There is a tract of land in Marion that has provided the backdrop for some of the most dramatic scenes in our county’s history. Some of these scenes have played out in the courthouse buildings that occupied the space, while other events have transpired on the courthouse lawn and surrounding streets. In recent weeks, we have witnessed two specific occasions that will be remembered for decades as groups gathered to express their views.
As I watched some of the news coverage of the recent events, I wondered about previous generations of Smyth County citizens and what stories might be told from the earliest decades of our county’s history. As I scoured through books in my home, I found a treasure trove of information in Goodridge Wilson’s book, “Smyth County History and Traditions.” He tells of early judges, lawyers, and citizens who would gather at the courthouse to conduct business. “Court days were formerly great social functions. Crowds thronged the village and participated in social entertainment consisting of the arguing of cases in and out of court, drinking and friendly fighting. This form of pastime was commonly practiced. There were two old codgers in the county who, every court day, would go to the courthouse, get tanked up on liquor, get in an argument over religion, and fight it out with their fists. One was a Baptist defender and the other championed the Methodists. An interested crowd would gather around them to see and hear the fun.”
Another common occurrence on “court days” was the trading of horses. “The gathering of the horse traders with their strings of old nags in various stages of dilapidation, and the ingenious tricks that were practiced by slick-tongued, shrewd rascals in their efforts to cheat the other party, formed a colorful feature of life in former days.”
Wilson notes that “the first day of court was commonly given over to speech-making. Those were the days of the orator and the forensic powers of the lawyers were displayed in many ways other than in pleading before the court. Many an unrecorded speech of rare, even magnificent eloquence, regaled the mountaineers assembled in the woods-encircled villages.
“Classical orations, elegant discussions, rough-and-tumble debates, impassioned appeals to patriotism and to prejudice were all served out on these occasions. People by the hundreds and sometimes thousands would gather for every court, coming for sociability and trade and to learn the news. Newspapers and periodicals were rare and the people depended upon the lawyers as their main source of inspiration and information as to the news and issues of the times. Modern day newspapers have taken over many of the most important functions of the old-time southwest lawyer.”
According to Goodridge Wilson, local lawyers had much more colorful occupations in the 1800s. Most lawyers from that time period did their traveling on horseback, as opposed to the more modern means of travel. “With a change of garments, his papers, perhaps a bottle and a pack of cards in his saddle bags, he rode with the other lawyers from one county court to another. Upon arriving at the county seat, they put up for the term at a tavern or in the home of friends, and their nights and daylight hours out of court were taken up with varied forms of entertainment. Prior to 1870, when Marion went dry, all the courthouse taverns had bars and they were liberally patronized. Among the lawyers, there were few total abstainers, and even fewer excessive drinkers. Those who drank, drank like gentlemen, generally, and there were always some among them who had little use for liquor. There was a great deal of excessive drinking done, however, by throngs of people attending court. While many among the old-time lawyers were over-fond of social drinking and gambling at cards, these vices were not distinctive characteristics of the profession. As a class, they were men of high ideals, temperate for their times, profound students of the theory of law and skillful adepts in its practice. Not a few were men of independent means to whom law practice was a high calling and a fine art rather than a business.
“John C. Poston, one of the most brilliant lawyers in Smyth’s history, ruined his prospects by excessive drinking; he would build up a practice and lose by dissipation, then make a comeback and lose out again. He was very popular and was several times elected Commonwealth’s Attorney, and used to say that, ‘if he could get the support of the Buchanans and their tributaries,’ he felt assured of election.”
In addition to John Poston, Wilson lists other “great” lawyers who have practiced in Marion. Among those listed are “James W. Sheffey; Robert A. Richardson, who served 12 years on the supreme bench of Virginia; J.H. Gilmore, who became professor of law at the University of Virginia; Judge George W. Richardson; and Hon. B.F. Buchanan.”
“Prior to 1850, the judges of the county court were nominated by the court and commissioned by the Governor. They served without pay and for life or until removed for cause. From 1850 until 1870, they were elected by the people and allowed a small fee for services. By the constitution of 1868, the old justices court was abolished, and the county court judge instituted. The county court judge, in turn, was done away with in 1904, and the circuit system adopted.”
One of the two Smyth County circuit judges was Judge John A. Kelly, who was “born in Lee County on June 23, 1821. As a lad in his early teens, he carried the mail when carrying the mail meant hard, dangerous riding over roads that were mountain trails. At 16, he went to work in the clerk’s office in Russell. From there, he went to Emory & Henry College and then taught school in Smyth and Giles, studying law while teaching in Giles. He was admitted to the bar when he was 21 years old. He was cashier in the Northwestern Bank of Virginia from 1854 until after the Civil War. Moving to Marion soon afterwards, he practiced law in partnership with Robert A. Richardson. In February 1870, he was elected the first judge of the 16th circuit and, for 25 years, rode the mountain roads of this large circuit to preside over the courts of its many counties, discharging the arduous duties of that office, so as to set a high standard for all his successors. He died in Marion on November 17, 1900. He reared a large family, among them the late Judge Joseph A. Kelly, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia.”
These are just a few of the stories that reflect what life was like in and around the courthouse over 100 years ago. If you have pictures or a story that you would like to share, I may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.