Fat men and the St. Mary Parish courthouse
When plans were drawn for a new courthouse for St. Mary Parish in 1849, a good many of the townspeople of Franklin wanted a fancy, multi-storied building befitting a prosperous little community. But the committee in charge of the design opted instead for a one-story building, and, if the editor of the Planters’ Banner can be believed, the reason had nothing to do with architecture.
“The reasons why they adopted a one story in preference to a two-story building are presumed to be these,” editor Daniel Dennett wrote in the edition of July 19, 1849. “They had three fat men on the committee and two lean ones, and it is natural to suppose that the fat ones have objections to stairs and upper stories and such sorts of things, and as they had the majority, they of course had their own way.”
As described by the newspaper, the main building was to be 40 feet square and 25 feet high and would be used exclusively for the courtroom. Wings on either side of this main section would house offices. The whole building was to be 104 feet in length. There would be a portico, supported by pillars, at the front and rear of the main section.
Dennett apparently wasn’t pleased with the plan. “As regards to the shape of the new law temple … it has such tremendous wings that it may take a notion to fly away and leave our lawyers without shelter,” he wrote. “To prevent this, it would be a prudent thing for our Police Jury to order a huge chain … and have this pet firmly chained to the live oak that stands on the public square.
“The materials of the building for the walls and foundation are to be of brick, the steps of stone, roof of slate, cornice of brick, copper gutters, window and door sills and caps of iron, granite or stone,” according to the report. The whole thing was to cost “less than $12,000.”
Getting back to the building committee, he notes that it was composed of “three planters, a merchant and a lawyer. … It should have been composed of one merchant, one lawyer, one planter, one mechanic, and one sailor—one fat man, one lean, and the balance of medium size.”
The one lawyer on the actual committee was a Thomas Haskell or Maskell (it is spelled both ways in news accounts), who presumably was one of the fat men. He submitted the plan that was adopted, and also a bid to construct it. That also raised the editorial eyebrows.
“The idea of a lawyer offering a plan to the committee of which he was a member, and then offering to build the house for a certain sum, and then voting in favor of his own plan, having one eye on the interests of the parish, and the other eye on his own interests, is rather a lengthy stretch of propriety,” Dennett wrote.
Nonetheless, he concluded, “But speaking seriously upon the matter, we do not doubt that the building when completed will make a very respectable appearance, and that the parish will get a fine building at a comparatively small price.”
According to the July 26 edition of the newspaper, the construction contract went to Judge Joshua Baker, a West Point graduate who had a background in engineering and construction, and who served as district judge in St. Mary Parish in the 1830s. In later years, he remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War and was made military governor of Louisiana in 1868.
By mid-November 1849, the Planters’ Banner had softened its criticism, noting, “The bricks and materials for the new court house have arrived and we understand we are to have a splendid building in place of the old one. … We have seen a [drawing] of the building … and we can safely say that if it looks as well on terra firma as it does on paper, it will be a splendid affair.”
The new courthouse was finished in 1851 and replaced a wooden building that had been used since Franklin was named the courthouse town in 1820. The 1851 building was replaced in 1908 and the 1908 courthouse was replaced in 1969 by the present courthouse.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.Fat men and the courthouse