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In 1830, the Burke County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions decided that the County needed a new courthouse to replace the “shabby, weather-beaten” plank courthouse that had been built on the public square in 1791. The General Assembly of 1830-31 authorized it to spend $8,000 and named five commissioners to oversee the construction. In the 1832-33 sessions, the General Assembly increased the amount to $12,000.
James Binnie, a Scottish builder, was awarded the contract in 1833. He built the courthouse of native stone quarried on the Forney plantation about four miles north of Morganton. Frederick Roderick, a German stonemason who later established his home in Burke County, assisted Mr. Binnie with the construction. The building was put into use in 1837.
From 1847 until 1862, the North Carolina Supreme Court held its August session in the courthouse for the convenience of lawyers from the western part of the state who were arguing appeals from the Superior Courts of their respective counties.
During the Civil War, on April 17, 1865, Major General George Stoneman occupied the building and destroyed most of the County’s records.
In 1885, the exterior of the building was covered with stucco, and in 1903, a major renovation designed by architect Frank Milburn of Columbia, SC raised the porticos and replaced the simple classical cupola with an elaborate one of Baroque style, giving the courthouse its present appearance.
A monument to Burke County’s Confederate Army troops was erected on the northwest corner of the Square in 1911 and was paid for by public subscription. The bronze statue of the soldier was added in 1918. The statue was a gift from Captain William Joseph Kincaid, a Burke County Confederate soldier, who settled in Griffin, Georgia after the war.
Also found on the Square is a memorial rose garden given in memory of Bob Byrd (1930-2001), a prominent Burke County attorney and a statue of Sam J. Ervin, Jr., a Burke County native, who served in the US Senate from 1954 to 1974.
The courthouse was in continuous use until 1976 when the present Burke County Courthouse was completed. The effort to preserve the Old Courthouse began in 1978. The restoration, completed in 1984, was accomplished with the joint efforts of Burke County, the City of Morganton, and Historic Burke Foundation.
The North Carolina Supreme Court met in the Old Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton in 2004, and again in 2013. In 2015, Governor McCrory signed Senate Bill 161 into law (S.L. 2015-89), allowing the court to meet in Morganton once again, “…the court shall meet in the Old Burke County Courthouse, the location of summer sessions of the Supreme Court from 1847-1862.” After 155 years, on May 17th & 18th, 2016 the court once again held sessions in the Historic Courthouse.