Written by Dave Taylor | Cover Photo by Kyle Yates
A Philadelphia publication dated 1832 and referred to in Dr. W. J. McKnight’s 1917 Jefferson County history, stated “There are three small villages in the county including the seat of justice, Brookville, Punxsutawney, and Ridgway. At the first [Brookville], which was commenced in August 1830, there are about 40 dwellings, four taverns and four stores.” Referring to the entire county, McKnight continues, “there are two or three gristmills only, but more than four times as many sawmills, and the export of the county is lumber solely, unless venison hams be counted. 2,000,000 feet of white pine boards were cut in 1830 and rafted down the Big Mahoning, Red Bank, Sandy Lake Creek, and the Clarion River, to the Allegheny River and thence to Pittsburgh and other towns on the Ohio.”
Describing Jefferson County, this 1832 publication continued, “That there is room for great increase is obvious. There are several sects of Christians in these wilds, chiefly Presbyterians, Seceders [later known as United Presbyterians], and Methodists. But there is not a single church building in the county.” Obviously, the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had not yet delved into the depths of north-central Pennsylvania.
When the original unseated lands were auctioned off, Thomas Pickering became the owner of Warrant Number 394, the site of Brookville. In 1805, the county commission-ers of Westmoreland County were given authority over the new Jefferson County. The next year,1806, a separate election district was established at the house of Joseph Barnett (at present-day Port Barnett on Sandy Lick Creek). Pickering, who owned the entire area, had the ability to select tracts and set them aside for specific uses, includ-ing churches, burying grounds, and public buildings. An 1830 deed from Pickering to the County Commissioners set aside for public buildings a tract lying between Picker-ing Street, Market (later Main) Street, Chestnut (later Spring) Alley, and Court Alley (the roadway between the Court House and today’s Historic Brookville Town Square.
An Act approved on April 2, 1830 also gave the Commissioners the authority to pro-ceed with the erection of a courthouse. The proceeds from the first sale of lots would to go for the construction of the building.
The first jail was built of stone in 1831 by contractor Daniel Elgin. It was of two stories, and was located on the northeast corner of the Court House public lot. It fronted on Pickering Street.
In 1830, the County Commissioners authorized the construction of a courthouse and they engaged Thomas McElhany Barr and John Lucas to complete the project. Barr (1803-1884), had just come to Brookville from Indiana County. Among his first con-tracts was the construction of the Court House, which was completed in 1832 at a cost of $3,000. Barr was also responsible for the stonework on the original 1831 jail which stood behind the Court House. A highly skilled mason, he also built most of the early brick buildings in the young county seat.
The original Court House was far from elegant. Rather, it was a modest 2-1/2-story gable-fronted building with a hexagonal wooden cupola that was centered along the roof-line. The main building was a modest Greek Revival-style temple-form structure with a full return of the cornice and a symmetrical 5-bay façade with a centered entry. Typical of the style and era, the windows were flat-topped with multi-light double-hung sash. A one-story wing extended on the west side, and writing in 1917, Dr. W. J. McKnight, who had played in the building as a child, reported that the side wing was divided into two rooms, one for the Prothonotary and the other for the Commissioners. The second story was divided into the four rooms, including jury rooms and an armory for the Brookville Rifles, a volunteer militia organization. McKnight did not elaborate, but it is assumed that the courtroom occupied the first story.
These two major county buildings served their purposes for nearly forty years. It is not known when the stone jail was demolished. The 1832 building fell in 1866, to be re-placed by our present Court House, indeed an elegant countywide landmark and an unquestioned paperweight in downtown historic Brookville.
The next installment of this history will deal with the design, construction, and early years of the present-day Jefferson County Court House that was dedicated in 1869, one hundred fifty years ago this year. Join Jefferson County for a day of celebration on September 13, 2019. For more information on this event and many others, go to VisitPAGO.com/events