Morgan County- Martinsville (1859-)

The 1859 Morgan County Courthouse in Martinsville.

A few months ago I went to the gas station before work to buy some water. There was a sale on spring water -99 cents for a quart- so I bought two. I took it to the register, when the cashier scanned it, glanced down at me, and said, “you know- you could get electrolyte water down at Fresh Thyme instead if you wanted.” I told him that, to me (beyond the fetid well water of my parents’ house) water is water and that I didn’t have a preference. “Okay,” the cashier said, drawing out the vowel. “It’s just that I prefer water that’s actually drinkable!” 

The next day I decided to heed his advice and bought a bottle of PH-balanced electrolyte water on the way to work. Like the spring water, it tasted pretty good. I sat down at my desk and the bottle must have caught the eye of the woman sitting next to me. “Ew,” she declared. “I hate that stuff! I only drink spring water!” With water, sometimes you just can’t win!

That is,  unless you’re Martinsville, the seat of Morgan County, where they’re all about mineral water. In 1887, workers hit water while drilling for gas just east of downtown. Their exasperation soon turned to optimism when scientists tested the stuff- in their view, it had healing properties! In 1888, a small bathhouse consisting of a steam room and pool which soon evolved into the Barnard Sanitarium was built on the grounds. Of its waters, the Indianapolis News shared the opinion of the guy at the gas station, opining that it was “certainly nasty enough to cure anything, if nastiness is what makes a good remedy, and, as everybody knows, the chief characteristic of medicine is its offensiveness1.” Regardless of the opinions of the highfalutin press, the place successful enough to be enlarged in 1890.

The five-story campanile makes the courthouse the tallest building in Martinsville.

Now it was really off to the races for Martinsville- per the census, the city’s population doubled over the next twenty years, and ultimately more than twelve sanitariums opened up, all advertising the purported health benefits of Martinsville’s special water. Ultimately, the town became one of the three most patronized “mineral water health resorts” in the nation2! Though the last sanitarium, Home Lawn, closed in 19713, reminders of the city’s past are easy to find. For starters, the roof of the 1866 Union Block building at the northwest corner of the courthouse square features a landmark old sign that promotes the town as “MARTINSVILLE CITY OF MINERAL WATER4” in bright new LED lights. If that wasn’t enough, the logo of Martinsville High School is a wishing well, and its athletic teams are called the Artesians. I love unique high school sports nicknames, and that one’s definitely in the top five in the state*.

Now, officials who platted Martinsville in 1822 had no idea of the prominence mineral water would play into their later history. But Martinsville had a clear advantage over other county seat competitors due to its central location and position near the White River5. Lots of timber and clay in the area further bolstered Martinsville’s early prominence, and a 25×35 foot log courthouse was built in 1824 so county business could move out of the house of settler Jacob Cutler6. In 1836, the county’s second courthouse was built, lasting until 1859 when we got the building seen today. Yes, in some form, the present-day Morgan County Courthouse has existed for 160 years. It’s one of eight pre-Civil War courthouses still standing in Indiana.

The courthouse is unique in featuring a connected Sheriff’s residence at its western front, along with its sibling, the Jennings County Courthouse.

Architect Isaac Hodgson was responsible for the design of courthouse, along with seven others in the state. As was common, Hodgson reused his Martinsville design for the 1861 courthouse in Vernon, Jennings County. It’s nearly identical, though with a bit less ornamentation. Both designs are unique for two big reasons, though: the first is that they are the only two complete examples of Italianate courthouse architecture in Indiana, though elements of that style can be found in courthouses elsewhere. The second reason the buildings are so peculiar is that both combine the county sheriff’s house, the county jail, and the courthouse all into one structure- something that is found literally nowhere else in the state. When I first went to Martinsville back in 2012, I was intrigued by the little house tacked on to the building’s west side. Now I know what it’s there for. 

The flat-roofed 1956 addition is visible between the two gabled sections of the structure.

The sheriff no longer lives in the courthouse, nor are prisoners held there. But those are relatively minor changes compared to what else has happened to the building over its lengthy lifespan. As originally completed, the building took the form of a cruciform plan with a nearly-freestanding bell tower rising five stores tall, lending it an asymmetrical appearance. Yet a series of additions have really muddled the building’s layout. In 1956, two small, flat-roofed additions were made to the building’s northern and southern sides, matching the paired window treatment of the courthouse but leaving an obvious seam in the bricks. An enormous addition in 1976, built in response to fears regarding the courthouse’s structural integrity and vitality, added an eleven-bay facade to the building and today comprises the entire eastern elevation of the structure. Several smaller additions and renovations were made to the outside of the building in 1895, 1912, and 19347. 

A massive, architecturally-sympathetic 1970s addition dominates the entire east face of the courthouse.

