I’ve always been a big fan of exploring and getting to know what’s in your back yard. Something about our local history just connects with me, and maybe that’s why I’m the only one of my siblings not to have been a foreign exchange student. Years after my brother’s trip to Brazil and my sister’s time in Germany, though, it looks like I can finally say that the joke’s on them: Here in the Hoosier state, a six-hour drive will take you all over the world from Mexico to Peru, Mecca, Brazil, Lebanon, Galveston and back- even cramming in a stop at the mythical destination of Kokomo on your way back to Central America Indiana.
Although you can leave the translation guides at home for your homegrown international road trip, you may want to bring an English dictionary along just in case: Although residents in Peru, Brazil, and Lebanon Indiana aren’t speaking Spanish, Portuguese, or Arabic, it’s sometimes not clear what version of English they are employing. Through my travels, I’ve heard locals in Lebanon pronounced as leh-BANNin, people in Peru call the town PIER-ooh, and citizens in Clay County refer to their seat as BRAY-zuhl. It’s probably best if we don’t mention how poorly the locals mangle the town of Russiaville’s name.
If you guessed that an Indiana courthouse in a city named after a South American country had a convoluted geopolitical history, you’d be right. Before Brazil, BRAY-zuhl, or whatever you want to call it was even a place, the seat of Clay County was established at Bowling Green near a bend in the Eel River. Established in 1829, the settlement was named after the area’s imagined resemblance to a park in New York that served as a venue for lawn bowling1. The first courthouse was a two-story log building that stood across the street from the town square.
Other communities began to spring up around the county as investors threw money into close to expected tributary feeders for the Wabash and Erie Canal2. Towns like Anguilla and Jonesboro were founded quickly, only to be abandoned just as fast as work on the waterway stalled. Back in Bowling Green, county officials had no intent of relocating and ordered a new brick courthouse in 1839, hoping that it would dissuade any dissident attempts to move the county seat. Area resident Dempsey Seybold won the contract for a new, two-story courthouse on the square that added 640 feet to the old building’s capacity.
Elsewhere, Clay County continued to grow. As Seybold built the new courthouse in Bowling Green, a farm about fifteen miles to the northwest was gaining enough geographic prominence due to its position on the burgeoning National Road (now US-40) that the postal service demanded that its owner, a settler known as Yankee Bill(!), come up with a name for it- or else. Wanting no interruption to his mail service, Yankee Bill named the farm Brazil, since, apparently, that country was frequently the subject of articles in American newspapers. Why was it? Beats me. Beats everyone, in fact. A leaflet describing the county’s history doesn’t offer any additional information3.
Seybold’s work soon finished and, just as commissioners planned, the new courthouse put to rest any serious notion of moving the county seat. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last very long -only twelve years- before burning down in a catastrophic 1851 fire that consumed all county records except for those of the county recorder, who kept his documents in his tailor shop across the street. The courthouse burned down literally on the Saturday before the state legislature was set to convene, and relocationists immediately flooded the general assembly with petitions to move the seat of government away from Bowling Green. By 1852, the town of Bellaire was platted with the intent of snaring away the seat and growing into a commercial center and resort. Though the town ultimately grew to contain warehouses, stores, a post office, church, and school4, local officials reconstructed the courthouse in Bowling Green despite public opinion. This building, similar to courthouses still standing in Nashville and Angola, was a close approximation of its predecessor. Bellaire quickly dried up sometime during the Civil War and is invisible to a contemporary traveler.
Residents, still unhappy with Bowling Green’s asymmetrical location within the county, kept petitioning for a courthouse move regardless of their new building. By 1860, a town called Ashboro had been platted nearly smack-dab in the center of the county, and an 1861 petition to move the courthouse and jail there garnered 1,635 signatures. While a sizable amount, the petition lacked the names of at least two-thirds of county voters, so it was flatly denied.
By the mid 1860s, Brazil had grown from a farm to an officially-recognized town due to its location adjacent to a prominent new mode of transportation- the railroad. Undaunted by their neighbors’ newfound prominence, Ashboro stakeholders tried to move the seat there again in 1871. This time, an alternative faction formed with the goal of moving the seat of government even further north to Brazil. The new group won out. After more than thirty years of debate, Clay County finally had a new seat.
