In April 1795 county justices ordered construction of a new stone courthouse on this lot. It would be constructed of native valley limestone. Courthouses served as a symbol of law and order. For this reason, county leaders designed the building to be one of the area’s most impressive structures.
This courthouse replaced a wooden structure that had served the county since its founding in 1772. The original portion of the courthouse was two stories. It contained a central courtroom, a balcony, and four flanking offices. These were used as meeting rooms, county offices, jury rooms, the clerk’s office, and judge’s chambers.
Since the Courthouse was the largest building in town, it also became the center of many political and social events. Most community meeting were held in the courtroom and rallies were often held on court square. The court sessions, held once a month, brought hundreds of people to town to conduct legal business and to shop in Woodstock’s stores. The presence of such large crowds in town also facilitated social engagement and was the time when most entertainment events were planned.
However, not everyone could enjoy the Courthouse equally. African Americans were held in bondage by the legal authority housed inside. Slaves did not have the right to a fair trial and were often erroneously convicted of crimes because of their race and then hung in front of the building.
Even after the Civil War blacks did not enjoy equal rights. They could not vote in the Courthouse, serve on juries, or hold elected office. The racial discriminatory practices used to wrongly convict slaves also continued for many decades. Not until the 1960s did the Courthouse began to represent all of the county’s residents.
Changes were made to the courthouse in the 19th century. The central brick portion was added in 1871 when the circuit court system was created in Virginia and the county was required to have two courtrooms. It contained a much larger courtroom and new judge’s chambers.
A rear addition was constructed in 1886 when the state mandated each county provide a fire proof clerk’s office. It housed the circuit court clerk and county clerk’s records and contains some very distinctive Victorian features including faux marble fireplaces and large, ornate, wooden windows.
During World War One and Two the Courthouse played a major role in the local war effort. In the First World War, this was the site where local boys officially became members of the US Army. It was also the meeting place for the local draft board and other local war related groups. During WWII this continued and the Courthouse hosted bond drives, Red Cross meetings, patriotic talks, events honoring service men, and much more. It was also here that the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors met and made decisions about local government’s role in the conflict.
The Historic Courthouse was also selected as the site for Shenandoah County’s war memorial after the conflicts. In the 1920s a memorial consisting of a captured German Cannon and plaque was erected to honor those who had died in World War One. The cannon was donated to a scrap drive in 1942 but the plaque was retained and was joined by a second marker after World War Two to honor those who had perished in that conflict. These were both moved to the Circuit Courthouse when a new war memorial was constructed to honor local war dead in the nation’s 20th century conflicts.
Until 1973 the Historic Courthouse housed court functions, the commonwealth attorney’s office, county administration, and the school board. That year a new circuit courthouse opened on the opposite side of Court Street. County offices and the school board also moved at that time while the Historic Courthouse continued to host the county’s General District and Juvenile courts.
In 2013 another courthouse opened on Mill Road in Woodstock. At that time the Historic Courthouse became a museum, visitor center, and activity space while the 1871 courtroom is still used by the Circuit Court for various functions. This makes the courthouse one of the oldest still in operation west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The combination of legal, social, and cultural functions held in the Courthouse emulates its historic role as a multiuse center of the community. It’s character, purpose, and history has made it a symbol of Shenandoah County’s residents.