June 08, 2005

Brothers, truth, community pride and your courthouse

His chest tightening, my brother gaped at the county courthouse as we drove past. "That's where they take you, when you've been bad, and decide how long you'll stay in prison," I whispered to him. He was five and I just old enough to know enjoying seeing him afraid was wrong.

He gulped. "What kind of bad things?"

"Stealing, fighting, killing others." A team of sheriff's deputies escorted a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, shackles and handcuffs toward the courthouse. "Say, didn't you steal a couple of cookies last night even though mom told you to stay out of them?"

His eyes widened. "You won't tell anyone, will you?"

I nudged his side with my elbow. "Don't worry - I'd never do anything mean like that. Not to my brother."

• • •

The county courthouse we passed was not unlike those found across Iowa or any other Midwestern state: At the center of a town square, fronted by a flagpole and statue of a Civil War hero, the building of neoclassical design with tower in the center and columns at the front.

Entering the courthouse usually meant taking a stairs to reach the "first floor." Inside, you'd find murals and mosaic tiles and a rotunda.

That courthouses - such stodgy designs by today's standards - were built to be imposing was no accident. They signaled the power of law and of government by the people. The records they held were marks of the truth, committed to paper for all eternity. A courthouse was the community's pride.

Most Iowa counties have built three generations of courthouses. Johnson County is no different. Our earliest pioneers constructed Iowa City's first courthouse two-stories high and out of brick; it burned to the ground in 1856. The county erected a brick replacement the following year, but it was condemned in 1899. James Rowson and Son assembled the existing courthouse for $135,000; a dedication ceremony, featuring bands, balloons and a parade, was held 102 years ago today for it.

• • •

Courthouses were so important to a community's self-worth that brother often fought brother for the right to locate it in a town.

Consider Hardin County. In 1853, the village of Eldora was named county seat. But the neighboring town of Steamboat Rock thought the courthouse should be placed within its borders and forced a countywide vote on the matter. Steamboat Rock lost.

The next year, the village of Berlin also got a countywide vote to move the courthouse there. Berlin lost, too.

But the third time is a charm. When Point Pleasant challenged for courthouse bragging rights in a countywide election the very next year, it won.

After the votes were counted, sealed and delivered to the county courthouse, however, someone broke in and destroyed the ballots. Point Pleasant blamed Eldora residents for trying to usurp the election; Eldora blamed Point Pleasant residents for getting rid of evidence that proved the election had been fixed.

Ten years later, the battle of where to locate the county seat was decided, appropriately enough, in a courthouse. The Iowa Supreme Court named Eldora the winner.

It did not end there, though. Iowa Falls soon offered the county government $32,000 towards a new courthouse if it were built in that village. Eldora residents quickly launched a fund-raising drive and countered with $40,000.

And like so many other decisions in American courthouses, money finally settled the matter. Eldora remains Hardin County's county seat to this day.

• • •

Other communities took a more direct approach in moving their county seat.

When the Sioux County village of Orange City wanted the courthouse but the town of Calliope would not give it up, things got ugly. On Jan. 22, 1872, about 80 bobsleds from Orange City and another town descended upon Calliope. The raiders cut a hole in the log courthouse and hauled the 5,000-pound safe containing all of the county records to Orange City.

An election that November rubber-stamped the heist's results. But Orange City didn't build a courthouse until 30 years later.

• • •

My brother and I first entered a courthouse while on a field trip. We went to a small, rural school; when grades 1-6 got on the bus, there still were empty seats.

He was petrified of going, pondered feigning sickness the day of the trip.

"Don't worry," I told him as we lay in our beds the night before, "they're going to see how long other people who did bad things will go to prison. We're just there to see how it works. They won't know that you're the one who hit the baseball through the living room window."

"Yes," he said sotto voce, "but what if somebody tells them them while we're there?"

• • •

For proof that Big Brother can't happen in America, all one has to do is walk into a courthouse. Presuming understaffed clerks and secretaries had the time, they'd have a difficult go finding a record in the overstuffed storage rooms. Land, marriage, probate and criminal files represent decades of paperwork.

Indeed, courthouse records frequently pose nightmares for genealogists. In the 1800s, courthouse fires often resulted in the loss of records. Sometimes rodents made a mess of now browning paper.

To create a sense of permanence and stability, communities by the early 1900s constructed soaring courthouses out of marble, granite or limestone. Image was important. But such buildings were difficult to heat and suffered awful acoustics. Adding on to them as counties grew often resulted in odd and ugly constructs.

And some counties, desperately needing more space but seeking to save money, built charmless, modern facilities looking more like a hastily constructed community college than symbols of strength. Placed at the edges of town, the only things Iowan about them are the flag out front and the surrounding cornfield.

But we're a mobile society. We don't have time for bobsleds lugging 5,000-pound safes on Interstates 80 or 35. In fact, you can go to prison for doing so.

• • •

When my brother and I got home that evening from the field trip, he whapped me with his book bag.

"What'd you do that for?" I growled.

"You lied to me! The lady at the courthouse said they don't put little kids who take cookies or accidentally break windows into prison!"

And hence the value of the courthouse reared itself once again: With the truth comes power.

(originally published June 8, 2003)

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