– Henry Austin Dobson
J.J. Basemore was working late one Friday in February 1920 in the old Richmond County Courthouse on Greene Street when he saw light flickering outside.
“A fire,” thought Basemore, who quickly left the building to see where it was.
This was good timing on the part of the sheriff’s bookkeeper because it turned out the courthouse itself was aflame.
Engine Company No. 1 was soon on the scene, which is what you would expect when Augusta’s most prominent building was ablaze.
The damage was extensive, and they almost lost Fire Capt. J.B. Crouch. He had climbed to the courthouse’s highest point – the cupola that featured a statue of the goddess of justice.
But he slipped and fell 20 feet to a secondary roof. They wanted to take him to the hospital, but the leader didn’t want to abandon his men.
By midnight, Chief Frank Reynolds told The Augusta Chronicle the flames were under control.
He said quick action by his men and the brick walls of the century-old courthouse kept the county from losing what was called “one of the finest buildings in Augusta.”
Still he estimated the damage would cost $10,000 to repair, something the newspaper trumpeted in its front page article Feb. 7, 1920.
So why share this story about a courthouse fire?
Well, first of all, it’s pretty exciting. I think many of us enjoy coming across a tale full of flames and fury and heroic falling firemen.
Secondly, this story revealed something else – a well-known Augusta woman’s age. And here’s the story about that.
For years reporters for this newspaper and others have written features, profiles and anecdotes about Lady Justice – the striking, dark metal statue that appropriately watched over Augusta for more than a century.
And almost all of them made a mistake – something one should never do with a woman’s age – guessing that she was much older, dating back to the courthouse’s construction in 1820.
The earliest images and engravings of that old building show something that looks like a statue on its roof, and for decades courthouse workers and civic leaders assumed it was “Lady J.”
But during her makeover between being moved from the old courthouse on Greene to the new one that opened a year ago on James Brown Boulevard, experts began to question that assumption.
We began to write about those doubts, and one day I spent a few hours looking through old county record books unsuccessfully seeking an expenditure for the Lady Justice statue.
Then Erick Montgomery, of Historic Augusta, told me about the courthouse fire from 1920 and there it was.
A Chronicle fire repair story Nov. 7, 1920, reports the copper justice statue damaged in the blaze had been added in the 1890s, replacing an older statue carved from cypress wood.
This weekend Lady Justice will conclude her first full year at her new home at the new courthouse – a younger woman than many have believed for years.
The Chronicle’s archives knew it all along.