November brought some great anniversaries our way. First off, I turned twenty-nine and entered my third decade on this planet on the seventh. Happy birthday to me! Happy birthday to Courthousery, too- we’re kicking off our third year talking about Indiana’s old courthouses. Finally, Thanksgiving Day will mark two years since I visited my ninety-second county in Indiana and wrapped the bulk of the project up. I’m glad we’re all here to celebrate! Here, have a slice of cake. It’s even got a icing flower- your favorite!
Just a few weeks ago, though, I wasn’t sure we’d even be here to celebrate- as I finish up school, funds for hosting and supporting the site had dried up until an anonymous benefactor saw the value in this project and sponsored the site for a year. I was humbled that others value this site, its photos, and the research that backs it all up as much as I do. Thank you all very much for being here- it’s my belief that this site serves as a great resource for those interested in Indiana’s historic courthouses, as well as those around the midwest. Have another piece of cake- wait no, not that one. It’s mine!
Now, the courthouses. Abraham Lincoln was prolific even in his youth. Early on, he operated a ferry near Troy, Indiana on the Ohio River. Later, he studied law under local attorney John T. Brackenridge in Boonville, which touts itself as “where Lincoln learned the law.” My middle name is Lincoln, so I’ll offer this addition to the town’s tagline: Boonville is also “where Theodore Charles Lincoln Shideler learned to hate INDOT cantilevered sign supports.” But we’ll get back to that in a little bit.
Like many of Indiana’s counties, Warrick’s got a …wait for it… interesting history. It was originally part of Knox County, 60 miles northwest! Those early Indiana Territory counties were massive, but in 1814, this area split off and an early version of Evansville was selected to be the county seat. The following year, the community of Darlington was set up to replace Evansville, its official plat recorded in 1816. Only two years later, Darlington was abandoned for reasons that elude me. Though its original log cabin courthouse still stood in a ruinous state until as late as 1909, nothing remains from the old town today aside from a Darlington Road that extends eastward from Newburgh as Old IN-66 towards Yankeetown1.
Boonville, named after the early settler Ratliff Boon who donated much of its land, was platted in 1818. Originally set up as 25 square blocks, it only took a year for the town to be the preeminent community in what is now considered Warrick County2. Early officials wanted to keep their seat within a day’s worth of travel to Evansville (17 miles away) and Newburgh (which was on a mail route to Louisville)3. Combined with Boon’s donation of land, the deal seemed to work out perfectly.
But things never turn out the way they appear, and the county seat struggled at its onset. A “small and rudely constructed4” log courthouse, not much better than the one abandoned in Darlington, was where officials convened in Boonville’s early days, and though commissioners intended to replace it with a brick building in 1829, a lack of funds led them to construct another cheap wooden building- this time frame5.
It was never completed. Though weatherboarded and roofed, the structure wasn’t lathed or plastered, and the government was only able to use it during the summer months- clearly a problem. By 1836, officials scavenged together enough funds for Warrick County’s third wooden courthouse, a “Coffee-Mill” courthouse, a style that resembled that antiquated device and one I call a “Pop Socket Courthouse” to describe its similarity to today’s modern stick-on phone-holders. Brick and roughly square, the Pop Socket courthouses usually featured a hipped roof and central cupola. Today, well-preserved examples can be seen in Rome and Corydon.
Though Boonville continued to struggle during its early years, eventually it became prosperous once agricultural facilities there surpassed those of any other in the county5. In 1851, a fifth courthouse was erected, a 60 x 44 foot building that cost $5,237. Federal in design and brick in construction, the building featured a stepped-gable design6 that hid its triangular roofline. Three bays wide at its narrow end and five bays long, the building looked like an old canal building that you’d find in Huntington or Delphi. Importantly, it wasn’t fireproofed- actually a big concern since there’ve been forty-four courthouse fires in Indiana, all resulting in lost records6. Thankfully, the firetrap was replaced in 1904 during the construction of the current Warrick County Courthouse, a building that has stood the test of time by not burning down.
