Perry County- Rome (1818-1859)

The 1818 Perry County Courthouse in Rome.

Historians have examined the cities of Rome and Troy for years, trying to ascertain whether one was founded by descendants of the other’s ancient heroes or whether the legendary story is, well, hokum. But rest assured- through my diligent research, I’ve finally cracked the case. Though the two cities were founded at different times by different people, they remained fierce rivals for nearly fifty years.

What’s that? Oh, I’m sorry- you thought I was talking about the ancient city-states from antiquity? No, no, no. I’m speaking, of course, about two small Indiana towns of the same names, bitter rivals for the title of Perry County seat. Just like in ancient times, Rome, Indiana managed to outlive its counterpart Troy- at least for a while.

Perry County has one of the most active geopolitical histories in Indiana- the county seat’s moved four times, most recently in 1994. That’s unheard of! For just four years, Troy served as the center of Perry Government and officials built a log courthouse there to cater to the needs of the county’s residents1. As a 20-year-old kid, Abraham Lincoln operated a ferry there but it wasn’t to last- the state legislature dealt it two hard blows in 1818. First, a bill passed that designated a new county -Spencer- to be split off from Perry, cutting the massive, 778-square mile county just about clean in half. Unfortunately, cleaving off so much land meant that Troy, located at the far-western tip of the new county, was no longer centrally-located. But Rome, newly-established, was! Legislature passed later that year forced government to relocate, dealing the final uppercut to Troy’s glass jaw. 

Louvered panels in the building’s cupola were replaced over the years.

I wish jabs and blocks in boxing were voted on and passed to an executive body to be approved- the thought reminds me of the time I spent three full workdays waiting for concept art to render and website “code to compile” while watching a Twitch stream of a fish playing Pokemon by randomly swimming to different areas on the screen that had been sectioned off to correspond with buttons on a Gameboy. The boxing match would take weeks! Unfortunately, reality hit Troy like a Dreamland Express punch. By 1819, a two-story brick courthouse in Rome was serving constituents across the county2. Trojans to the west were, understandably, annoyed. They were probably even more aggravated once you hear what happened next. 

If you think you’ve heard this story before, you’d be right. The story of our state is full of different courthouse rivalries, maneuverings, and outright skirmishes- they’re one of my favorite parts of history to dive into! Counties adjacent to the Ohio River seem particularly ripe for this kind of tabloid epic: There’s actually some evidence that Rome may have actually changed its name in response to usurping Troy as the county seat3. Hilarious! Millennials like me often refer to people with trivial complaints or annoyances as being “petty”. Naming a new county seat “Rome” after it supplanted “Troy” is the ultimate act of pioneer pettiness- previously, the place had been called Washington, and briefly Franklin. I love it!

David Hermansen called these structures “coffee mills”. I prefer to keep with modern language and call them “pop-socket” courthouses, after the thing you stick on your massive cell phone to hold it properly.

Samuel Connor, a hero of the American Revolution, helped administer the effort to move the Petty -I mean Perry- County seat and courthouse to Rome, and he helped build the place too4. A yellow-brick courthouse -designed in response to the 1816 state capitol in Corydon- the courthouse, exemplary of Ball State professor David Hermansen’s “coffee mill style,” is two stories tall with a full basement. Seemingly a cube up to the roofline, each side features three window bays except the western front, which has only two. Originally, the building sat on a sandstone foundation and featured a southern entrance. Above a functional wooden cornice was a hopped roof that supported a large, octagonal cupola with windows and a roof of white oak shingles. Inside, the building was basic. Above the unfinished basements sits two rooms and a pair of modern bathrooms, accompanied by two stairways. The second story features a long hall with a room on either side. As was common in the era, I’d imagine that downstairs held offices for the fledgling county, and upstairs held a courtroom and sheriff’s office. 

Armed with the title of county seat, Rome began to grow. By the 1840s, numerous groceries, a warehouse, a wharf, several taverns, a cobbler, a distillery, a tannery, a post office, and flour mill all called the county seat home. Unfortunately, other communities in Perry County were growing as well- namely Cannelton, about seventeen miles west and only seven miles south of Rome’s old rival Troy. 

Conscious of their growing stature and tired of the discomforts that frequent trips to the inconvenient courthouse in Rome brought6, Cannelton residents petitioned the state to move the seat of government in the late 1850s. They got their wish in 1859, though the move was fought by none other than the people of Troy! Turns out that Cannelton had defeated their 1852 attempt to make yet a new county out of Perry and Spencer with Troy as the county seat7. The county seat moved yet again, for the third time, so Rome dried up. 

