Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A little courthouse history ...

Here's the little essay I put together to remind myself Monday of what to say about Lucas County's courthouse history as the restored tower clock was rededicated on its 123rd birthday. There's nothing really new here; just a summary of significant dates with a few details thrown in for good measure.


Lucas County has had a courthouse park since the original town was platted during the fall of 1849, but the first courthouse was built on a lot on the east side of the square, just south of the alley. The county had absolutely no money --- the county commissioners had to borrow from a private citizen to purchase the Chariton town site. The first courthouse was paid for from the revenue that resulted from the first sale of town lots.

This was an 18-foot by 22-foot story and a half structure constructed of hand-hewn oak logs, ordered up by the county supervisors during April of 1850. According to their directions, there were to be two hand-made walnut doors facing what now is North Grand --- one into the first-floor room and the other, up a flight of exterior stairs to a platform in the front of the second story --- and five windows, three on the first floor, two on the second. People were shorter during the 1850s, but even so, the second floor had a head-crunching low ceiling in places.

During May of 1850, Beverly Searcy’s bid of $374 for construction was accepted by the supervisors and the building was completed during October. During 1851, the first-floor courtroom was furnished with 16 benches made of hewn and split linden logs with oak legs pegged in --- and a “pulpit.”

During most of its useful life, this was the only large public meeting space in Chariton so in addition to sessions of county court, everything from church services to dances were held here, too. There were very few county records to store so no need for vaults; and most county officials conducted business out of their pockets --- no real need for offices.


During June of 1858, Lucas County voters approved construction of a new brick courthouse, to be located on the spot where our current courthouse stands. Everything about the process appears to have been very casual --- or careless if looked at another way. 

A construction bid of $13,500 submitted by W.T. Wade was accepted and work began, using brick fired down on the Chariton River bottom south of Salem Church and hauled into town by ox-drawn wagons. Ethan Gard, county judge, supervised the process. Some alleged that he made up the plan as the building progressed. The building was first occupied, although still incomplete, during 1860 and its cost, which soared to about $23,000, came close to bankrupting the county.

Despite all its issues, this was a beautiful 60-foot-square brick building topped by a big cupola containing a bell that soared above a hipped room. There were four offices divided by cross-halls on the first floor; two more offices and a big courtroom on the second. There were no vaults --- not enough county records to justify them when the courthouse was built, so these were added in the east-west cross halls at a later date. The court room continued to serve as Chariton’s major assembly room and, in order to generate income, some of the offices were rented out to lawyers and newspapermen.

This was the building that saw more than 800 young men from Lucas County march off to serve during the Civil War and, during July of 1870, the unfortunate Hiram Wilson was thrown out a second-floor window with a rope around his neck after having shot Sheriff Gaylord Lyman dead.

The building had a huge problem, however. Its foundation consisted of log beams laid down atop wood pilings, far less than the support needed by heavy brick walls. Almost immediately, those walls began to settle and crack and as the years passed, more and more iron rods were inserted to hold the structure together. Finally, during 1891, the Lucas County grand jury ordered that the building be abandoned, county offices were evacuated to commercial buildings and the courthouse was torn down during February of 1892, just 32 years after it had been completed.


During August of 1892, Lucas County voters approved a bond issue of $60,000 to construct our current courthouse. Bids were let during October, foundation work began immediately and the cornerstone was placed on May 25, 1893. County officers occupied the new 70-foot by 90-foot building, constructed of brick and Berea limestone in the Romanesque revival style, on Feb. 26, 1894. This time, estimates, bids and actual expenditures tallied and the courthouse was built and furnished for $59, 670.

Although the courthouse tower, which soared to 140 feet, was built as planned, no provision had been made for the clock itself until Jan. 1, 1894, when Smith Henderson Mallory announced that he would provide one as a gift. He had admired the big clock in the Iowa Building at the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893, which he was superintendent off, and ordered a similar one from the Seth Thomas clock works at Thomaston, Connecticut.

The new clock arrived in Chariton by train during February and was duly installed in the courthouse tower, fine-tuned and tested. This building was dedicated officially 123 years ago --- on May 22, 1894, and this clock --- whose restoration was are celebrating this spring --- was fully wound and set to running for the first time on that day as well.

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