I’ve admired the Noble County Courthouse in Albion since I was a kid. I remember driving past it with my dad and going inside for one thing or another. Even at a young age, I knew that this courthouse was unique- it didn’t really resemble any others in the state. Although I seem to recall a bizarre taxidermy display its basement, I never expected the building to hold an intricate tale of geopolitical maneuverings.
But that’s what I found when I started researching it.
It all started in the early 1800s. Early settlements in the area that eventually became Noble County followed the Fort Wayne-Goshen Road, which was a prominent Native American trail that years later became the Lincoln Highway1 and the nation’s first transcontinental road. The trail went diagonally through the westernmost portion of the county. Since most people lived near it, it made sense to locate the county seat convenient to them and as fate would have it, an opportunistic settler named Adam Engle had the same idea. He’d built a cabin in Sparta a few years beforehand and donated it to the county to ensure his burgeoning community would be named the county seat. It was3.
As more people moved in around the county, it became obvious that a county seat so far away from the population center didn’t make sense anymore. Only a year later, residents passed around a petition to relocate the seat of government, and the application was quickly approved by officials.
Since the need to establish a county seat outweighed the convenience of having a ready-made courthouse by now, multiple up-and-coming towns vied for the opportunity- Van Buren, Wolf Lake, Augusta, and Port Mitchell. Even residents of Sparta (the town being usurped) shrugged, said “eh, what the hell,” and threw their hat in the ring. As suspected, it didn’t turn out for them so a new frame courthouse was built in Augusta. Two hotels followed suit, as did several stores and factories. Augusta would probably be the county seat today- had it not been for a disastrous fire in 1843 that destroyed the courthouse and all county records.
The fire prompted citizens of Port Mitchell to spring into action. By all accounts4, residents had spent the last three years pissed off that they’d lost the courthouse to an inferior town. They quickly erected brick office buildings and a temporary courthouse as visions of impending importance danced through their heads.
But those notions proved fleeting, and another vote was called in April of 1846. This time, even more towns got on the ballot: Port Mitchell, Augusta, Rochester, Ligonier, Springfield, Lisbon, Northport, Wolf Lake, and an area called ‘the Center’, which wasn’t even a town but a theoretical, centrally-located community that hadn’t been platted yet. Port Mitchell, Augusta, and the Center were the highest vote-getters, but Augusta fell in a runoff ballot. Irate Augustans -still mad at Port Mitchell for stealing away their own courthouse- voted for the Center, which became the permanent county seat before it had any residents. The location was soon renamed Albion.
Now, let me just say this so that future county commissioners don’t make the same mistake Noble County’s did: Before you can have a courthouse, you need a county seat. Before you can have a county seat, you need a town. And before you have a town, you need a township. Oops-officials in Noble County hadn’t gotten that far, and they platted Albion right at the border between York and Jefferson townships. To rectify things, they garnished a square mile out of each and created Albion Township, which looks like a tiny belly button on the map and remains the smallest township in the entire country.
But that didn’t matter. By 1847, a $4,000 (about $107k today) frame courthouse graced the site, and the town grew quickly even though the courthouse burned twelve years later. Despite the fact that courthouse fires had doomed Noble County’s previous county seats, Albion was able to soldier on because of a new thing called a “rail-road.” The Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Chicago Railway went right through the town, which kept on expanding due to the its influence. A fifth county courthouse was built, but it wasn’t long before it became old, outmoded, and much too small. An 1874 survey of the county opined that Albion was “growing very fast, and putting on metropolitan airs,6” and there was no time to waste in constructing a courthouse that demonstrated that.
Flash forward to 2018 and the town of Albion is no longer growing very fast, if it’s growing at all- you’ve got to drive forty-five minutes to Fort Wayne to inhale even a whiff of those long-lost metropolitan airs. Only three out of the nine towns that vied for the county seat position in 1846 still exist, and most of Noble County’s population headed northeast to Kendallville, where industry continued to thrive due to the railroad. But although it’s long ago been usurped in terms of commercial prominence, tiny Albion still retains the title of county seat and features the county’s sixth courthouse- a building that completely towers over its surroundings.
We have E.O. Fallis to thank for that. He designed the current Noble County Courthouse in 1887 after the fifth courthouse was quickly outgrown. Although it belongs to the Richardson Romanesque style (somewhat common across Indiana), the structure is unique as the only red brick building of that style in the state. Fallis was down with making that distinction, though- his 1891 Williams County Courthouse in Bryan, Ohio is a near-duplicate.
He designed both buildings to feature a floorplan of two superimposed rectangles, with the narrow rectangle configured to support projecting entrance bays. Those entrance bays are maybe the most interesting features of the Noble County Courthouse – the outer sides of the east and west entry bays culminate in octagonal turrets. The right side of the entrance eventually curves to form a circular bay with a parapet. Both elements balance each other out although they’re asymmetrical. Even though arched transoms above the first floor have been bricked in, the pattern is repeated in windows on either side of the entrance.
As with every courthouse that sports one, my favorite feature is the clock tower, which is square and nearly as tall as the building itself. The tower’s lower portion features both rectangular and arched openings along with stone belt courses. Above the lower segment is a wide belt that, unusually, curves outward. Above that is the clock. The clock face is different than most- it’s black and recessed, while the numbers project in white from the face of the building. I’d never seen this arrangement before, and Fallis’s Williams County Courthouse in Ohio doesn’t feature it. It’s part of what draws me to this building, I guess. The low, hipped roof of the clock tower contrasts the building’s high-pitched roof and adds some distinction between the elements, and although the building is Romanesque, it seems to my eye to have some significant Italianate influences.
Like I said, those influences, coupled with its distinctive Romanesque styling, drew me to this courthouse while driving around with my dad during trips up to his house in Elkhart. It seemed like he would always take a random route through some forgotten county seat just to make the drive interesting and clearly, that tendency wore off on me! When I sat down to plan how I’d reboot this project, I was dumbfounded that I hadn’t made it to this building -or any in northern Indiana- during my first attempt in 2011, so I made sure I went to Albion early on. Even though the town hasn’t seen the success that some of its peers have over the years, I’m sort of happy. Additional funds often make for the ability to build a new courthouse, and I’m thankful that we still have this one to appreciate.
Noble County (pop. 47,536)
Albion (pop. 2,349).
Cost: $101,604 ($2.69 million in 2016)
Architect: E. O. Fallis & Co
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 136 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 8/15/15- 4/92
1 “Lincoln Highway” Arch. ARCH, Incorporated. 2018. Retrieved from https://www.archfw.org.
2 Tuttle & Goodrich, An Illustrated History of the State of Indiana. Indiana: R. S. Peale & Co. 1875. Print.
3 Hunter & Hunter, Albion and Noble County. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing. 2015. Print.
4 Counties of Whitley and Noble, Indiana. Chicago. F.A. Battey & Co. 1882. Print.
5 McPherson, Alan. Journeys to the Past: A Traveler’s Guide to Indiana State Historical Markers. Bloomington. Authorhouse. 2008. Print.
6 Complete Survey and Atlas of Noble County, Indiana. Chicago. Andreas & Baskin. 1874. Print.