The reminders of the past were all around: two white, ornate fireplaces in the courtroom, a polished plaque bearing the names of Civil War dead and judges recalling memories that frequently drew laughter from the crowd.
Also present were the advances since the Appling Courthouse first opened in the 1800s: dozens of cars parked behind the building, digital cameras, cell phones and exit signs that glowed red.
All this at the rededication of a building that today is considered the oldest continually operating courthouse in Georgia, with a county engraving stating it opened in 1856 and others saying part of the building dates as far back as 1812.
On Thursday, judges and politicians gathered to reopen the courthouse, which for the past year has undergone a $900,000 renovation.
The work included adding a new heart pine floor in the courtroom and new shutters outside, reopening a back entrance, installing chandeliers, and putting in new benches and energy-efficient windows.
The rededication ceremony came with an enticing aroma of barbecue and plenty of stories about how Mother Nature and passing traffic often interrupted court proceedings and how the courthouse once had no air conditioning or central heating.
Superior Court Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. told the crowd of about 70 at the rededication how a bird once flew in the courtroom and stopped proceedings because a window had been opened to cool things down.
He also spoke about how on a cold January day he remembered halting proceedings to get warm by a back-room heater.
"I said, 'Wait a minute, there's a heater back here. Let's go stand by that heater,''' he said to laughter, later adding, "So this is a great improvement.''
Columbia County Probate Court Judge Pat Hardaway shared her own courthouse memories.
"Judge Fleming forgot to tell you about the snake in the bathroom,'' she told the day's crowd. "We had one of those, too.''
The event attracted a who's who of Augusta-area officials, including many judges, sporting finely tailored suits, and politicians including newly elected state Sen. Ed Tarver, D-Augusta, and State Sen. Jim Whitehead, R-Evans. Presiding as the day's guest speaker was U.S. District Court Judge Richard W. Story, who is a Columbia County native.
Judge Story said it was a special day for him to return home and officially open the courthouse where he received his first driver's license.
"If these walls could talk, we would hear all the ways lives have been touched here,'' he said.
Because Appling is the county seat for Columbia County, superior court must be held at the now-renovated courthouse at least twice a year.
"I just want to say I look forward to coming back and holding court in this courtroom,'' Judge Fleming said, adding, "I can assure you this courtroom will be used.''
County commissioners say they also now plan to meet quarterly in the building, which they consider a historic treasure.
"You can almost feel the eyeballs of the ghosts around this building,'' Commission Chairman Ron Cross said.
Reach Preston Sparks at 868-1222, ext. 115, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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