Despite the deluge of changes, the Morgan County Courthouse has stood to see more than a century of changes in Martinsville and will be there for more as I-69 is completed just west of downtown. One positive change the the town has begun to see through has been working through its complex history of race relations and controversy. In the 1920s, Martinsville was a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity- in 1925, there were 1,600 members in Morgan County alone, representing a not-insignificant 8% of the the county’s total residents. Though Klan activity fell sharply by the end of that decade, Martinsville retained a reputation as a “sundown town,” despite its mayor urging residents to “disregard and ignore” the arrival of the Klan as part of a multi-city march in 1967. 

Even so, Martinsville’s reputation came to the forefront again when 20-year-old Carol Jenkins, a black woman in town from Rushville to sell encyclopedias, was stabbed in the heart with a screwdriver9 just a year after the Klan march came through town. Though her stepfather insisted that local police bring in the FBI to investigate the murder given the city’s reputation, local officials apparently refused10. Thirty-three years later, a lucky break in the cold case proved that Kenneth C. Richmond, a Hendricks County native randomly passing through town was the murderer- not a Martinsville resident. Nevertheless, the town’s reputation has persisted: only 1.6% of the city’s population, 180 people, are black. 

The south side of the courthouse was -and remains- its primary entrance, though additions have made its layout somewhat confusing.

I’m not qualified to speak on the lingering impact years of racism can have on a group of people, but Martinsville isn’t unique in its struggles. Sadly, many Indiana communities have histories intertwined with the KKK. Yet despite the efforts of city officials to dispel its negative reputation, African Americans still described the place as a “sundown town” as recently as 201711. Martinsville hasn’t experienced the same prolific growth of other county seats in the donut around Indianapolis have in recent years, and maybe its history is why. If the coming extension of I-69 doesn’t work to change this, then I’m not sure what will. It does seem, through my unqualified lens, as though officials are really trying to rehabilitate Martinsville’s reputation. 

Unfortunately, while it may have been good for a minor kidney or liver ailment, it takes more than artesian mineral water to heal racial divisions like those experienced in Martinsville’s past. Hopefully, the city’s old courthouse will continue to stand as a landmark beckoning people of all races into a welcoming community, rather than as a prominent signpost warning people to stay out. 

Morgan County (pop. 69,782, 25/92)
Martinsville (pop. 11,855)
47/92 photographed
Built: 1859. Expanded in 1956 and 1976.
Cost:  $32,000 ($852,000 in 2016)
Architect: Isaac Hodgson
Style: Italianate
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 80 feet
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 3/12/16- 47/92

1 Stuttgen, Joanne R. & Tomak, Curtis. “Martinsville” Arcadia Publishing [Mount Pleasant]. 2008. Print.
2 “National Sanitarium At Martinsville Known Over Nation As Health Resort” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis] April 7, 1930. 20. Print.
3 Ksander, Yael. “Martinsville Sanitariums” Moment of Indiana History. Indiana Public Media. June 19, 2006. Web. Retrieved June 17, 2019.
4 National Register of Historic Places, Martinsville Commercial Historic District, Martinsville, Morgan County, Indiana, National Register # 98000300.
5 Blanchard, Charles. “Counties of Morgan, Monroe, and Brown, Indiana: Historical and Biographical. F.A. Battey & Co. [Chicago]. 1884. Print.
6 Enyart, David. “Morgan County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. June 18, 2019.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Morgan County Courthouse, Martinsville, Morgan County, Indiana, National Register # 95001531.
8 Rimer, Sara. “After Arrest, Town Shamed by ’68 Killing Seeks Renewal” The New York Times [New York]. May 17, 2002. Web. Retrieved June 18, 2019.
9 Terry, Don. “34 years later, sad secret surfaces” The Chicago Tribune [Chicago]. May 12, 2002. Web. Retrieved June 18, 2019.
10 Hewitt, Bill. “Slow Justice” People [Des Moines]. July 15, 2002. Web. Retrieved June 18, 2019.
11 King, Robert. “They’re bridging a racial divide” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. April 2, 2017. A2. Print.

*Along with the LaPorte Slicers, the Logansport Berries, the Shoals Jug Rox, and the Frankfort Hot Dogs.

2 thoughts on “Morgan County- Martinsville (1859-)

  1. I always recognized this as a beautiful old courthouse but never considered that it came from before the civil war. I was somehow also unaware how big the mineral springs were in their history.

    Morgan County has a unique character. I recall a conversation with a guy from the professional community there who left a county job after he figured out that his chances for advancement were slim. He said it was because “you’re not from around here.” And he was a white guy.


    1. Yeesh. I have enough problems with the job market without moving to Martinsville, it sounds like- mineral water aside, which I love.

      I’ve got the photos all done up, but one day soon I’ll need to write about Jennings County’s courthouse in Vernon. It is functionally identical barring some of this one’s later additions.


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