Smithfield historic jewel celebrates a new chapter

Published 6:29 pm Tuesday, May 14, 2024

There have been many chapters in the storied history of the colonial courthouse that sits on Main Street. 

Saturday afternoon, that venerable old building’s newest owner, appropriately styled the 1750 Courthouse of Isle of Wight County, Inc., will celebrate its acquisition of the building that its members loved and tenderly nurtured for years.

But by backing up just a bit, it’s possible to put Saturday’s celebration in its proper context. The old courthouse, built beginning in 1750, was the first building constructed in what two years later would become the town of Smithfield. It served as the county courthouse for the next half-century, spanning both the end of the colonial era and the first quarter-century of the new nation.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Then, in 1800, a contingent of county residents successfully lobbied to move the county seat seven miles southwest of Smithfield to its present location. The stately building, still in its prime at 50, lay abandoned until 1808, when Dr. Robert Butler, a man with a bit of money and a lot of vision, purchased the one-story, three-room courthouse and converted it into one of the town’s more elaborate homes. By removing interior partitions and creating a floor just below ground level, he was able to construct a three-story, 10-room mansion. An elaborate two-floor Victorian porch was added by a later owner. The changes ensured preservation of the historic courthouse, though with its original design hidden by residential alterations.

And so it went for more than a century after its public use had ended. The old courthouse survived as home to several different families until, in 1938, U.S. Post Office Department officials proposed building a substantial post office in Smithfield. The site they set their eye on was the old, former courthouse, clerk’s office and jail at the corner of Main and Institute streets.

That’s when a cadre of Smithfield’s history-minded and most determined women stepped forward. 

Segar Cofer Dashiell, unofficial town historian for a half-century, and a lady I trusted completely when it came to local historical lore, credited Emily Delk Simpson with founding a local chapter of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and convincing the state organization by that name to purchase the old courthouse.

Mrs. Simpson then lobbied Congressman Norman Hamilton to delay the Post Office purchase so the APVA could intercede, and convinced the Smithfield Town Council to come up with funds to supplement the purchase price the Post Office Department had agreed to, the extra money to go toward purchasing land at the corner of Main and Institute streets, where the Smithfield Post Office stands today.

The local ladies’ work had just begun. They then launched a fund drive to raise money to restore the old public building and, with assistance from experts at  Colonial Williamsburg, completed the restoration in 1961.

The APVA operated on a business model that called for the state organization to buy historic properties and local chapters to supply the funds to restore and maintain those properties. The Colonial Courthouse here was secured and restored under that model as were properties across Virginia. Over the years, however, the model began to fail. Local chapters felt the state organization wasn’t holding up its share of the deal and, I’m confident, the state organization felt the same about some local chapters.

At any rate, by the early 21st century, the APVA considered itself property-poor and was ready to unload all but its most prominent properties. Those considered disposable included the Isle of Wight Colonial Courthouse.

Historic Smithfield Inc., the organization that planned, raised funds for and guided the revitalization of Main Street, was approached by Preservation as a potential courthouse recipient and, in October 2013, the old courthouse returned to local ownership, in the care of Historic Smithfield.

Along with the property came a historic easement that will henceforth accompany the property, whoever owns it. The easement is administered by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and binds the courthouse’s owners to guarantee that it remains in as good or better condition than when it was first received by Historic Smithfield.

The old courthouse was showing its age again by the time Historic Smithfield acquired it, and the organization immediately launched a fund drive to put the building back in the pristine condition it enjoyed in 1961. More than $200,000 was raised, and much of that was spent, bringing the building back to its restored condition. Then, the organization constructed a replica smokehouse on the property to house courthouse costumes and other equipment.

Meanwhile, the old local APVA chapter had evolved into the 1750 Courthouse of Isle of Wight, a business-savvy organization that not only interprets the old courthouse to the delight of visitors but raises the funds necessary to keep the old girl looking good.

In 2023, the directors of Historic Smithfield Inc. voted unanimously to transfer the courthouse to the 1750 Courthouse of Isle of Wight Inc., which was in the process of becoming a stand-alone nonprofit organization. That transfer occurred in January, and this Saturday’s celebration, to which donors of the restoration funds a decade ago are being invited, celebrates that new chapter in the building’s life.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is