Historic Baker County Courthouse
Georgia’s Southwest corner seems to have been mostly forgotten. The sparsely populated counties (mostly) that comprise the Plantation Trace region are some of the poorest in the state. Once served by the railroads, this area now lacks connection to any interstate highway which has led to much of the isolation from which the region suffers. Even one of the few major urban areas that anchors the region, Albany, is about 45 miles from I-75. Newton, the county seat of Baker County, has a long, quiet history marked by the flooding of the Flint River. Courthouse Square, once the beating heart of this rural county, is now a collection of weedy lots surrounding the still grand turn of the century courthouse, thanks to the severe 1994 flood that submerged the whole area.
While many of the living residents have fled this dried-up region, they have left behind history and ghosts. Sometimes the most fascinating history and the occasional ghost story can be found in the merest of footnotes. Thus, is the case of the Historic Baker County Courthouse and its happy-go-lucky architect, J. W. Golucke. Here, in burgeoning Newton, Mr. Golucke’s luck ran out and he met his sad fate. Many sources now refer to Golucke’s magnificent courthouses that still adorn many of Georgia’s county seats, but few make much of his death. A brief webpage from the Union County, Georgia Historical Society mentions his death and the possibility that he is still in residence in Newton.
The son of a German cabinetmaker, James Wingfield Golucke was born in either Taliaferro or Wilkes counties in east central Georgia in 1857. He was self-taught and began working as an architect in 1891. He quickly rose to prominence with his ambitious designs that transformed the overused classical architectural vocabulary to create graceful structures that seemed to evoke the power of law and justice with stone, bricks, and mortar. In 1904 in Newnan, Golucke ambitiously designed the Coweta County Courthouse which “displays a colossal pride and verticality with which, portico, building mass, and clock dome virtually stand ‘at attention,’” and at the whopping cost of $56,998. Courthouse squares from Blairsville to Sylvester, and Crawfordville to Zebulon, were graced with Golucke designs. He also created a number of other public buildings including schools and hotels.
The one remaining photograph of Mr. Golucke gives the impression that the young architect was perhaps a dandy. He stares out of the black and white with a haughty expression belying his brashness. His long face is accented with artistically tousled hair and a stylish mustache. He could easily be one of the Bohemians inhabiting attics and studios in Paris at the time, but he was a self-made architect in Atlanta. It’s not hard to imagine that he was most probably a member of the local “smarter set.”
He was engaged to design the courthouse for Baker County in Newton, but then during the construction Golucke and R. F. Hemphill, president of the Atlanta Fireproofing Company, were arrested for forgery. The Atlanta Constitution explains: “The whole trouble grows out the fact that it is alleged these two men altered a bond for $50,000, bearing the date of May 3, 1906, and changed it to make it read May 1, 1906. This is claimed to have been done with the intention of defrauding not only the Aetna Indemnity company, who went the surety, but also the county of Baker.” The paper continues, “Both Golucke and Hemphill, it is further claimed, contracted to construct a court house for the county in Newton some two years ago, but it was not finished by the time named.”
I’m no legal expert, but it seems that the county was upset that the courthouse wasn’t completed on time and trumped up the forgery charges in order to hold someone accountable. The 1991 county history sympathically remarks that Golucke proclaimed his innocence and suggested that he had not followed the building of the courthouse very closely. The county history continues, “Some local residents of that era have indicated suspicion that Golucke may have been wrongfully blamed for the misappropriation of funds and that someone locally may have been involved and used the self-made designer as a scapegoat.”
Both Golucke and Hemphill were arrested September 20, 1907 and held in Newton under a $20,000 bond. The paper takes pains to note that Golucke was held in town under the bond, though not held in the jail. Perhaps he was getting celebrity treatment? The 1991 county history states that Golucke wrote that he “could not stand being confined in jail and the disgrace it had brought upon him and his family.”
A little more than two weeks later the paper reports that Golucke attempted suicide during his confinement in the county jail in Newton. The brash young architect used a piece of glass to cut his wrists and throat but was spied by an African-American prisoner who raised an alarm. Doctors suspected that he was under the influence of some type of drug as well as he “lingered in a comatose state last night and was believed to be in a desperate condition.” He had left a suicide note.
The paper was silent on the subject until a death announcement appeared a few days before Halloween. Evidently, Mr. Golucke had recovered from his injuries but his life was ended by an attack of gastritis. An obituary suggests that he died from a brain fever. Regardless, this brash, likely innocent wraith is still identified as the spirit that roams the courthouse that brought on his sad fate. The courthouse itself, still standing as a startling sentinel among the barren town square, no longer serves as a courthouse after the disastrous 1994 flooding of the Flint River. Instead, it has been resigned to serve, no less nobly I might add, as the local library.
- “Atlanta Man Tries Suicide.” Atlanta Constitution. 8 October 1907.
- Baker County Historical Society. The History of Baker County. Roswell, GA: WH Wolfe Associates, 1991.
- “Death takes J. W. Golucke.” Atlanta Constitution. 28 October 1907.
- “Two Atlantans Are Indicted.” Atlanta Constitution. 22 September 1907.
- Union County Historical Society. “The Ghost of J. W. Golucke.” Accessed 26 March 2017.