I like basketball, and it’s best offenses are set up by reading the opponent’s defense. Let’s come back to that!
Newton County’s early history was rife with drama. Though it was originally formed in 1835, it was abolished and combined with neighboring Jasper County in 1839. Twenty years later, it was recreated as the last of Indiana’s counties to be organized1. You’d think in taking so long that residents would have all their ducks in a row regarding where to put the courthouse, but you’d be wrong. Several communities fought for the honor, even after commissioners selected the town of Kent as county seat in June, 18602. Though legal processes had been followed in choosing the courthouse site, an obscure law passed in 1855 allowed for the removal and relocation of a county seat if two-thirds of legal voters petitioned officials. If their various efforts had succeeded, Kent (now Kentland) might look mighty different than it does today.
In 1860, county officials built the first Newton County Courthouse in Kentland. A frame building, the structure resembled an old schoolhouse or rural church, three bays wide with an entry portico, gabled roof, and an open, wooden belfry3. Shortly after it was completed, six residents of Beaver City presented a petition -the county’s first- to move the seat to their community, having already built a prospective courthouse there as an exact duplicate of Kentland’s4. After several reviews, commissioners determined that fewer than the minimum required signatures were included in the petition, so it was thrown out.
The following year, commissioners met with three residents of the town of Brook who petitioned to move the seat there. A.J. Kent -founder of Kentland and a major stakeholder in its success- filed a remonstrance against the petition himself, arguing that signees who had since joined the army were no longer legal voters and that the effort be overturned. Officials agreed and it, too, was thrown out. Beaver City tried to claim the county seat title again in 1869 but failed- again. The following year, residents of Morocco got in on the action and filed thirty petitions to move the county seat to their town, but withdrew them all the next day for reasons that weren’t noted in the official record.
The fifth attempt at moving the county seat came in 1872, when even more people, from Brook again, submitted a petition to transfer it there. It failed the next day. In 1876, Morocco presented commissioners with enough signatures signatures for a sixth go-around and even obtained two changes of venue to hear their argument. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court decided a similar case while the trial was being moved, coming to a conclusion that was at odds with Morocco’s position5. Their solicitation was dismissed, but the town tried one more time in 1900 after a special state law changed the petition process to an electoral one. but failed to obtain the necessary 65% vote in favor of the move.
Had enough? I have! But the residents of rural Newton County weren’t through quite yet. Brook tried one more time during the summer of 1900, but a new group -the residents of Goodland- threw their hat in the ring in a “hey- why not?” kind of move that, surprisingly, actually did win enough votes to move the seat away from Kentland! After several years of arguments, a 1903 court mandate demanded that a new courthouse be erected in the new county seat, but Kentland’s appeal with the Indiana Supreme Court determined that the 1899 law that enabled the move was unconstitutional: the relocation was void! Since then, the courthouse has indisputably stayed in Kentland. At least it has so far. I’m tired.
By the turn of the century, Kentland’s frame courthouse was showing signs of wear. It’s uncommon for a county to use a wooden building for so long, but I suspect officials were reluctant to commit to a more expensive structure after forty years of beating down the whims of their obnoxious neighbors. In 1906, the county finally erected a new courthouse, which still stands today. Most people arrive in Kentland via the intersection of US-41 (which goes from Evansville to Hammond in Indiana) and US-24 (running from Ohio to, well, Kentland). The courthouse is a few blocks to the northwest. When I was there, the highway intersection was unceremoniously marked with an abandoned gas station, an open Marathon and McDonald’s, along with a strip mall featuring a few other businesses like Subway and Dollar General. Kentland proper, though, has more to see. To get to the courthouse, you simply take US-24, signed as East Seymour Street in town, up to North 4th Street. After a block, you’ll find yourself deposited at the rear yard of the historic courthouse with almost nary another historic building in sight. It seems that those are all concentrated on the building’s west front, along 3rd Street. None of them match the scale of the courthouse.
Neoclassical in origin -but with definite beaux arts influences- the courthouse rises three stories above the square, including a partially-visible basement. The building’s primary front -facing west- features a central, projecting bay is seven bays wide, with an interior lit by arched windows on the courthouse’s top floor6. A triangular pediment, otherwise unadorned, caps the courthouse. Fans of clock towers stay away- there isn’t one here.
The building’s east facade is similar to its west side but without most of the ornamentation. There’s no columned entrance, nor is there a parapet, as this side’s entrance was left to do it’s own thing. The north and south sides are relatively boring, though the north elevation features a second-story window that was converted to a fire escape years ago in order to match state standards.
Inside, the building is similar to its state when originally constructed. Window surrounds, as well as doorways, counters, and staircases from 1906 remain intact. Probably most interesting to historic preservationists are the original courthouse vaults, designed and installed by MacNeale and Urban, of Cincinnati. Though some have been repainted, several remain in their original condition. A 1989 remodel divided the courtroom into two distinct areas, as well as adding an elevator. As with most government buildings in 2019, security stations have been added at various places.
Despite the changes, the Newton County Courthouse remains very close to the original intent of the architects who erected it 113 years ago. Although the days leading up to its construction were rife with political difficulty and infighting, the courthouse still stands ready to serve its constituents. Overall, despite its understated Renaissance Revival styling, the courthouse stands as a unique entry into our state’s portfolio.
Want to know another unique entry into a different Hoosier portfolio? It’s Kentland’s high school gym. I know this is random as we wrap up, but remember what I said at the beginning of this post? I love the game- I suck, but my grandpa played in high school and his brother went on to a storied career at Memphis State where he battled the great Elgin Baylor in college, later ‘competing’ in a tour as part of the Washington Generals against the Globetrotters in the Philippines. In 1950, 1,800 people lived in Kentland. But basketball was so popular that the school board built a gym that seated 2,2007– more than 120% of the town’s population, assuming that everyone there went to see the Blue Devils and managed to invite 400 more people to fill the gym to the brim8.
After years of courthouse squabbles, it seems like just about all the county could agree on was combining Brook, Goodland, and Kentland’s high schools into a new South Newton school corporation in 19669. Kentland’s gym still remains, though, just as its courthouse does. Today, despite our collective march towards new urbanism, suburbs, and regionalism, our communities -and their individual stories- are still important. The story of the Newton County Courthouse is one of those, as are those of its surrounding towns.
Newton County (pop. 14,087, 82/92)
Kentland (pop. 1,720).
Cost: $34,855 ($927,000 in 2016)
Architect: Joseph T. Hutton
Style: Renaissance Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2.5 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 ”Clinton Goodrich, Dewitt & Tuttle, Charles Richard. An Illustrated History of the State of Indiana [Indiana]. R.S. Peale & Co. Print.
2 “A Standard History of Jasper and Newton Counties, Indiana.” Lewis Publishing Company [Jasper County]. 1916. Print.
3 Vincent, Keith. Courthouse History. Web. Retrieved 2/15/21.
4 Enyart, David. “Newton County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 2/15/21.
5 Ade, John. “Newton County” The Bobbs-Merrill Company [Indianapolis]. 1911. Print.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Newton County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 2/15/21.
7 Neddenriep, Kyle. Historic Hoosier Gyms:: Discovering Bygone Basketball Landmarks. The History Press [Charleston]. 2010. Print.
8 Population and Housing Unit Estimates”. United States Census Bureau. Web. Retrieved 2/22/19.
9 Murphy, Lora. “The History of South Newton School Corporation” Ball State University [Muncie].Web. Retrieved 2/15/21.