I’ve been to some small places on this project, including those that don’t even exist on a map. Towns like Rome, Wilmington, and Fredonia -all thriving county seats two hundred years ago- have long since been bypassed, eclipsed, and forgotten. That’s unfortunate, but a project to document all of Indiana’s historic county courthouses must mean all of them, including those that have languished and disappeared on some forgotten pike.
Make no mistake, though- some tiny county seats out there still hold government offices and conduct official business. Newport, English, and Shoals are all great examples of extant county seats with fewer than a thousand residents. But the smallest of all is tiny Vernon in Jennings County. It takes the cake (or leaves it on the baking rack, I guess) with only 318 people as of the 2010 census. The 2018 estimate was 3041– nearly five percent of the town moved away!
Yes, Vernon’s tiny. But looks are deceiving since it sits just south of North Vernon, a former suburb that’s largely eclipsed the county seat in nearly every way with a population of 6,700. Driving north on IN-3, I literally blinked and missed the courthouse! By the time I opened my eyes I was in North Vernon. Remember when you were a kid and had a loose tooth that was dangling by a thread, this close from breaking off and netting you a mandibular quarter later that night? Think of that tooth as Vernon. Your mouth is North Vernon. Sort of gross, but it makes sense to me.
Despite its small size compared to that of the relative metropolis that sits just north, some interesting people have passed through Vernon during its history. Ovid Butler, founder of Butler University, lived there for eight years after he turned sixteen. At twelve, Horatio C. Newcomb moved to town, later joining Butler’s law firm in Indy and becoming editor of the Indianapolis Daily Journal before becoming mayor there. Newcomb’s old paper was eventually purchased by John C. New, another Vernon native who was appointed United States Treasurer in 1875. If that wasn’t enough, a woman named Hannah Elizabeth Milhous was born in nearby Butlerville ten years later. She wasn’t famous, but her son -president Richard Nixon was- he came to town in 1971. There, in front of the courthouse in Vernon, the president gave a speech dedicating a nearby historical marker to his deceased mother2. The president in Vernon. Can you believe it?
The courthouse Nixon spoke in front of is unique in some ways, but not in others. Italianate isn’t a common style of courthouse architecture in Indiana, so Vernon’s belongs to an exclusive club from the get-go. That being said, architect Isaac Hodgson designed the 1861 structure to be identical to his 1857 Morgan County Courthouse in Martinsville3! No one really knows whether he was pressed for time in designing the courthouses or if he just had a real penchant for the Italianate mode4, but for what it’s worth his other courthouses of the 1850s and 1860s tended to be of the Norman style, a subset of Romanesque that features round arches and enormous proportions. Above are Hodgson’s 1862 Hendricks County Courthouse (now replaced), and his 1869 Henry County Courthouse New Castle, which is still there and is just about equal parts Norman and Second Empire. Hodgson’s other remaining courthouse is in Columbus, an exuberant Second Empire structure built in 1874. All in all, the man designed eight courthouses across the state, most notably his masterpiece in Indianapolis, demolished in 1962. Only the structures in Vernon and Martinsville are downright Italianate.
Let’s examine them. Actually, let’s mostly dispatch with Martinsville’s, since large portions of it have been added onto and changed from its original design5. What I find most fascinating about the original buildings is the little house attached to the side like that miniature baby tooth from earlier. I went to Martinsville a lot earlier than I went to Vernon and was dumbfounded. Surely it wasn’t a house; but indeed it was- it’s where the sheriff lived. Back in the day, state law dictated that sheriffs were required to live in the same building as the jail, as their wives often served as jail matrons. Of course the folks weren’t required to live in a cell, but usually a house -often Italianate, given the period- was built onto the front of the jail for the lawman and his family. Amazingly, many of them still stand as separate structures around the courthouse square. Officials in Morgan and Jennings counties went a different way, though, perhaps at Hodgson’s direction, by combining the sheriff’s residence, jail, and courthouse into a single building, a precursor to today’s justice center. Intriguing! No modern sally ports involved, transporting a prisoner from the courtroom to the jail was as easy as walking him down a hallway.
The courthouse in Vernon was built out of local burnt brick and stone from Vinegar Mill, a place that dates to about 1840 in the present-day Muscatatuck Park just east of town and purportedly the site of the first functioning stone cutting blade in Indiana6. The roof of the courthouse was built of 40-lb. English tin, which it retains, and the building’s overall design consists of Italianate tropes like low-pitched roofs; overhanging eaves with heavy brackets; tall, arched windows; and a campanile-type tower. Inside, the building was renovated during the 1950s, but it was restored to its original design thirty years later after being listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Vernon Historic District in 1976.
Some researchers think that it’s only a matter of time before Jennings County’s government will move to Vernon entirely7. The sheriff’s office, jail, and fire department straddle the zone between the two communities, and some of the lesser county agencies already exist in North Vernon. If a move occurred, it’d bump up Jennings County’s county seat from 92nd in terms of population to 55th, but I don’t think it’ll happen.
Not that I have my finger on the pulse of southern Indiana’s geopolitical maneuverings or anything, but officials recently built a new government center in Vernon in 1999, and another structure there -a superior court probation building- was built in 1955 as a then-new jail and sheriff’s headquarters. That’s a lot to uproot! Though I didn’t take any pictures of the modern county annex, it does its predecessor and colleague proud in terms of style, featuring two-story arched windows, an abbreviated tower from which hangs an American flag, and other design cues copped from the old courthouse. It’s visible on Google Street View if you’re interested, as is the 1950s building which, aside from being brick, offers no such ornamentation.
This looks stupidly obvious all typed out, but I think a historic courthouse like Vernon’s is precisely why the small communities that have them continue to remain relevant. Vernon, with a jewelry repair shop, family restaurant and tap room, post office, historical society, liquor store, and pizza parlor certainly outpaces many communities five or six times its size. Add in a random collection of firsts attributed to the town by Wikipedia (first public playground in Indiana, first elevated railroad overpass west of the Alleghenies, first all-women’s jury in Indiana, and first Disciples of Christ church in Indiana and all those notable residents) and you’ve got an interesting place. I’m glad that a unique, historic courthouse -one of just eight in Indiana that predate the end of the Civil War- still serves to look over this quirky community. Though it may be past its heyday and you’ll have to go to North Vernon for a hotel room, fast food, or a grocery; Vernon still has a lot to offer to the historically-minded. I’m glad I turned back after I blinked! I would have missed this weird little town and its great old courthouse.
Jennings County (pop. 28,241, 58/92)
Built: 1857, remodeled in 1950s and 1980s.
Cost: $26,375 ($677,262 in 2016)
Architect: Isaac Hodgson
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 80 feet
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
1 “Population and Housing Unit Estimates” United States Census Bureau. U.S. Department of Commerce [Washington, D.C.]. Web. Retrieved 5/14/20.
2 “Hannah Milhous Nixon” State Historical Markers. Indiana Historical Bureau. 2020. Web. Retrieved 5/12/20.
3 Counts, W. & Dilts, J. “The Magnificent 92: Indiana Courthouses” Indiana University. Rose Bud Press [Bloomington]. 1991. Print.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Jennings County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 5/15/20.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Vernon Historic District, Vernon, Jennings County, Indiana, National Register # 76000024.
6 “Vinegar Mill” Jennings County Parks & Recreation [North Vernon]. Web. Retrieved 5/15/20.
7 Enyart, David. “Jennings County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 5/14/20.