A mix of Beaux Arts and Neoclassical stylings, the 1904 Warrick County Courthouse is unlike any others in our state’s portfolio. At only seventy feet it’s not particularly tall, but it manages to tower over the rest of downtown by the means of guy wires that support its spindly cupola that probably rises another 20 feet above the square. Due to its notable mix of architectural modes, there’s not a single courthouse in Indiana that resembles it. Yellow Huntingburg brick, as we’ve admittedly seen in several other courthouses so far, is heavily featured across the building’s bulk along with Bedford limestone accents. But we’ve never seen that brick in this application, and despite its heavy French and Greek influences, the building’s a Hoosier affair through and through.
Each of the courthouse’s four sides are mostly the same, with classical entrance porticos, triangular pediments, and two-story columns7. Atop the hipped roof sits a short, open belfry. Visible within it is an angled stair that goes towards the clockworks. I love open belfries, and this one -along with the LaPorte County Courthouse– represent the best examples in the state. It’s fun to anthropomorphize our courthouses, and both of them look like big cyclopses, either tired and yawning or crazed and entropic.
Now, about that belfry: I found a reference to the clock tower being a later addition to the building as a gift from local citizen Herbert Hoggatt. I set out to find a postcard or historic image of Boonville’s courthouse without a tower, but any that may have existed eluded me. What I did find, though, was an early photograph of the building with a clock tower without any clocks8. A quick consultation of a Boonville Sanborn fire insurance map from 1907 -the year after the courthouse was built- showed a 70-foot, open masonry, clock tower rising from the building’s center9. It appears as though the clock tower was always part of the building’s plan, and that its Seth Thomas clocks were what Hoggatt provided later. That’s an arrangement somewhat common to our courthouses; I’ve seen in it occur in Brazil, Peru, and Greencastle, to name a few county seats.
Getting to Boonville was an odyssey spanning 230 miles and three-and-a-half hours behind the wheel (though obviously a safer, more comfortable, and quicker trip than the day-long expedition it took pioneers in Evansville to travel the seventeen miles there via wagon). Once there, photos were tough- not because lighting proved too problematic, but because INDOT, along with Warrick County, seems to have treated its historic courthouse square as a total dump for jumbled utility poles, power lines, and a wasteland of cantilevered signs. At the north, east, and south sides of the courthouse square, obtrusive signs advertising the passage of IN-61 and IN-62 and blocked good vantage points for photos- you’d think they’re being grown for harvest! Those dumb pylons ruin the view of our state’s historic structures. It’s not just here, by the way- take a look at Greencastle while you’re at it. Or Bloomfield.
Despite the errant signage and other miscellaneous infrastructure, Boonville’s got a nice courthouse in the middle of town. Though the actual courts have recently moved to a modern building just to the north of the courthouse, most of the county offices are still there, and it anchors downtown like a good old building should. Though its surrounding signs add a mustard smear to an otherwise clean polo shirt, the fact that its unique mix of Neoclassical and Beaux Arts architecture intermingle in a way that’s not seen in any other Hoosier courthouse, along with its original construction, means that the building has earned a well-deserved place within our state’s portfolio of old courthouses.
Warrick County (pop. 45,844, 26/92)
Boonville (pop. 6,.337)
Cost: $75,000 ($2.02 million in 2016)
Architect: William JH. Harris & Clifford Shopbell
Style: Beaux Arts/Neoclassical
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville
Height: 70 feet
Current Use: County offices
1 Nance, Karen. “Transcribed from ‘History of Warrick County and its Prominent People.” Darlington. Marsha’s Warrick Web. 2019. Web. Retrieved 10/14/19.
2 “A History of Warrick County, Indiana, Prior to 1820, Including a Sketch of Methodism in the County Down to 1850” Indiana University [Bloomington]. 1915. Print.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Boonville Public Square Historic District, Boonville, Warrick County, Indiana, National Register # 86002720.
4 “Boonville” Warrick County, Indiana. Genealogy Trails. 2019. Web. Retrieved 10/14/19.
5 “History of Warrick, Spencer, and Perry Counties, Indiana: Goodspeed Brothers & Co. [Chicago]. 1885. Print.
6 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 10/14/19.
7 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Warrick County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 10/14/19.
8 “Warrick County Courthouse, Boonville, Indiana” Indiana Memory. Indiana State Library. 2019. Web. Retrieved 10/14/19.
9 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. 1907. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 10/14/19.