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Bar News - April 20, 2007

Secrets from the Historic Carroll County Courthouse



Remember the beautiful, old courtroom with the wooden benches for spectators and the swivel jury chairs at the historic Carroll County Superior Courthouse? That courtroom is still being used, but the voices from the famous Small murder trial and other local proceedings are just a whisper now.


The courtroom and the former courthouse building are now being used for lectures, programs, student mock trials and trial enactments. It has a gift shop, too, and historical societies, civic groups or schools can use the facility.


In 2004, when the state moved the court to a new state-of-the-art courthouse in another area of Ossipee, there was speculation about what the county would do with the classic building. Eventually, it deeded the property to the Ossipee Historical Society (OHS), with the condition that it would be used by the entire county on a continuing basis. “It’s a great building,” says County Commissioner Marge Webster. “Much of the public has been in it at one time or another for either happy or sad occasions. There is a lot of history connected to that building and it deserves to be preserved for the public.”


Since the OHS took charge of the courthouse, meetings and programs have been held in the courtroom. However, a great deal still needs to be done to preserve the beauty of the courthouse and to renovate the areas to be used to store archives and exhibit artifacts from the entire Carroll County area.


Remembering the Past


History tells us that years ago when people living in what we know as Carroll County were summoned to Superior Court they had to travel to Dover. In 1839, the General Court in Concord decided it needed a new courthouse for northern Strafford County; but, of course, there was the problem of money. The same day, Asa Beacham, the state representative for Ossipee, traveled all night back from Concord to raise the needed $595 from friends; he returned to Concord the next day, stating that “Ossipee had the money and, therefore, should have the Superior Courthouse in its village.” So, the Carroll County Superior Courthouse was built in Ossipee and the town became the center for the area’s legal community. But this original building was not the lovely, columned courthouse of later years; that was not built until almost 80 years later.


The OHS recently ask people what they remembered about the 1916 Courthouse. Stories flooded in. Mort Leavitt told how, as a young boy, he and his friends were paid to save seats in the courtroom for the Small murder trial, called the “trial of the century” at the time. Frederick Small, a man from Massachusetts living on Lake Ossipee, went on trial for the murder of his wife, which took place while he was on a business trip to Boston. The NH Attorney General prosecuted the case and the attorneys for the defendant were from Boston.


Just prior to the trial a fire destroyed the original courthouse and the county hurriedly built a new superior courthouse. Noted architect Albert H. Dow designed the building. He was also the architect for Huggins Hospital in Wolfeboro, as well as an addition to the chapel of Saint Paul’s School in Concord and many churches and buildings in the Boston area—and worked with Sir Henry Vaughan on the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.


The Small trial began in a makeshift building while the builders worked to finish the new building before the end of the trial. The courthouse was completed in 1916; the Small murder trial ended with a guilty verdict and death by hanging in 1917.


A number of other memorable trials took place in this courthouse as well. Remember the trial of the “Argued to Death” case? County Attorney Bill Paine prosecuted the case and stated that a continued argument caused a man to have a fatal heart attack. There was ABC News coverage on the steps of the courthouse for that trial. Then, there was the “Spouse Abuse” case where the sitting judge stated “the circumstances surrounding this abuse deserved a little wife slapping, but not the severe abuse that was done.” His statements brought national coverage and the wrath of national and state women’s groups.


Jack Middleton, an attorney from Freedom and Manchester, recalls a few secrets about some of the judges who, after court, would invite senior attorneys to play cards in Center Ossipee; games that sometimes would last half the night. He also asked about the picture of Judge Frank Rowe Kenison which had hung on the wall at the front of the courtroom. The picture is missing (it was a gift for the courtroom) and the OHS hopes it will be returned. Kenison grew up in Ossipee, went to Brewster Academy, and became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His father, Arthur Kenison, also practiced law.


Other families have generations of practicing attorneys that defended their clients at the courthouse. This includes local Attorney Randy Cooper. His grandfather and his father, Richard Cooper, were known to have visited the courthouse on many occasions. Attorney John Kalled and his father, James Kalled, not only have been seen at a number of trials, but their offices are just around the corner from the old courthouse.


Retired Superior Court Clerk Sam Farrington agreed that there is a special quality to the old building. “I loved that old courthouse and miss it.”


The OHS has taken on the mission of preserving the courthouse in appearance while redefining its function. For decades, the Society has archived documents and collected artifacts that form a substantial and significant record of the families and events in the region over the past 200 years. Its goal is to make these materials more accessible to the public while providing an environment that will safeguard their condition.


The OHS is also planning to create a research room providing computer links with UNH and Plymouth State for students or citizens. It will offer space to other Carroll County historical societies for shows and to the legal community for meetings and events, and will offer help to the public in accessing and interpreting the array of items on display.


A volunteer-led capital campaign has begun to support the building’s transition to an active museum and cultural center. Funds are being raised to provide the building with some critical updates such as: repairs to the roof; alarm system, electrical code, and environmental control improvements; UV protection for windows and lights; and a dry fire suppression system for repository areas. Displays and storage units will be added and communications/information systems will be updated. An outdoor sign will be erected and an outreach program will be launched to involve all the community and cultural organizations in the county.


Anyone with a story about the courthouse or who is interested in volunteering or receiving more information can write to the Carroll County Courthouse Capital Campaign, PO Box 245, Ossipee, NH 03864.


Shirley Ganem is a consultant for the Ossipee Historical Society on the Carroll County Courthouse Project, a fundraising campaign to preserve and maintain the old building. A former Wolfeboro selectman, who served the town for 20 years, she is the wife of retired attorney and NHBA 50-year member Philip J. Ganem.


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