County courthouses contain a slice of history

To take a peek into the history of a place, to get a little slice of life from past generations, one need not look further than a county courthouse, according to local film producer Richard Warmuth.

Warmuth, senior producer of Wheeling-based the Walkabout Co., has spent the past several years traveling to all 55 counties of West Virginia with his wife and producer, Deb, to explore and document the unique histories and architecture of the state’s courthouses.

Partnering with the West Virginia Association of Counties, his work will be made into the first large, full-color book on all the Mountain State courthouses in celebration of West Virginia’s Sesquicentennial Year. The book “Living Monuments: West Virginia’s Courthouses” is projected to be released in February.

“So many of our courthouses are beautiful places and the counties’ interesting, colorful and significant histories are connected with many of them. They all serve their function five days a week and the architecture is striking …,” Warmuth said.

The book is an expansion of the West Virginia Association of Counties and the Walkabout Co.’s 2011 documentary of the same name, which featured 15 courthouses around the state, including the Marshall County Courthouse. The movie premiered on PBS in June 2011 and later won the 2011 “Spirit of West Virginia” award from the West Virginia Division of Tourism. The documentary also was nominated for a regional Emmy that year.

According to Patti Hamilton, executive director of West Virginia Association of Counties, the reaction to the film was so successful, a book featuring all the courthouses in the state was “a natural follow-up.” She said each county will have three to four pages dedicated to its courthouse with both historical and modern photographs.

“It’s going to be a really nice compilation,” Hamilton said. “There is not one in existence like this.”

Warmuth described the state’s courthouses as “iconic structures” that document everyday life in a county. He said courthouse records give a look into local histories that ultimately play a part of the history of America as a whole.

“Courthouses are not just places you pay your taxes. The records of people’s lives are accumulated generation by generation in county courthouses. They are giant living books of life in a particular county, including all the births, deaths, wills and all the land transactions that have ever occurred,” Warmuth said. “You see from that time those actual records of what a part of life was like when we were ‘Western Virginia.’ You see records for property assessments where people would list just a spoon, just one item, which tells you how important these things were. You really get an interesting picture of life of average people and what was important and the kinds of things helped make up their day-to-day life.”

Warmuth also described courthouses as the “first and last bastion” of democratic government, where the idea of an accessible government for the people is still alive.