliances are placed in the building.

The Building Committee is composed of C. C. Fowler, Chairman, Hon. J. Arnold, Capt. P. Jones, Dr. J. F. Dyer, Esq., W. B. Ray, and Judge J. W. Puckett, Secretary.

This committee has been untiring in its efforts to obtain a first class, modern court house, and up to date its labors have been amply rewarded. They have zealously guarded the mater of cost and when the final account is made to the people they can but rise up en masse and say well done thou good and faithful, etc.

The architect of this building is Mr. Jas. H. Yeaman, an old Smith county boy, who has spent his life in the business. He is located in Nashville at twenty years of age and pursued his studies incessantly since, and how well his labors have been performed let the people and a conscientious building committee be the judges.

The contractors are Messrs. Scott & Smoot, of this place, and are using every means to do a first class job in every respect.

[ The Cookeville Press, 17 July 1900, Vol. XIV, No. 20, Page 1]


Putnam County, Tennessee by Mary Jean DeLozier (1979).

Pictorial History of Putnam County, Tennessee published by First American Bank, Cookeville, TN (1988)

Siftings from Putnam County, Tennessee by Mary Hopson (1991)


Top Photo: Personal Collection

Bottom Photo: Pictorial History of Putnam County, Tennessee,Page 36.