- Historic Sites
Temples of Democracy
There are over 3,000 county courthouse across the country -- staunch hometown symbols of our faith in our ability to govern ourselves
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
When I worked as a newsmagazine reporter in the South, at the beginning of the sixties, everyone always seemed to be asking me where I was from. At the time, white people in the South preferred to believe that only ignorant and hopelessly vindictive Yankee reporters could portray racial turmoil as the product of genuine grievances rather than outside agitation. Loyalty to geography was assumed. County sheriffs seemed to have a particularly strong interest in my origins. “Where you from?” was always among the first questions a county sheriff asked. Often, he spoke while studying my press identification or my business card or even my driver’s license (outside reporters occasionally had difficulty keeping their cars stationary at a stop sign long enough to qualify for what the local sheriff considered a full stop), and he sometimes ended the question with my first name, just to remind me where we stood. “I work out of the Atlanta bureau” was not considered an adequate response. That would only bring a sad shaking of the head and a loud “huhuh.” (There is no way to reproduce on paper the sound of a Southern sheriff’s “huh-uh,” but I suspect some philologist somewhere has classified it as the “adenoidal negative.”) Then the sheriff would ask his second question: “Where you really from?” That meant “Where were you born?”
As it happens, I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. I could have done worse. The worst place to have been born was undoubtedly New York, the Center of Evil. If an outside reporter who had been born in New York was asked by a Southern sheriff where he was really from, the only sensible course open to him was perjury. In my case—my fellow stop-sign runners and I decided—there were better and worse ways to state the literal truth. Missouri, for instance, sounded less incriminating than Kansas City, only partly because Missouri had been a border state. To a Southern sheriff, practically any state would have sounded less ominous than practically any city. A county would have sounded best of all.
For a lot of Americans, “county” still means country. It implies, at least, the absence of a big city. The county sheriff and the county courthouse are often identified with the South partly because the South remains the least urbanized region of the United States. There are, of course, places where “out in the county” refers to a collection of suburbs that elects a slick county executive to sit in a modernistic county center and fiddle slickly with zoning laws designed to keep out people no poorer than the Southern sheriffs who were interested in my birthplace. There are huge cities that conduct the business of the county seat in a downtown office building indistinguishable from the city hall; as it happens, Kansas City is one of them. But I think the picture of a county courthouse that a lot of Americans have in their minds is similar to my picture of the county courthouse in the town square. “County” still means country, and my best answer to the sheriff’s question—if I had ever worked up the nerve to use it—would undoubtedly have been “Up around Jackson County, Missouri.”
I once visited a copper town in Arizona that was about to lose its copper mine. The town was nestled in some mountains not far from the Mexican border, and the company in charge had, as mining people say, “recovered” just about all the copper that could be taken from the mountains at a profit. Architecturally, the town looked pretty much as it must have looked in the first decade or so of the century—partly because of some preservationist sentiment that is uncharacteristic of Western towns, and mostly because of some commercial lethargy that is quite characteristic of company towns. There were residents who believed that, once mining was over, the town—because of its quaint appearance and its splendid setting in the mined-out mountains—would prosper as an artists’ colony or a tourist center. There were also residents who held out hope for the town simply because it was a county seat. In rural counties, the courthouse is an important industry. It provides not just county jobs but also lawsuits for lawyers and stationery orders for the office-supply store and repair work for the garage. It might mean a county hospital, and it is likely to mean a county newspaper. In the last century, tiny settlements often fought over designation as the county seat on the theory that the courthouse could mean survival. In this century, in areas where rural counties have lost population to the cities, the theory still holds.