Thursday, March 29, 2012

Isaac's Victorian Court House

The early Stafford County Court House was in a wooden structure, but as the town of St. John grew, some of the town leaders believed a more distinguished building was appropriate. As is often true in political decisions, the location of the court house was a subject of dispute, some believing it should be built in the town square while others preferred to preserve that public space for a park. As is even more often true in political decisions, the expense of building the court house created further arguments.

At last, a group of prominent citizens decided to use private funds to erect a brick building of which the town could be proud, and since they were bearing the expense, they chose the location--the corner just to the southeast of the park. They selected brick rather than wood, not only to make it more elegant but also to reduce the risk of fire destroying the building and all the important records kept inside.

The story is told that one of the County Comissioners refused to accept the gift of the building. Somehow he was tricked into coming to the new structure to sign a document, and this act of business was deemed to show acceptance of the building, waiving his objections.

The citizens of the county decided that it was irresponsible not to reimburse those people who had spent their own money to build such a fine county building, so bonds were voted. Later, someone discovered a state law prohibiting voting bonds to repay private individuals for something already given to the county. The local newspapers followed the dilemma of whether the county had a moral obligation to repay the private donors, regardless of the legal prohibition concerning bonds, with arguments from both sides published.

Despite the controversies of its construction, the Victorian court house was enjoyed by the community from the time of its construction in about 1886 until September of 1925, when a petition signed by more than one-fourth of the taxpayers of the county asked the county commissioners to levy a tax to raise funds for a new court house. Within three years enough money had been raised to begin.

The elegant Victorian court house that Isaac Werner visited for business, lectures, and meetings was not replaced because people had tired of its style. Rather, the Board of County Commissioners' minutes of February 1, 1928, describe the conditions of the forty-year-old structure: "...the walls of which are what is commonly known as soft brick...are now cracked and the key stones in some of the arches of the doors and windows have loosened...and the walls of said building are spreading apart and have spread apart to the extent that the county has found it necessary to support the same by rods and other devises, and the plastering on said Court House is in bad condition and in many places has broken loose and fallen and much of the plastering is now loose and in danger of falling and injuring persons within said building, and the shingle and old and dilapidated and the said building needs a new roof." The minutes continue to describe a gaping crack running completely from top to bottom and from east to west, as well as fire risks and other dangers.

For all those reasons it was decided to demolish the grand old structure, to salvage any materials that might be used in the new building and store them on county-owned lots elsewhere in the city until they were reinstalled in the new building, and to rent space in The Delker Building in which to conduct county business while the new court house was being built. During the previous year, three architectural firms had been interviewed--Rutledge & Hurtz, Mann & Co., and Hulse & Co.--with Mann & Co. of Hutchinson chosen to draw the plans and supervise the construction of the new court house. With everything in place, the work proceeded quickly, and the new court house was dedicated in 1929.

Isaac claimed his homestead and timber claim in 1878, before St. John was much more than an idea in the minds of a group of early settlers and four years before St. John was chosen as the county seat in the election of April 14, 1882. In his early years as a homesteader, Isaac lacked a horse, and trips to town were made on foot. The map of Stafford County shows the location of St. John near the middle of the county and Isaac's homestead and timber claim in the southwest part of the county, adjacent to the Stafford-Pratt County line. The dotted line from Isaac's homestead to St. John shows the approximate route Isaac would have walked, sixteen miles according to Isaac's Journal. By the time the Victorian court house was built, Isaac had finally acquired a horse, and he traveled to the court house frequently for personal business. When he became active in the Farmers' Alliance, the Stafford County Agricultural Association, and the People's Party, he made many visits to the brick court house for meetings and conversations with political allies. Like Isaac himself, the existence of the elegant court house has faded from the minds of most Stafford County residents. Isaac, his friends, and the rich history of their times are worthy of being remembered, and I am enjoying making those introductions to those of you reading my blog.

(Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.)


The Blog Fodder said...

I never knew that you named your townships. 16 miles is a long walk to town. With no horse, was he farming with oxen then?
Your story of the political hassles of trying to build a new courthouse remind me of the church community trying to build a new church. they finally passed two resolutions:
1. The new church will be built on the location of the old church using such materials salvaged from it.
2. the old church will not be torn down and will continue in use until the new church is ready for occupation

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Funny story about the church!
Isaac had neither a horse, a mule, nor an ox. He had to exchange his own labor for use of neighbors' horses & machines, and the labor of one man not being equivalent to the loan of a horse and machine, he had to "hire" himself out longer. Consequently, he didn't break much sod during this time. He concentrated on planting trees (See post about commonwood trees in my archives)and did what he could by hand with walking plows and hand tools.