Nestled on a wooded lot behind Chatham Town Hall is Pittsylvania County’s 1813 Clerk’s Office.
In 1783, the county courthouse was moved from Cherrystone Meeting House Spring off Whittle Street to higher ground at the present site of Chatham Baptist Church. Taverns and stores began popping up around the court building. Merchants left at the lower ravine location down the hill began to feel desperation at the thriving businesses surrounding the new courthouse. They petitioned the Virginia General Assembly in 1807 to move the courthouse back to Whittle Street.
The General Assembly decided the courthouse should remain at the new location and this row brought about the town being called “Competition” until 1852.
The clerk’s office was built as an adjunct to the controversial courthouse. The courthouse of 1783 was later sold and torn down when the present courthouse was built on Main Street. The clerk’s office became a dwelling after its official life was over and eventually became vacant. Soon it caught the attention of the Pittsylvania Historical Society which used grant money from the Virginia Historical Landmarks Commission to preserve the original small one-room brick structure that was standing and rebuild the L-shaped section that was missing.
It had been torn down for the bricks to build the foundation of an addition to the Tredway/Whitehead house which is now Chatham Town Hall. The original plans were found in court records so the restoration is deemed authentic.
Similar to Virginia’s early government structures across the Tidewater and Piedmont regions, the red-brick building is laid in Flemish bond with dogtooth corbels for cornices with four rows of unmolded brick set at a 45-degree angle. Three outside entries have heavy wooden bars inside as well as shuttered windows of 18 panes. There are four fireplaces within two rooms, with chair rails, plastered walls and stone floors.
In 1981 it was listed as a Virginia Landmark and in 1982 on the National Register of Historic Places.
Other improvements have followed to the interior and exterior including a landing and steps at the back door and brick sidewalks. Display cases have made it a haven for the Society to preserve and display collectibles and some of the county’s best kept secrets. These treasures have been donated to the Society for preservation and sharing with generations to come.
Among its artifacts are many from the Civil War and the American Revolution, including a diarama of the General Nathaniel Green’s Race to the Dan. There are also items from the Civil War, World War I and World War II.
There are two large portraits hanging above fireplace mantels. One is that of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham and for whom the county and town are named, and the other is of Claude Swanson, local resident, state politician, former Secretary of the Navy, and governor of Virginia. Also hanging for display are water colors and prints by the late Preston Moses, a former president of the Pittsylvania Historical Society. A long-time editor of the Star-Tribune, Mr. Moses had skill at preserving, through art, county historical buildings and scenes.
Display cases contain many interesting artifacts including a gourd water jug belonging to Isaac Clements in 1776, a surgical kit used by Rawley White during the Revolutionary War, a 1795 Virginia Almanac, and Col. John Washington’s leather spurs. The spurs are lined with soft deer skin. John Washington was the brother of the country’s first president, George Washington.
A bank note from the Bank of Pittsylvania can be found as well as needlework samplers made by Elizabeth Payne in 1836 and 1842, and a sewing basket with linen handkerchief and tatting dating back to 1865. A look around will reveal the bust of Col. Rawley White Martin who served in the Civil War battle at Gettysburg and was one of the few soldiers to make it to the crest of Cemetery Ridge. Col. Martin survived the war to return to Chatham and practice medicine.
Recently framed is a replica of the Pittsylvania County flag. The original was created in 1821 and believed to be the only county flag in the nation for many years. The original was lost following the Civil War only to be discovered years later in the Library of Virginia. It now hangs in the county courthouse.
The Historical Society meets at the Clerk’s office and opens the building during special events. Behind the Clerk’s office is Frances Hallam Hurt Park with picnic tables, a gazebo, a picnic shelter, restored tobacco barn and children’s play area.
Pittsylvania Historical Society has restored a flue cured tobacco barn in Chatham’s Frances Hallam Hurt Park. Tobacco has a history as Pittsylvania County’s cash crop and continues to play a role in Southside’s evolving economy. Historical Society vice president Frances Hurt came up with the idea of preserving a tobacco barn to document part of the county’s rich history.
Mrs. Hurt’s idea became a reality through the tireless effort of Historical Society member and former president J. Fuller Motley. He eagerly accepted the donation of a barn from Amy and Dave Davis of Chalk Level and arranged to have it dismantled and reassembled in the park with the help of craftsman Mike Creasy. The cost of the project was funded by the Historical Society with donations from DIMON, Universal Leaf (parent company of Danville’s Southern Processing), and private individuals.
A history of the barn was compiled by Motley with the help of Chatham town clerk Catherine Miller. It was around 1900 that Nathan and Jimmy Shelton helped Luther Blair build the barn on his property. Blair and the Sheltons were Confederate veterans. The Davises who donated the barn now own the Blair property. The farm is located about one mile west of Mill Creek Church on Chalk Level Road.
The barn has stone fireboxes, that pre-date oil burners and circulators and today’s bulk barns. Curing in the early days was done by wood, with farmers keeping a close watch to regulate the temperature inside the barn. A miscalculation in temperature could spoil the color during the yellowing, curing and killing-out process. Much of the weight and color success was affected by the maturity of the leaf, but a lot depended on the skill of the person monitoring the three- to four-day curing process. It meant spending a great deal of time at the barn—often camping out by lantern light.
Rocks for the foundation and fire boxes were gleaned from several places including the Ramsey farm at Chalk Level that was once owned by the Pannels (J.E.B. Stuart’s mother’s family.) Other rock came from a house chimney on Doran Barker’s farm.
Flues, a slide used to transport leaves from the field, and a stringing horse came from a barn on the John B. Pruitt and William T. Pruitt farm in the Weel community and were donated by descendent Mittie Lou Edmonds. The door on the north side with strap hinges forged in a blacksmith shop, came from Dave Pannel’s horse barn at Chalk Level. When J.E.B. Stuart visited family at Chalk Level, his horse was kept in the stall enclosed by this door.