Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Second Courthouse

This view of the second courthouse dates from July 4, 1876, when Chariton was celebrating the nation's centennial. That accounts for the crowd. I believe this is the west side of the courthouse, but can't be sure of that..

Lucas County's second couthouse, an attractive foursquare Italianate brick building with central cupola, proved to be something of an embarrassment so not too much is known about it, including who designed it or how much it cost. Construction apparently began during the summer of 1858, but because its heavy brick walls were built atop a foundation of hewn logs (what were they thinking?), it lasted only 30 years before being condemned in 1891 as unsafe and torn down.

One line of speculation holds that the inadequate foundation was a product of the larcenous natures of both the county judge and the county treasurer, who some accuse of having made off with a good deal of cash during the construction process.

Dan Baker provided the following sketchy but pithy account of this ill-fated building's origins on pages 447 and 448 of his 1881 history of Lucas County:

At a special election held in June, 1858, the question of a new court house, to be built in the public square, was submitted to the electors of the county, and the proposition prevailed, by a vote of 598 for it, to 71 against it. The construction of the building was under the administration of Ethan Gard, as county judge. There appear no record for proposals to do any of the work, or furnish any part of the materials. However, the writer found in the "abandoned archives," in the garret, the following proposal:

Chariton, May 3d, 1858.
To the County Judge of Lucas County, Iowa:
I propose building the court house of Lucas county for the sum of thirteen thousand and five hundred dollars.
George Switzer.

There is no record evidence that the above proposal, nor any other similar proposition, was accepted. The whole affair seems to be enigmatical to the "oldest inhabitant," and the people have been in ignorance, to the present day, as to the amount of money the building cost them. Tradition says that the contract for the construction of the building was a verbal one, and given by Judge Gard to the county treasurer --- W.T. Wade --- for $13,500, the amount of Mr. Switzer's bid as above shown. That there were no plans and specifications to which the mechanics worked; when they came upon the ground each morning they would apply to Judge Gard for instructions, and the Judge would direct them to lay brick, or to do some certain kind of work until "further orders."

The building stands in the middle of the public park, is sixty feet  square, two stories in height, built of brick, upon which is a belfry, supporting a bell, which tells the people that the scales of justice are poised, and those desiring to be heard will draw near. The ground floor contains four office rooms, and a wide hall through the building north and south. The upper story contains the court room, sheriff's office, and county superintendent's office.

It is a traditional opinion freely expressed, that this temple of justice cost nearer twenty thousand dollars than it did thirteen thousand five hundred dollars, because of the loose manner in which its construction was managed. It resulted in a heavy draft upon the tax-payers, in that early day of the county's financial strength, as it bankrupted the treasurer, and the treasury as well. Whether the large amount of money the building purports to have cost, beyond the contract figures, ever went into it, is a question which is ever likely to remain a mystery. The treasurer was found to be largely in arrears in his official accounting, for which his bondsmen have never responded to the county. This is the result of the loose and criminal manner in which the affairs of the people are too frequently managed. However, a judgment was obtained against the treasurer --- W.T. Wade, and his sureties --- Thomas Wade, Hezekiah Pollard and Jacob Taylor, for the full amount of his official bond --- $5,000. His successor was James B. Custer, who at once balanced the books of the office, and found Wade in arrears with the varous funds in his hands, to the amount of $8,553.48; thus leaving a balance of $3,553.48 uncovered by his official bond, and upon which no judgment could have been obtained against his bondsmen had they been responsible. Therefore, adding the sum of $8,553.48 to the sum of $13,500, supposed to have been appropriated for the construction of the courthouse, it would make $22,053.48, that went --- somewhere.

Here's another view of the courthouse, also dating from July 4, 1876, with the Chariton Cornet Band (CCB) in the foreground. I think the view here is of the southwest corner of the building.

According to other accounts, the new courthouse was first occupied during 1860, although still incomplete, and was condemned by a grand jury during 1891. The board of supervisors ordered that it be torn down during the autumn of that year. County offices were moved into the Dewey Block on the southeast corner of the square.

In its early years, the county earned additional funds by renting out office space in the courthouse to attorneys, even newspapers. A map of the square published in The Chariton Democrat of Oct. 3, 1889, contains a rough floorplan showing how the building was arranged then, two years before its condemnation. According to that map, the county treasurer occupied the northwest room on the first floor; the county audtor, the northeast room; the county clerk, the southwest room and the county recorder, the southeast room. A wide hallway ran north to south with vaults separating the offices on either side of it. On the second floor, the courtroom occupied all of the building's north front with the county superintendent of school's office in the southwest corner and the county sheriff's office in the southeast corner.

It was from one of the windows in that sheriff's office that the unfortunate Hiram Wilson was thrown, with rope around his neck, during early July 1870 after having unwisely shot and killed Sheriff Gaylord Lyman.


Henry Gittinger, then editor and publisher of The Chariton Leader, shared the following memory of the second courthouse in an article published March 16, 1911. His childhood visit to Chariton would have occurred during the early 1870s and was his first trip beyond his native Washington Township.

We got into Chariton a little before noon and began to treat with the wool merchants immediately. It is remembered that a high fence was around the court house square and tall grass grew within the enclosure. A man with a scythe had just finished cutting the grass and before we left in the afternoon he had it in the winrows and had commenced to shock it. We have never to this day learned what disposition the county made of that hay. It certainly was not fed to mules for placards were noticed tacked to the steps of the old court house, "No democrats need apply," "Democrats not permitted to hold office," "Nothing but republicans on the inside," etc. What a change during the intervening decades has been wrought. Hay is no longer made while the sun shines in the court house square and the ancient prejudice against democrats no more exists.

No comments:

Post a Comment