WILLIAM T. ACREE
COVINGTON COUNTY'S FIRST PROBATE JUDGE
By Circuit Judge Ben Bowden
Covington County has a rich history of dedicated (and often colorful!) citizens serving as our probate judges. The office was initially created by act of the state assembly on February 11, 1850. The act called for the probate judge to be elected by the citizens of the county for a term of six years. Many of the duties originally assigned to the Probate Court remain the same today, including original jurisdiction over estates, appointment of guardians, and responsibility to record real property transactions, as well as other duties no longer under the supervision of the Court, such as the issuance of “tavern licenses”. (One can see now why the early probate judges were considered to be very powerful!). The judge was required to keep an office in the court house and be “open for the transaction of business at least on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays of each week, from nine o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon, with the exception of one hour each day at noon.” The judge also presided over the court of the county commissioners and was allowed to hire a clerk at his own expense.
William T. Acree was elected as the first probate judge on May 6, 1850. Judge Acree did not complete his full term of office. He resigned effective November 15, 1854, presumably to accept a position in the Alabama General Assembly.
There is very little record of what Judge Acree accomplished during his term of office, most likely due to the number of times probate records were destroyed when the courthouse burned. It is noted by the family that Judge Acree eventually held the following offices representing the citizens of the county: Probate Judge, Postmaster, General Assembly, Census Enumerator, Confederate Army, Tax Collector, Superintendent of Education, Notary Public, Clerk of the Circuit Court, and Justice of the Peace.
Apparently the “Yankees” made it to Andalusia in the Spring of 1865. The raiding party arrested several leaders of the county government, including Judge Acree. According to the family, he was imprisoned at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, MS, off the coast of Biloxi.
Judge Acree was paroled after the war and returned to public service in Covington County. Apparently the Judge never signed a loyalty oath, as he was listed as being “disfranchised” in the voting records of Beat One in Covington, County.
Judge Acree did not shy from controversy in matters related to what he thought best for the citizens of the County. In 1878, while serving as Circuit Clerk, he wrote the Governor complaining of mismanagement in the County Treasurer’s office. He stated that the current Treasurer was “unfit from any knowledge of official business” and that the Treasurer had turned the office over to an assistant who was “entirely irresponsible” and who was “speculating” in the office.
Judge Acree died on January 14, 1895, at the age of 79 and was buried on January 16, 1895, in Magnolia Cemetery, Andalusia, Alabama. His obituary appeared in the Covington Times on January 18, 1895:
An Old Landmark Gone: Judge William T. Acree breathed his last at his home near town about eleven o’clock Monday morning last. He had a severe attack of paralysis several years ago, since which time he has been feeble in health. On Monday last he had a second stroke which resulted in his death in about one hour. Deceased was about 80 years of age and one of the old land marks of this section, having settled in Covington County when quite a young man. He served one term each as probate judge, circuit clerk, and superintendent of education and also represented the county in [the] legislature. He was a member of the Baptist church and a Mason, his remains being passed away with Masonic honors on Tuesday. A large crowd witnessed the impressive ceremonies at the grave.
In addition to the grave marker above, a memorial marker is also located at the gravesite. Although it is well-worn, it appears to have Masonic markings at the top and the following epitaph:
ALTHOUGH HE SLEEPS HIS MEMORY DOTH LIVE
AND CHEERING COMFORT TO HIS MOURNERS GIVE
(The material for this article was obtained from Ward, Early History of Covington County, Alabama, 1821-1871; Ward, The Burning of the Courthouses in Covington County, Alabama; The Heritage of Covington County, Alabama; and the family/descendants of Judge Acree).