The upstairs courtroom at the old Scott County Courthouse doesn’t look much like its old self.
As the Scott County Historical Society nears the 6-week mark in its new home, the Verda “Buddy” Cope Research Center — as the upstairs of the courthouse is now known, in honor of the former county executive who died last year — has undergone a transformation. There is new carpet, new coats of paint on everything, new ceiling tiles. The benches and jury boxes are gone.
In fact, the only thing that remains of the old courtroom is the original judge’s bench.
New to the old courtroom are photos and memorabilia that depict people, places and events of historical significance, the locally-published books that the Historical Society has for sale, and a significant library of historical records — such as court records — available for research.
Historical Society volunteer Allan Keeton, who has been instrumental in the organization’s move from the old Archives Building and Doisy House next door to the courthouse, recalls a quote from the late Malvin Sexton, a one-time superintendent of schools in Scott County, that seems relevant.
“Malvin and I were visiting and he said to me, ‘It’s important that you know who you are — not so much sometimes as relatives, but as to the initiative that those people had. That matters, that you know who you are,’” Keeton said.
David Jeffers, current president of the Historical Society, echoes that thought: “When your historical society is not relevant, history is lost. People have forgotten how much history Scott County has.”
With its new location and the plans that have not yet been completed, the Scott County Historical Society is once again relevant — if, in fact, there was ever a time when it wasn’t. The new location, Keeton said, is more convenient for people interested in conducting genealogy research, and the East Tennessee Historical Society is interested in getting involved to help with the organization of materials. Internet and computers were installed just last week, and plans are in the works — via Historical Society secretary Keith Jeffers — to get a chair lift installed.
The process to get from across the street at the Archives Building to the upstairs of the courthouse was about seven months in the making, once the work got started. Before that, the preliminary details were worked out. Those began when Stephen West was president of the Historical Society. He worked with then-4th District County Commissioner Rick Russ to formulate a plan by which the county would allow the upstairs of the courthouse to be utilized. Later, 3rd District Commissioner Sheila Hall Buttram played a key role, as the 2018 election saw Russ leave the commission — he didn’t seek re-election to his district seat — and Jeffers was elected to the commission in the 1st District, shortly after being elected president of the Historical Society.
Once the move was approved by the county, the Historical Society received $25,000 in grant funding through Tennessee’s Three Star Communities program, which is coordinated at the local level by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County. That allowed for materials to be purchased and work to begin.
State inmates from Morgan County were utilized to complete much of the work. They put in three-to-four days a week over the seven-month period. When the Wartburg prison became short-staffed in February, the inmates stopped coming. But the members and board of directors of the Historical Society were able to complete the work to be ready for a May 1 grand opening.
The Historical Society is these days, perhaps as it has always been, a labor of love for those involved — a love for the history of Scott County and its people. That started with Irene Baker, who was responsible for founding the Historical Society, and has continued through the years with the help of various people. There have been times when the SCHS has been somewhat less active than others, but these days it’s as active as it ever was. Regular hours are maintained, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Wednesdays.
It was after 4 p.m. on Friday when Jeffers and Keeton sat down with the Independent Herald to talk about the Historical Society’s new digs. Both have been instrumental in the organization as of late. Jeffers’ interest in local history began during his first stint as a county commissioner. The late Bert Walker knew he was interested in military history and hooked Jeffers on a series of books on the Civil War that were housed at the Arches Building. He also asked Jeffers to serve on Scott County’s public records commission.
Keeton sort of fell into a love for history naturally. His mother, Delone Keeton, was as much a student of Scott County’s history as anyone, and had numerous historical photographs that told the story of the county’s past.
“I guess I came by it honest,” Keeton said. “Mom loved history. Her sister, Marene Hall, did as well. Those two were good.”
Once he retired from the health care profession and wasn’t driving back and forth to Knoxville every day, Keeton began devoting his spare time to history. “You ask me something about military, I can tell you anything you need to know, but anything else, it’s Alan,” Jeffers said. “He’s the research expert.”
So what can you find at the Historical Society? Records, and lots of them. Court records are the biggest thing — that’s where you find things like divorces and who shot who in bygone years. There are also U.S. census records, real estate records and newspaper microfilm and just about anything else that could be used to piece together the history of someone’s ancestors.
The court records will eventually be scanned and published for books that can be purchased, using handheld scanners that the Historical Society has acquired with grant funding. For now, though, they’re in huge ledgers stored in the upstairs of the courthouse. Almost all the records from Scott County’s 1849 founding are available, though the years 1861-1866 are missing. That’s one of the most colorful chapters of Scott County’s history, when the county elected to secede from the State of Tennessee and form the Independent State of Scott in protest of the Volunteer State’s decision to secede from the Union at the onset of Civil War.
“There is a tale that Confederates broke into the courthouse and took those minutes and burned them,” Keeton said. “I’m not so sure that someone didn’t take them for safekeeping and they just never materialized after that.”
Also available are the 100-plus books that can be purchased, from things like cemetery records to family histories, researched and written by various people through the years. Then there’s the brains to pick of knowledgeable historians like Jeffers and Keeton, who can assist with research efforts.
Not all of the records have been moved from the Archives Building and the Doisy House. There is still, for example, enough Howard Baker memorabilia and records to fill a small room. But all of it will eventually be moved, and the buildings that housed the Historical Society dating back to the early 1980s will no longer be used.
The Historical Society has 115 members — about 25 members ahead of last year at the same time, a sign that interest is growing. At times, the new Buddy Cope Research Center can be quite busy. Keeton said just last week, folks stopped by from Michigan, Texas and California, searching for answers to questions.
As for the future, the Historical Society wants to see its move to the upstairs courtroom fully completed, the chair lift installed and the preservation of old court records completed. The organization is currently working with the Museum of Scott County and with Robbins Elementary School to get some items of historical significance displayed at those locations, and wants to continue working with the schools.
“I would like to get it set up so that we can have speaking engagements,” Jeffers said. “We could do talks on military, on lynchings, on family history. And we certainly want to be involved in our schools. Our youth is who we’re saving it for.”