Sunday, June 5, 2016

Jackson County may not own Courthouse Square

The beautiful oaks on Courthouse Square were planted by
Aesop Bellamy, one of Marianna's first African-American
business owners in ca. 1873.
Is the Jackson County Board of County Commissioners on the verge of cutting down trees that the county doesn't even own?

That question has unexpectedly come to the surface as citizens await a final decision from their county commissioners on the fate of the historic live oaks that surround the Jackson County Courthouse in downtown Marianna. The last vote from the board took place nearly three weeks ago when the commissioners agreed to seek cost estimates on the removal of all of the trees.

The question now rising, however, is whether the county actually owns the historic oak trees - or the ground in which they grow?

Part of the Battle of Marianna was fought on Courthouse
Square on September 27, 1864. This scene is from the
150th anniversary commemoration of the battle.
A thorough search of both public and private archives of deeds and other records has produced no deed or other document proving county ownership of the courthouse square. In fact, it appears that the City of Marianna may actually own the trees, the square and even the ground on which the county courthouse stands.

This unexpected discovery results from political maneuvering that took place in the earliest days of Jackson County's history.

The county was created by the Florida Territorial Legislature on August 12, 1822. The territory had been part of Spain just one year before and it would take another twenty-three years for Florida to secure admission into the union as a state. Jackson County was named for Andrew Jackson, the former major general who served as Florida's U.S. first governor. It included all of the land between the Choctawhatchee and Suwannee Rivers.

The "Widow Hull's Place" was near today's Waddell's Mill
Pond in rural Jackson County, Florida.
The first meetings of the county's government took place at the Widow Hull's place, a home that stood on the south side of today's Waddell's Mill Pond not far from Springfield A.M.E. Church. Mrs. Sarah Hull provided lodging and food for the County Court, a predecessor of today's Board of County Commissioners. The court then included three members.

A controversy soon developed over where to place the permanent county seat. The legislative council first designated the Widow Hull's as an interim location but later changed the interim meeting place to Webbville, a community about half way between Campbellton and what is now Marianna.

Richard Keith Call was a protege of
Andrew Jackson and the
Territorial Governor of Florida.
The controversy intensified when Robert Beveridge, a Scottish merchant from Baltimore, secured title to 160-acres of prime Chipola River land on November 1, 1827. The patent included the site on which the Jackson County Courthouse stands today.

Beveridge pushed forward the development of a new town that he called Marianna. His business partners included Richard Keith Call, an ally of Andrew Jackson and future governor of Florida. With such powerful influence on his side, Beveridge soon lobbied the legislative council to designate Marianna as the permanent county seat for Jackson County.

The developer offered to deed to Jackson County the public (courthouse) square and two downtown lots if the legislature would give Marianna the county seat designation. The town's citizens also offered to donate $1,500 to be used in building a courthouse and jail.

The offer met with a friendly reception in Tallahassee and a bill designating Marianna as the county seat of Jackson County was passed on October 20, 1828. A second act approved the incorporation of the town of Marianna eight days later on October 28, 1828.

Webbville as it appears today. The "ghost town" is still the
actual county seat of Jackson County, Florida.
The news was met with outrage in nearby Webbville, which was then the county's largest town. Unable to sway the members of the legislative council, Webbville residents took their case to the U.S. Congress.

Marianna's developers, meanwhile, went forward with their first sale of lots on January 25, 1829. Bids were opened for the new courthouse and jail on the same day.

Robert Beveridge maintained possession of the courthouse square during that sale, along with the now lost Masonic and School Squares, the future site of Marianna's Riverside Cemetery and the triangular park then called "the Plaza" (today's Confederate Park).

As the incorporation of the community took effect and Marianna's citizens elected their first leaders, these holdings became the property of the town. Beveridge continued to pay taxes on the lands until the organization of Marianna's government could be completed.

The Jackson County Courthouse in the late 1800s, about
20 years after Aesop Bellamy planted the Courthouse Oaks.
He was one of the county's first black business owners.
Robert Beveridge still owned the future site of the Jackson County Courthouse when the U.S. Congress intervened and annulled the legislative council's action designating Marianna as the county seat. Since Florida was still a U.S. territory, Congress and the President held ultimate power over local governmental decisions. In a rare display of this power, Congress overturned Marianna's designation as county seat on January 21, 1829.

Officials in Washington, D.C., followed on March 2, 1829, by giving congressional approval to Webbville, provided that the proceeds from the sale of one-half of the town's lots be spent on public education. Webbville followed through, raising $7,000 for the construction of a public school.

The beloved old Jackson County Courthouse as it
appeared on a postcard during the mid-20th century.
The Federal courts followed the decision of the U.S. Congress. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Florida convened in Webbville in September 1829, as did the Superior Court for Jackson County. 

Webbville thus became - and remains - the official county seat of Jackson County. The town no longer exists, but its designation by Congress has never been overturned.

Marianna, meanwhile, went forward with the construction of its courthouse and jail. Robert Beveridge, however, never deeded the square on which these were built to Jackson County. The legislative council finally imposed a fine against any public official that did not conduct business from the new courthouse, a move that had the result of shifting the county's public business to Marianna although Webbville still remained the official county seat.

As has been noted, Beveridge's lands became the property of the City of Marianna as the city was formally organized. He payed taxes on them until that time.

The beautiful live oak on the northeast corner of Courthouse
Square was planted by Aesop Bellamy in 1873 and can be
seen in the far left of the 1880s photo above.
A thorough search of the deeds and other records in the Clerk of Courts office and archives of the Jackson County Courthouse, as well as the private records of Florida Land Title & Trust, reveals no deed or other document showing that the city ever gave the county title to the square.

Jackson County has since spent untold dollars maintaining and operating five different courthouses on the square, even though the square has apparently remained the property of the City of Marianna the entire time.

Which brings us to today and the controversy that has grown over the future of the live oaks that surround the Jackson County Courthouse. 

Unless the county can provide some long lost proof that it actually owns the square, then its own records indicate that the trees and the dirt in which they grow - as well as the dirt on which the courthouse stands - actually belong to the City of Marianna.

This fact raises serious questions over whether the Board of County Commissioners has any authority at all for any of its actions regarding the trees or square. The city, probably through lack of knowledge that it still owned the square, has never intervened in the construction of courthouses on the site so it is possible that the county may legally own the actual footprint of the the courthouse.

The rest of the square, however, is unfenced public land and appears to be owned by Marianna and its citizens. Unless the county commissioners can prove otherwise, the City of Marianna is the entity that should be making decisions about the courthouse square and its trees.

Note: To learn more about the early history of the area and the political battle between Marianna and Webbville, please consider:

No comments: