The village of Paris Hill is idyllic New England with a unique twist. Its black-shuttered white residences surround a community church and a grassy open common. But the view from the village, atop a high hill in Oxford County, is a White Mountain vista that stretches from Mt. Chocorua to Mt. Washington. It has been called the finest view in Maine.
Sitting on the rim of the hill is a small group of buildings that served as the Oxford County court and administrative center between 1805 and 1895. These buildings, built shortly after Oxford County was established, include the old courthouse, the jail, the jailer's house and the registry. When the county was set off in 1805, Paris was designated as the shire town, and the courthouse buildings were constructed in the village of Paris Hill. The original Paris Hill courthouse and county buildings built in the early 1800's that are still in existence were preserved through renovation for use as private homes and a public library/museum.
Oxford County was organized in 1805 with land set off from parts of York and Cumberland Counties. A site committee was appointed of justices of the peace to review the options. The committee recommended a site in Paris Hill and it was affirmed at the August, 1805, term of the Oxford County Court of General Sessions of the Peace. The deed for the land for the county buildings was executed in October of the same year. The land, known as the county common, abutted the south side of the town common.
Until the completion of arrangements to build a courthouse in Paris Hill, the first sessions of the courts were held in the Baptist meetinghouse on the common. It was clear that the meetinghouse was not designed for use as a courthouse. There was no raised dais for the judge, and no special boxes For either a witness or a jury. A gallery ran around three sides of the interior and a high pulpit with a sounding-board above it was provided for the minister. Most of the main floor was occupied by square pews with high sides and half doors to combat drafts in winter. Nevertheless, it was flne for the initial courthouse sessions: there was plenty of seating for the public and the building was well-supplied with natural light. Two tiers of multi-sashed windows let light into the building's two and one-half story auditorium.
For early court terms, judges usually stayed in private homes, such as that of the Hamlins facing the common. Each court day, judges and court officers were escorted across the town common to the meetinghouse in a procession headed by musicians playing the fife and drum. The court procession passed through the front door of the meetinghouse under a lofty tower with a double-tiered belfry topped by a weathervane.
Meanwhile, the process of building the county structures got under way. The first county building built on the common was the jail, constructed of sturdy hewn logs. At the midwinter term of the court in 1813, a courthouse was authorized. A committee which included attorney Albion K. Parris was appointed to select the site and design. Captain Jonathan Bemis contracted to build the courthouse.
Despite a controversy about whether Paris would share a shire town designation, the new courthouse was completed in 1815. The two-and-a-half story brick building with its front facing east toward the main street repeated the style of the churches of the period, but without a bell tower. The building's proportions were based on "bays": it was three bays wide and four bays long. Each hay contained a window on both first and second floors. The central bay on the front of the building contained the main double doors, capped by a broad, elliptical wooden fan. The courtroom was located on the second noon Administration, court records and offices occupied the first noon The heating for all the rooms was provided by fireplaces on the outer sides of the building, marked by tall chimneys.
Fryeburg, settled prior to Paris Hill, was an economic center exceeding Paris Hill in vitality. In 1799, a York County Judge of Probate was authorized to hold court in Fryeburg each year. After Oxford County was organized Fryeburg continued to serve as a branch location for the probate court of the county. The first building constructed for the Oxford County Registry of Deeds was built in Fryeburg in 1820. The brick building held deed documents transcribed by Daniel Webster, the orator and statesman, among others. Webster, a preceptor of Fryeburg Academy, interrupted his law studies at age 20 to come to Fryeburg on his first job, to earn money partly so his brother could continue college. He "moon-lighted by copying deeds for the registrar at 25 cents each, managing two deeds per night and so earning his $2.00 weekly board, thus leaving his salary [from the Academy] clean" One local historian claimed his conduct in Fryeburg did not presage his later flamboyant reputation:
"I've searched in vain for the source of the statements that he drank rum, played cards and showed little promise of his future remarkable. While here he ran a charge account at the local store, which totaled $33. No rum appears in the entries (though it often does in other people's charge accounts) but he bought "segars" and raisins several times.... [One fifth of the expenditure was for writing equipment (pencil, paper, quills, ink, powder to blot ink). His letters show he was careful to be reserved with "the misses" because many were his pupils."
"Much of his spare time was spent in reading, in writing letters and verse, and conversing with a local young lawyer. Evidence shows he was energetic, diligent, prudent and successful. Deeds were copied with care. He was an able inspiring teacher. School performances during the semi-annual exhibition were so good the trustees gave him an extra $10. He began studying the government history of the U.S. He wrote and delivered an oration for the 4th of July observance (the original manuscript is at the Academy). Its closing works were the same as the last words he spoke in the Senate in 1850. Someone present at the 1802 oration was so impressed that he prophesied Webster would become the New Hampshire governor."
In 1823, the brick courthouse was expanded toward the street; the upper part of its facade was extended forward, and placed on four square piers. The first floor overhang protected people entering the building from the weather. On the second floor the wooden addition allowedcounty facilities to expand adjacent to the courtroom. The large center window on the new facade suggests that the middle room on the second floor was the most important, perhaps reserved as a judicial chamber.
In spite of the new courthouse, the Baptist meetinghouse on the common, with its tall belfry, retained a county function. In 1821 the County Court of Sessions appropriated $130.00 for a bell for county use, to be "swung" in the belfry of the "centre meetinghouse ... in Paris." The court order encouraged the use of private funds to buy the largest bell possible. The court allowed private use of the bell "... so long as they may keep it there swung or in such other place as may be equally convenient for the use of the County in such manner and at such times only as shall not interfere with such use of said County...."
To match the county appropriation, a private subscription raised $297.25 towards the purchase of a bell. The bell was ordered from the Revere foundry in Massachusetts. Cast by Joseph Revere, son of the famous Paul Revere, the 906 pound bell was first positioned, or "swung," in the meetinghouse in late ~1821. It was rung for the terms of the county courts, for public and patriotic occasions, for thanksgiving, for funerals and for the services of the church.
Adding to the growing county facilities, a new jailer's residence was constructed between the jail and the courthouse around 1822. The house was built to he part of a package to encourage recruitment of a family man as jailer. The jailer was carefully selected: he would need to be a married man, for a wife was essential to cook the prisoners' meals.In 1823, the old wooden jail was replaced by a new two-story granite building. Its walls were sixteen inches thick and its floor was the living granite of the hill. Long granite blocks spanned the upper story, supporting a stone floor for the upper cells. Because of the solid stone floor, the upper story was reached by an exterior wooden stairway. There were four cells, two on each floor, separated by cast iron bars. Each cell could hold up to eight prisoners at a time. The building cost the county $5,000.The registry building was the next to he added. County records had been kept in a variety of places during the early years of Oxford County. Registry records were kept at Morse Tavern in South Paris Village by the first register of deeds. In 1826, a building constructed for registry purposes was erected diagonally across the road from the courthouse....
Reprinted from The Courthouses of Maine by Robert K. Sloane © Copyright 1998 with permission
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