It took six years to get the community built up to county seat standards, but in early 1877 county records were finally moved to Brazil by way of wagons. The courthouse there was yet another brick structure, resembling the Ripley County Courthouse in Versailles. The old courthouse in Bowling Green stood another thirty-three years until it was razed by a lightning strike5. Meanwhile, a post office at Ashboro continued through 19186.
Clay County’s population continued to grow, and by 1912, county officials again deemed a courthouse inadequate, this time due to a lack of space and secure storage facilities. Architect John W. Gaddis, who’d designed similar courthouses in Putnam and Huntington counties, was awarded the design contract and drew up the massive, neoclassical building that graces the square today. The courthouse sits at the far east side of the square since it was built immediately adjacent to the previous one. The two courthouses were so close, in fact, that officials could just transfer records from building to building by passing them through open windows7. Just a week after the new courthouse was completed, the old one was demolished, giving Clay County an interesting, asymmetrical square.
Walking around the weirdly-spaced Shelbyville square reveals some interesting monuments. Chief among them is the 1945 Clay County American Legion memorial to World War II veterans, a strange-looking, octagonal building coated in locally-manufactured blue tile. The courthouse lawn also features two pieces of Civil War field artillery, as well as an F-86 fighter jet from the Korean War.
The courthouse, obviously, towers over all of its accoutrements. Built of limestone and rising three stories over a raised basement and features a flat roof with central, broken, gables that terminate in pediments at the center of each side. Rising above the roof is a two-story dome with twelve windows in the drum that provide light to an internal, octagonal skylight. Long after falling into disrepair, a community-based effort in 1986 led to the skylight’s restoration, as well as the addition of four clock faces into each of the courthouse’s pediments- a detail which, for budgetary reasons, had been left out during the building’s original construction8.
I asked my brother about his most striking memories from his time studying in Brazil. His immediate response was that he ate the best cheeseburger he’d ever had in his life at a local place in Porto Alegre. Secondly, he mentioned that the capital streets were entirely deserted and silent due to Brazil’s World Cup match against the Netherlands. My time in Brazil, Indiana was similar. The streets were similarly deserted, though Brazil’s Northview High School baseball team hadn’t quite won their 3A championship yet. Additionally, I had a great Flamethrower Burger at the National Road Dairy Queen there. All this, and I saved the hassle of learning a new language!
Though I’ve never seen Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, Copacabana, or Ipanema Beach, I have seen the outstanding results of when Hoosiers in Brazil, as well as residents of several other Indiana communities, rally around their old courthouses by restoring them, regardless of the how they pronounce the towns that they call home. In Brazil (oh, fine- BRAY-zuhl), here’s hoping that the monumental courthouse continues to anchor the southwest approach to downtown for another century. But on the off-chance that the county seat moves again -to Clay City, Center Point, Coalmont, or Knightsville- my wish would be that they keep this one standing and invest in a lightning rod.
Clay County (pop. 26,198, 59/92)
Brazil (pop. 8,078).
Cost: $225,000 ($5.74 million in 2016)
Architect: John W. Gaddis
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 100 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
1 Blanchard, Charles. Counties of Clay and Owen, Indiana: Historical and Biographical. Chicago. F.A. Battey & Co., 1884. Print.
2 “Wabash-Erie Canal Corridor Area” Greene County Indiana. Greene County Tourism Advisory Board. 2019. Web. Retrieved March 23, 2019.
3 Cabral, Paulo. “Economy and Iraq divide votes in the city Brazil”. BBC Brasil. The British Broadcasting Company. October 11, 2004. Web. Retrieved March 23, 2019.
4 “Bellaire” Clay County Genealogical Society. CCGS. 2019. Web. Retrieved March 23, 2019.
5 Enyart, David. “Clay County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. March 23, 2019.
6 “Clay County”. Jim Forte Postal History. Web. Retrieved March 23, 2019.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Clay County Courthouse, Brazil, Clay County, Indiana, National Register #99001109.
8 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Clay County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquare.org