After it served as the courthouse, the building was a parochial school, then the Rome school until the mid-1960s. Now it’s a community center.

After the courts left, the old courthouse was mostly used as a school, first on lease to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cannelton and later to St. Alban’s Academy. Per a school circular, the former courthouse was located “on a high bluff, commanding a beautiful view of the Ohio River and of the surrounding county. The town of Rome is a pleasant and very healthy place, with good society and free from the noise, bustle, and enticements of the city8.” Wow- who knew that Cannelton -along with its neighbor Tell City- were such repositories of vice! Driving through them both, I surely didn’t.

After its stint as a parochial school, the courthouse was used as the Rome public school, educating grades 1-12 until 1935 and then grades 1-8 until 1966 when the Perry Central school was constructed9. Incorporated in 1973, Rome Community Center, Inc. now uses the building for elections, meetings, private functions, and various events. 

Parts of the building are rough, which is why it was included on Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list a decade ago. That second story door to nowhere is a remnant of a 1930s fire escape.

Today, the courthouse is just about all that’s left from Rome since it’s the only non-residential building left in the sleepy community of about a hundred people. Its been altered over the years- the sandstone foundation was plastered in 1917, the entrance was moved from the south to the east in the 1930s, two chimneys were removed in 1960, the cupola roof was replaced with redwood seven years later, and a non-contributing fire escape added when the front door was rearranged was taken down sometime within the past thirty-five years. Even so, the building’s still there as Indiana’s second-oldest remaining courthouse, though its continued preservation is problematic10. Though Rome outlasted Troy as the county seat by forty years, it’s now just an unincorporated hamlet while Troy still has a post office and official population count of 385 as of the 2010 Census. 

The 1818 Perry County Courthouse in Rome still watches over its largely-forgone hamlet.

Ultimately, Perry County justice of the peace Henry P. Brazee probably summed up Rome’s tenure as county seat best with his 1850s poem that referenced Lord Byrum’s The Coliseum:

While stands the courthouse
Rome shall stand;
When falls the courthouse

Rome shall fall.
And when Rome falls-
Look out for a general scam-
pering of officeholders.

Both Rome and Troy got the last laugh in 1994 when Cannelton, their rival, was stripped of the county seat in favor of the larger Tell City. Though that saga presented a new chapter in Perry County’s courthouse wars, the 1818 Rome Courthouse still stands -despite its officeholders scampering- as a reminder of the conflict’s initial skirmish.

Perry County (pop. 19081, 474/92)
Rome (pop. 0)
Built: 1818
Cost: Unknown
Architect: Also unknown
Style: Federal
Courthouse Square: Lancaster
Height: Two stories
Current Use: Non-governmental
Photographed: 11/23/17

1 Enyart, David. “Perry County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 10/9/19.
2 National Register of Historic Places, Old Perry County Courthouse. Rome, Perry County, Indiana, National Register # 81000006.
3 “Town of Rome, Indiana”. Southern Indiana Connections. Riley Lamkin. 2014. Web. Accessed 10/9/19.
4 “Elderly man tries to save deteriorating Rome courthouse” The Tribune [Seymour]. April 24, 1989. 11. Print.
5 “History of Warrick, Spencer, and Perry Counties, Indiana: from the earliest time to the present.” Goodspeed Bros & Co [Chicago]. 1885. Print.
6 “Editorial”. The Cannelton Reporter [Cannelton]. January 12, 1856. Print.
7 “Rome and Troy Old Hoosier Rivals” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis]. August 22, 1952. 9. Print.
8 Annual Circular. Rome Academy [Rome]. Date unknown. Web. Accessed 10/9/19.
9 “History” Rome Indiana Historical Courthouse. Rome Community Center, Inc. Web. Retrieved 10/9/19.
10 “Perry County Courthouse Marks 200, but Needs New Use” Indiana Landmarks [Indianapolis]. November 20, 2018. Web. Retrieved 10/9/19.

4 thoughts on “Perry County- Rome (1818-1859)

  1. I’m the first to admit it, I know nothing about courthouses of the U.S. However I much enjoyed your prose and I surely learned a little along the way. Thank you! (I got here by way of Jim Grey’s blog).


    1. There are sort of two that are older. The 1816 statehouse in Corydon served double duty as the Harrison County Courthouse until the capital moved to Indianapolis. A bit trickier is the log Wayne County Courthouse, originally erected in the town of Salisbury in 1811 though it’s been moved, disassembled, and reassembled several times.


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