What we lost in the fire | Chatham County | Indy Week
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What we lost in the fire 

A highway patrol helicopter surveys the damage to the historic Chatham County Courthouse on March 26. The courthouse in downtown Pittsboro caught fire March 25 while undergoing renovations.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

A highway patrol helicopter surveys the damage to the historic Chatham County Courthouse on March 26. The courthouse in downtown Pittsboro caught fire March 25 while undergoing renovations.

For Chatham County residents, the memory of March 25, 2010, the day the Historical Superior Courthouse in the Pittsboro burned, will taste of smoke and fear.

Whether standing on the sidewalks watching more than 100 firefighters desperately try to extinguish the fire or viewing TV coverage of the blaze from our homes and offices, we watched fire eat an icon and felt the edges of chaos feather into our ordered worlds.

For two local craftsmen, the loss is even more personal.

Local metalsmith John Amero moved to Chatham County in 1980, and set up a welding shop. He often noticed the broken weathervane atop the cupola of the clock tower and wondered how he might get it down to fix it. He finally had a chance to do that when the courthouse underwent one of its several renovations 22 years ago. "[The weathervane] came to me in 12 pieces," he said, "and the "N" was missing." It also had numerous bullet holes, which surprised Amero, and led to his speculations that it might have been used for target practice.

The weathervane, more than 5 feet long, was placed atop the courthouse some time between 1890 and 1896. It was made of wrought iron, cast iron, copper and brass. The simple design, an arrow with jagged fletches on the end, bespoke of the county's agricultural communities' roots in the early days of Chatham when people relied on the direction of the wind to predict the weather.

Once Amero had restored the weathervane, he took pride in seeing it work for the past two decades. "I owned it," he said, "and every time I drove into town, I had to check on it and make sure it was moving and okay."

Amero had planned to get the weathervane back this week for additional repairs.

Amero, who respects firehe uses it to solder and create metal sculpturesgrieved as the weathervane toppled. He is determined to find remnants of the weathervane, even if it's only the cast-iron, 4- pound arrowhead. "I will rebuild it with whatever is found in the ashes," he said, noting new television footage of the fire showing the weathervane in its final moments. Its fletches were gone because the intense heat had melted the solder.

The cause of the fire is still unknown. The courthouse had been shrouded in scaffolding and plastic sheeting for the past two months while it underwent a $410,000 renovation.

Local custom woodworker Ed Fahrbach couldn't tear himself away from the Courthouse as it burned. He knew the flames were headed toward the mahogany witness stand, the judge's bench, jury box and intricate paneling. Twenty years ago, Fahrbach had restored those objects. "It was a grand old building," he said, "and so painful and hard to watch it burn like that."

Built in 1881 with a cornerstone reused from the original courthouse constructed in 1844, the Chatham County Courthouse was more than an place to mete out justice, it was our oldest standing relic of the people and history of Chatham County. A story from the May 19,1881, Chatham Record, "The New Court-House," read: "If the building is erected according to the plan and adopted, it will be probably the best arranged court-house in the State, and will certainly be an honor to our county. The length will be ninety feet and width fifty-seven feet. There will be four gables and four entrances, the vestibule being on the western end, and a cupola eighty seven feet high on the northern side. The passages are ten feet wide, forming a rotunda in the centre. On the first floor will be six rooms (same number as in our present court-house) and two fire-proof vaults. ... The building will be made of brick and covered with a tin roof."

Its history had been preserved by the craftsmanship of local men and women, and since 1990, the Chatham Historical Museum has housed its exhibits and artifacts in the southwest corner of the first floor. Little is known about the damage to the small room, though it seems to be the corner that held up best.

Museum curator Jane Pyle had spent the previous morning moving material away from the window sills, because the renovation crew was to install new windows on the following day. "This is a tremendous loss, and there is no way to place a value on the historical material we had compiled," she said. "You can not replace the heritage of Chatham County."

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