Morganton October 26, 2022

Historic Burke Foundation- Historic Courthouse

Get to know Historic Burke Foundation INC.

The Historic Burke Foundation was Formed in 1978. They own and operate the Captain Charles McDowell, Jr. House at Quaker Meadows and the Quaker Meadows Cemetery, they also own and operate the Erwin Family Cemetery at Belvidere. In addition to that, they the Historic Burke Foundation, was hired to restore and preserve the Historic Burke County Courthouse. They put together many local events, and also help educate for schools and the community.  If you want to go their office it is located on the first floor of the Historic Burke County Courthouse.

You can go to their website to learn more about who they are and what they do.

Let’s learn about one of their popular places:

Historic Burke County Courthouse

Historic Courthouse

Historic Courthouse located in downtown Morganton, NC.

In the 1830’s Burke County decided they needed a new courthouse built. Burke county knew they wanted the new courthouse to be built of stone or brick. If it was made of stone, it was to be “rough cast and ruled on the outside and plastered within.” They wanted the roof to be covered with zinc to make the “whole fireproof”. They spent several years planning building their new courthouse. The General Assembly (who was overseeing the construction) finally gave James Binnie, a Scottish builder the contract to build in 1833.

James had the courthouse built of native stone. This stone was quarried on the “Forney plantation four miles north of Morganton.” To get this stone they had to pull it by wagon that was pulled by oxen at the time. This project was aided by Fredrick Roderick, who was a German stone mason. The courthouse was finally completed in 1837.  The total cost ended up being much more than anticipated.

Supreme Court would be held at the Historic Courthouse.

From 1847 to 1862 the NC Supreme Court held its August session in the Burke County Courthouse. They did this for the convenience of lawyers from the western part of the state who were arguing appeals from the Superior Courts of their respective Counties. It is said that the Supreme court justices from Raleigh thoroughly enjoyed their August sessions at the historic courthouse, because their part of the state was hot, muggy and full of bugs around that time. They had to travel to by train from Raleigh to Salisbury and then they’d take a stagecoach from there to Morganton.

Old Former Vault

Former Vault located in the Historic Burke County Courthouse today.

Union Forces Arrive

On April 17th, 1865 (during the civil war) Union forces directed by Major General George Stoneman, occupied the courthouse and DESTROYED most of the county Records. The county records were held in a vault located inside the Burke County Courthouse. Because of this day, some native families in Burke County have trouble tracing their family trees and ancestors before that time.  Today, when you go to visit/tour the historic courthouse you can see where the vaults were once located.


In 1885, the Exterior of the courthouse was covered with stucco. In 1903, a major remodeling occurred. This remodeling was designed by architect Frank Milburn. Frank’s goal was to make the old courthouse look like a palace. To give it the look he wanted, he raised the “porticos and replaced the simple cupola with an elaborate one of the Baroque Style”, which is what gave the courthouse it’s present appearance.

Historic Court House

Historic Burke County Courthouse

In 1970, the Historic Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The courthouse was in continuous use until 1976. If you don’t feel like doing math today, that’s over 100 years!!

In 1978, is when the effort to preserve the Historic Courthouse began. The restoration was completed in 1984. This restoration was completed by the cooperative efforts of Burke County, the City of Morganton, and the Historic Burke Foundation.

In 2022, the grounds were renovated. In this renovation the outdoor stage was added. On the outdoor stage there is a permanent art installation. This artwork is by Miki Iwasaki. The artwork is made of powder-coated frames with hand carved wood elements. “The color palette of the steel reflects the Blue Ridge Mountains mixed with the gentle undulation of the interspersed wood.”  Next the amphitheater, three cell doors from the “1913 jailhouse” have been repurposed into public art. Below the stage is where the public restrooms are located.


Inside the courthouse today, you can see how the inside of the building’s walls once looked and see how the tile once was. You can see the original hard wood floors upstairs and a remake of the chairs

Burke County Court House

Burke County Court House chairs

that used to be in the courthouse. You can also see Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr’s replicated office inside the courthouse. Inside the Historical Courthouse it has lots of information and pictures.

Tours are available during operating hours. Also, believe it or not, the courthouse and the McDowell House are available for special events and meetings for a fee.

Supreme Court

Superior Court Room



There was once a murder in the courthouse! Crazy to think about that happening in “today’s world”. Yes, shootings still happen daily, but not inside of a courthouse!

Let’s paint the picture a little.

William Avery at 35 and was a smaller more delicately built man. As a kid he had suffered with bouts of rheumatic fever that undoubtedly left him with a damaged heart.

Sam Fleming was a big, rugged “mountain man” who was very blatant and boastful. He thought he was entitled to some recognition.

Setting the scene:

Tuesday, October 21st in 1851, in a court room in Marion, North Carolina is when all the trouble began. In that court room Morganton attorney William Avery appeared that day on behalf of a client facing against a politician from Yancey County named Sam Fleming. William Avery and Sam Fleming had been in the preceding legislature together. Avery had appeared against him in court on several previous occasions.

On this particular occasion Sam Fleming took offense to William Avery’s remarks in court. Because of that Fleming challenged Avery to a fistfight. Avery declined and turned away. Once Avery turns away Fleming drew out a cowhide whip and LASHED the unarmed Avery in FULL view of the crowd at Whitson’s store on Main Street in Marion.

Now Avery did indeed fight back, but he just unfortunately was no match for Fleming with a cowhide whip. Avery took a beating. Avery now faced a horrible Delima, he must destroy either Fleming or himself.  Avery had left once darkness had fallen to headed back to Morganton where he was from.

It is said that Avery’s father Isaac had sworn Avery to kill Fleming.

The shooting:

It was the morning of November 11th. Fleming had ridden into Morganton on horseback, and he had his young son with him.  Throughout that morning, he made certain to be seen about town and in the courthouse. On one occasion Fleming even said he would “not take a thousand dollars for the cowhiding he had given Avery”.

After noonday recess, Judge William Horn Battle called the court to order as usual. At this moment, Fleming strolled in with a slow, effortless manner and stood over at the clerk’s desk across from Avery. Avery was standing about 5 feet away from Fleming in front of the judge. He drew his pistol from an inside pocket and fired. The bullet hit Fleming in the heart, and Fleming died a fast death, not even muttering a sound. Needless to say, Avery was hauled off to jail.


Avery’s defense was Temporary Insanity. He claimed that based on Fleming being so calculated to degrade, disgrace and ruin him that he temporarily went crazy. He was able to produce three witnesses who had business dealings with him during the time that the first event had happened. They claimed him to be mentally ill.

When it was time for the Jury to have a verdict, it only took them 10 minutes of deliberation. They reported a verdict of “Not Guilty”.

Although Avery’s professional life was “unbothered” after it was all said and done, his personal life he had taken a toll. He suffered from insomnia and was often seen out walking the streets late at night. He was let’s just say struggling internally with what he had done and been through.

Avery was seriously wounded in battle (that’s another story) and died at his home in Morganton in 1864.


If you’d like to know more tidbits about Morganton or Burke County, you can contact the Historic Burke Foundation.

You can call them at 828-437-4104 to schedule special events, and to book big tours!


Pictures Provided by Ashley Scott with ANS Photography