One of the first things the Coffee County court did after the establishment of the county in January 1836, was to set aside 200 acres of land with the intent to establish a centrally located seat of county business.
This original 200 acres became the city of Manchester.
Until a proper building could be constructed, the County Court sat in the Baptist Meeting House. This log building near the present-day courthouse was in use until a brick courthouse and jail was completed in 1837 at a cost of about $10,000.
While not all business of the county was conducted at this courthouse – some officers worked out of offices in their homes or other offices on or near the square – the 1837 building stood until Dec. 28, 1870, when early that morning, the courthouse burned.
It is believed that the fire was the result of arson. The building was not insured.
Fortunately, most of the county records in the offices of the County and Circuit Clerk’s offices were saved, but the Chancery Clerk’s books and papers were lost except the Clerk’s latest Rule and Execution Docket and Minute Books.
Five days after the fire, on Jan. 2, 1871, the County Court met and made arrangements for the walls of the old courthouse to be torn down and for a new courthouse to be built on the same spot.
This new building is the courthouse centered on the square in Manchester today.
In order to pay for the building, the court on Apr. 3, 1871, ordered that a tax of fifty cents per $100 of property be levied on all taxpayers of the county.
Because some county records are missing, it is unknown the exact date of the completion of the courthouse, but county tradition says that it was finished in December 1871, just a year after the fire destroyed its predecessor.
Today, much of the county’s business is conducted at other locations.
Most county business such as paying taxes, obtaining marriage licenses or vehicle tags is conducted in the Coffee County Administrative Plaza on McArthur Street in Manchester.
The county also has a Justice Center on Hillsboro Boulevard where its legal business is conducted, as well as a new jail located on County Jail Lane.
In spite of these other newer locations, the 1871 courthouse is still relevant today. The courtroom (upstairs in the courthouse) is often used for trials, and the downstairs houses the offices of the Coffee County Historical Society including a library, a media room, a meeting room, and the new Joanna Lewis Museum of Coffee County History.
The 1871 courthouse is one of the few Victorian Era courthouses still in use in Tennessee. It holds a listing on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places and is the literal and figurative heart of the county.
In two years, this courthouse will celebrate her sesquicentennial: one hundred and fifty years of service to Coffee County and its citizens.
On behalf of the Coffee County Historical Society, I offer thanks and praise to the county leaders of 1871 whose forward thinking left a beautiful and useful mark on our history.
Some of the information in this article can be found in Coffee County Historical Quarterly Vol. II No. 4 (Winter 1971) by Betty A. Bridgewater.