Crawford County aside, it’s not often that we run across an abandoned courthouse. However, there’s one off the beaten path in Dearborn County. Like a lot of early Indiana settlements on the Ohio River, the area has an interesting history. The first -and current- county seat is in Lawrenceburg. But for a brief period more than 170 years ago, the courthouse stood in Wilmington, located just seven miles to the southwest.
Citizens didn’t have much say in the move -dictated by state legislature passed in 1835- and they were understandably pretty pissed off at it. The readjustment meant that Lawrenceburg’s 26-year status as the epicenter of county government and trade would be coming to an abrupt close. Back then, Dearborn County was way bigger than it is today, and Wilmington was the most centrally-located site available1. But since the state ordered the move, residents had to comply. In 1836, county government officially relocated. A two-story brick courthouse, costing $4,000 and measuring 46 feet square, was quickly built.
Not everyone was left smoldering in anger at the move. People in the burgeoning city of Rising Sun actually favored it! They’d been campaigning since 1817 to get their own county, but their efforts had been constantly rebuked by political rivals to the north in Lawrenceburg. Maybe they didn’t want economic competition a new county would bring in a seat so close, maybe they misinterpreted Rising Sun’s intentions, or maybe they were just jerks. My sources are unclear. But as the years went by, officials in Rising Sun began to hatch a plan.
See, they knew how pissed off residents in Lawrenceburg still were about the county seat relocation, so they made a deal: In exchange for Lawrenceburg to throw its support behind the formation of a new county with Rising Sun as its seat, the new county would absorb residents who had favored a move to Wilmington, which was closer to them. The county split would negate Wilmington’s status as the most central location in the county, and all but ensure that the seat of government would move back to Lawrenceburg2.
After seven years, the plan was executed. It worked- see ya later, Wilmington! Shortly thereafter, in 1845, Ohio County was organized. The new courthouse in Rising Sun is actually still being used today. It’s the oldest courthouse that’s been continuously utilized in the state, and Rising Sun is the only county seat to still use their original courthouse.
Wilmington’s courthouse wasn’t so lucky, though. Information’s hard to come by, but after it was abandoned as a courthouse, the structure was used as the town’s Masonic Hall for a time3. Today, it sits abandoned at the corner of Wilmington Pike and King Street. The county’s GIS Beacon system lists it as a commercial/industrial building in very poor condition.
It’s hard to see a courthouse here, a county seat notwithstanding, but it was. Unfortunately, Wilmington pretty much dried up after the courthouse moved back to Lawrenceburg, and a 1958 rerouting of IN-350 added insult to injury by bypassing the town entirely4. The only other non-residential building in town is the Wilmington United Methodist Church, built down the street in 1900. Until at least 1999, a two-story, federal-style I.O.O.F. Hall still stood -in extremely poor shape- to the west of the courthouse5, but it was gone by the time I made it there in 2016.
The courthouse itself is in pretty rough shape too, as you can see. A sliding barn door has enabled use as a garage, but it’s eliminated the original door. To its right, an old window has been repurposed as a door, with a set of ramshackle wooden stairs providing access. Almost all of the windows are boarded up or covered in plastic, and a lack of tuckpointing over the years has caused entire segments of brick to fall from the walls. Pieces of the ornamental cornice are missing at various areas- it’s a real trainwreck.
But despite its poor condition, it’s not a far stretch to imagine the courthouse as it once was, especially if we compare it to two of its contemporaries in Rome and Corydon. During its heyday, the building would have bore a strong resemblance to them as part of what Ball State professor David Hermansen termed the “coffee mill” genre of courthouses, square buildings with hipped roofs and tall, central cupolas. With the cupola now missing (although its base is still visible), the only real concessions to style the building retains are the brick soldier courses above each window. The metal stars visible at roughly the halfway point up the building aren’t ornamental. They’re anchor points for long, threaded rods that span the length of the courthouse and keep the building from falling apart6. I’d imagine they were installed when the brick above the lower windows started crumbling out.
I left Wilmington with a sense of awe coupled with heartache in wishing something could be done to prevent this courthouse’s inevitable decay. If there was a grant available, I’d buy it and restore it myself- as one of three remaining coffee mill-style courthouses in the state, I think it’s worth saving. However, it doesn’t seem likely that will happen, given the fate of its neighbor the I.O.O.F. hall. Although Wilmington’s best days are firmly in the past, a stabilized and restored courthouse could contribute immensely to the establishment of a Dearborn County history park. I’d love to see that happen before I go back to find it’s been too late.
Dearborn County (pop. 49,904, 28/92)
Wilmington (pop. 0)
Cost: $4,000 ($87,053 in 2016)
Courthouse Square: No Square
Height: Two stories
Current use: Non-governmental
1 Enyart, David. “Dearborn County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. July 18, 2018.
2 Enyart, David. “Ohio County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. July 18, 2018.
3 Masing, Milton A. Dearborn County, Indiana in Vintage Postcards. Arcadia Publishing. 1999. Print.
4 Indiana State Highway Department (1957). State Highway System of Indiana (Map). Indiana State Highway Department. OCLC 78547924. Retrieved November 11, 2016 – via Indiana State Library and Historical Bureau.
5 Masing, Milton A. Dearborn County, Indiana in Vintage Postcards. Arcadia Publishing. 1999. Print.
6 “What are the Metal Stars on the Side of Buildings For?” Blue Collar Workman. June 3, 2013. Retrieved from bluecollarworkman.com.