Visiting Small-town Courthouses

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on July 1, 2010
David Mudd

June Morgan climbs the spiraling walnut staircase to the third floor of the 1873 Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, Kan. (pop. 966), and peers through an oval window at a view of the distant Flint Hills and tallgrass prairie.

“It’s the tallest window in the county,” says Morgan, 60, county clerk. “Many, many times when I was a little kid, I’d jump up and sit in that window.”

The 3-foot-deep windowsill, where generations of children have perched while their parents paid taxes and renewed their car tags, is one of many beloved features of the French Renaissance courthouse, which rises majestically at the end of the town’s two-block-long business district.

Built of white limestone unearthed a quarter-mile away and black walnut logs cut along the nearby Cottonwood River, the courthouse is an architectural jewel crowned by a steep-sided, iron-trimmed red roof and a regal clock tower.

“When I was a little girl, I felt like I was walking into a castle,” says registrar Kathy Swift, 39. Swift’s office has a storage room with a nearly 2-inch-thick glass floor where copies are stored of every property deed transacted in the county since 1859.

The Chase County Courthouse is Kansas’ oldest operating courthouse, where for decades landowners have paid property taxes, motorists have renewed drivers’ licenses, and residents have voted and obtained marriage licenses. In fair weather, townspeople sit and visit on the limestone wall that surrounds the courthouse, and each June residents gather on the courthouse lawn for the Flint Hills Folk Life Festival.

“The courthouse has always been the heart of the community,” says Roberta Allen, 86, who served as county registrar from 1961 to 1987, and whose father worked as courthouse custodian from 1921 to 1953.

Allen remembers her dad shining the courthouse’s spittoons and being deputized whenever the sheriff needed help apprehending bootleggers. One of her favorite memories is of Bambi, a fawn that the sheriff raised in a pen on the courthouse lawn in the 1970s after its mother was killed on the highway.

As a child, Sue Scott Smith, 65, owner of the Emma Chase Cafe, could see the courthouse cupola from her bedroom window facing the splendid building. “In the evening there were giant horned owls on the courthouse,” Smith recalls. “They’d hoot, and my brothers and I would hoot back and carry on horned owl concerts.”

Today, she enjoys sharing stories about the courthouse with out-of-town diners who stroll to her cafe after touring and photographing the stately prairie structure—designated last year as one of the “8 Wonders of Kansas Architecture.”

Bustling court days
The earliest courthouses in America weren’t opulent buildings. Colonists conducted legal business in the same simple log or brick meetinghouses that were used for Sunday church services.

“These first courthouses were brick and, more often than not, were one story with a courtroom and one or two side rooms for jury meetings,” says Carl Lounsbury, 58, an architectural historian in Williamsburg, Va. (pop. 11,998), and author of The Courthouses of Early Virginia.

The nation’s oldest operating courthouses are the 1725 King William County Courthouse in King William, Va., and the Old Salem County Courthouse in Salem, N.J. (pop. 5,857), built in 1735.

Colonists flocked to court days, usually held one to three days each month. Peddlers and tinkers sold wares on the courthouse lawn, and business flourished at nearby taverns.

“In early America, meetings of the county court are how people found out what was going on in their communities,” Lounsbury says.

Court magistrates handled broad legal and administrative duties, from ruling on minor offenses such as disturbing the peace or petty theft, to collecting poll taxes and paying bounties on predators, such as wolves and foxes.

“If you wanted your road fixed, you’d be in court. If you were a widow, you’d go to court to have the will proved. Children would go to court to be apprenticed in a trade,” Lounsbury says.

Curiosities and celebrations
As the nation grew and prospered, county courthouses became the grandest buildings in towns and sources of civic pride. Today, more than half of the courthouses in the 3,069 counties across the United States are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Renee Fulp, 46, a graphic artist in The Woodlands, Texas (pop. 55,649), became enamored with the ornate buildings at age 17 after seeing the 1891 Victorian-style Grimes County Courthouse in Anderson, Texas (pop. 257), on a family trip. “The vision of that courthouse stayed with me forever,” she says.

In 2005, she and her photographer husband, Dave, 54, visited relatives in New Mexico and stayed near the Pecos County Courthouse in Fort Stockton, Texas (pop. 7,846). Dave arose early and photographed the limestone beauty in the morning light. Then the couple decided to visit other courthouses on that trip.

Some 50,000 miles later, the Fulps have photographed every courthouse in Texas’ 254 counties and visited with locals to research stories and histories about the landmarks. Dave’s favorite is the flamboyant turreted Ellis County Courthouse, in Waxahachie (pop. 21,426), decorated with stone-carved faces, both angelic and grotesque. The faces represent people loved or loathed by the stonecutter, according to local lore.

Across the United States, local history is honored and exhibited at courthouses, such as pioneers’ cattle brands etched on the courthouse door in Eddy County in Carlsbad, N.M. (pop. 25,625), and a statue of Brer Rabbit on the lawn of the Putnam County Courthouse in Eatonton, Ga. (pop. 6,764), hometown of author Joel Chandler Harris. Memorials to famous natives, settlers, statesmen and military heroes grace courthouse lawns where townspeople gather for patriotic services, ice cream socials, free concerts and community festivals.

Courthouse oddities inspire hometown pride, such as a 25-foot-tall mulberry tree growing from the top of the clock tower of the Decatur County Courthouse in Greensburg, Ind. (pop. 10,260).

“We have people come in and expect to see the trunk in the middle of the courthouse,” says County Clerk Janet Chadwell, 56. The tree grows between stones of the tower, sheds leaves and mulberries, and is regularly trimmed.

The last Confederate flagpole, hand-hewn from pine and erected in 1861, stands on the lawn of the Early County Courthouse in Blakely, Ga. (pop. 5,696), and a round courtroom with a jury box in the middle of the room is the centerpiece of the Pershing County Courthouse in Lovelock, Nev. (pop. 2,003).

Each August in Delphi, Ind. (pop. 3,015), hundreds of people attend the Old Settlers Reunion, held annually since 1855 at the Carroll County Courthouse. In Marshall, Ill. (pop. 3,771), townspeople gather ’round the bandstand at the Clark County Courthouse for free summertime concerts by the Marshall Municipal Band.

“People bring their lawn chairs and sit around and eat ice cream and pie,” says Mary Lou Cornelison, 80, who played trombone for the band in the 1940s when the male musicians went off to war. “The concerts started in 1875 and never stopped.”