A lot of what draws me to courthouses is the escapism they represent for me. That sentiment might sound a little crazy given that people are often sentenced to years of confinement from within their walls, but I approach each courthouse I go to as a tourist. I’ve I’ve pretty much lived the past twenty-five years within six square miles on the west side of Muncie, so cut me some slack! Encountering a new courthouse in my formative years usually involved going somewhere different. As I started this project, coming across a new-to-me clock tower rising in the distance recalled that same feeling of freedom. Even if it was only thirty miles away, I was traveling somewhere new.
But that sense of wonderment doesn’t happen all the time. I certainly didn’t experience it at first when I visited Ohio’s Muskingum County Courthouse in Zanesville as I approached it from the west on I-70. I was long into a trip home from southeastern West Virginia and from that vantage, the building’s just tough to see! Though old Sanborn fire insurance maps peg the courthouse at more than 150 feet tall, a combination of the curving highway, foliage, and cage barriers over the river make it practically invisible until seconds before the Seventh Street exit when, of course, you’re too late to grab anything but a fleeting glance of it poking out over Zanesville’s Masonic Temple.
As much as I like to see a landmark structure materialize from an isolated and viscous horizon, sometimes it’s fun to have stuff just jump out and wallop you smack-dab in the pie hole. My new cat, Disco, is a great talent when it comes to leaping into the foreground out of nowhere. A 50/50 mix of “feral” and “mutt,” Disco Biscuit spent her earliest months in a barn before my brother rescued her and brought her home. Jet black in all but the most fiery sunbeam, her manner of slinking around the house before blitzing her toys reminds me of a much larger animal. She’s our little house panther!
I don’t have a lot of experience with large cats like real panthers aside from the enormous, feral Bengal that incidentally showed up around my house last fall. I’ve always found them beguiling, though- when that spotted Bengal first came around, I spent several hours over the course of a week watching it stalk birds in the front yard, completely enraptured with all the childhood verve I’d cultivated from trips to see the leopards at the Fort Wayne Zoo with my grandma. Similarly, I didn’t have a lot of experience with Zanesville when I stopped to take pictures of the courthouse there, only traveling there once. Until I went back, my sole trip to Zanesville during one October night in 2011 occurred when a buddy and I were in search of what we called some “real shit.”
Urban Dictionary defines real shit as “A piece of news or factual information that is not only considered 100% correct, but also societally relevant1. “ In our case, a friend and I were looking for big cats that fit Urban Dictionary’s criteria. That day, my own feelings of escapism intertwined with the bedlam occurring just west of town!
Some context: The day before, news broke that the owner of a private zoo there had killed himself and released all of his animals, most of which appeared to be man-eaters like lions, bears, and tigers. Some which hadn’t been found were theorized to be roaming up and down the I-70 corridor2. Schools were shut down, Jack Hanna was called in, and local authorities moved portable electronic highway signs to the area and programmed them to say “CAUTION: EXOTIC ANIMALS” after a tiger was hit by a car3. The story turned out to be a little more complicated and tragic, as are many stories having to do with mental illness, but that’s all officials knew at the time, and that’s what I based an urgent sense of “I need to see this for myself!” from. After I got off work at midnight, my buddy Cody and I hit the road to rubberneck. I expected to see the signs, but would have absolutely pooped in my pants and veered into the ditch if a cheetah leapt onto my windshield from the darkened trees that bordered the highway. But with that possibility in mind, southeast we headed.
Now, wild animals like coyotes, deer, and porcupines are common in the agricultural midwest. Notably, macaques, baboons, and lions are not, though they’d appear right at home at the southeastern corner of downtown Zanesville’s courthouse square. Heavily-forested, the plot is centered around what at first glance appears to be the ruins of a mayan temple but is actually the Muskingum County World War II and Korean War Memorial, a cairn assembled from 297 army helmets accompanied by three statues that represent the area’s dead from those two conflicts. It is a solemn place, both remote from and undeniably close to the city surrounds. The top of the courthouse rises from between the trees. This is the view that led me to feel like I’d escaped, though not in the manner of a lion, tiger, or even -God Forbid- little Disco. She was the runt of the litter and would not do well on her own.
Three stories tall, the Muskingum County Courthouse rises above the treescape. It was designed by architect H.E. Meyer and dedicated in 1877. If Meyer’s design looks familiar to you, then hush up! He also designed the courthouses of Athens, Columbiana, Erie, and Licking counties, which are totally different to my eye. We don’t need your alien brain analytics here!
Of Meyer’s greater portfolio I’ve only been to Licking County’s, but here in Zanesville the courthouse is mostly limestone. It took two-and-a-half years to complete since the stone was hauled to town by horse and wagon from a quarry ten miles away. On site, fifty masons worked to carve it all up4.
Of course, Zanesville -and Muskingum County- have existed long before the present courthouse, old as it is. The county was created in 1804, its name coming from an Indian word meaning “near the river5.” Zanesville itself was named after Ebenezer Zane, a trailblazer who founded Wheeling, West Virginia and cut what’s now known as Zane’s Trace across Native American footpaths from Wheeling to Maysville, Kentucky6. In 1797, Zane deeded land along the Muskingum River to his son-in-law John McIntire, who platted a town called Westbourne. In 1801, the town was renamed in honor of Ebenezer.
In 1810, Zanesville wrested Ohio’s capital site from Chillicothe and erected a new capitol building downtown. The honor was short-lived, though, as Chillicothe briefly won it back before Columbus became the top cat later that year.
Nevertheless, the Federal style capitol built in Zanesville served as courthouse until 1874, when construction on the present building commenced. Though I didn’t bother to take a photo of it since I wasn’t aware of its existence at the time, the stone tablet from the old capitol was incorporated into the current structure and can be seen over its front steps7. I can relay that the current courthouse is of the Second Empire style, with a mansard roof and Italianate interconnected window hood moldings8.
In 1993, the ominously-named Muskingum County Law Administration Building was built9 and attached to the Muskingum County jail at the north side of the courthouse by means of a catwalk. The jail attaches to the old courthouse via another elevated pathway. It’s within the crux of these buildings that the memorial stands. In terms of height, the modern buildings are offset from the historic courthouse enough for the old building to retain its position as the centerpiece of downtown Zanesville, which I’m thankful for since that arrangement isn’t as obvious as you’d hope to find.
I missed the courthouse, jail, and law administration building during my first trip to Zanesville, which took three-and-a-half hours! But we made it there, passing several of the illuminated hazard signs without seeing any signs of exotic feline life or “real shit”, to boot. After a quick stop at the Shell Food Mart at the next exit for some coffee and a droopy old sandwich, we headed home. I dropped my buddy off around eight o’clock. Our spontaneous trip had been a success, I guess- at least in that it offered someplace new and different for us, even if a lion hadn’t pounced and I didn’t get the chance to total my car.
As much of a letdown as it sounds, that’s probably all for the best. As I write this, my little house panther Disco has climbed up towards her perch to chirp at birds she sees through the window- my little cutie. As far as our trip to Zanesville a decade ago? Well, I’ll write its impetus off as an unfortunate case of mental illness spun out of control, as I know that it can. At times, as demonstrated, it can impact the people or beings closest to the person afflicted. What can I say? For now, though, I’ll remember my first trip to Zanesville fondly as a part of finding my own independence, and my second trip to the city’s courthouse fondly, all the while swearing that I’ll never let little Disco Cat out on her own.
Muskingum County (pop. 86,215, 31/88)
Zanesville (pop. 25,200).
Cost: $221,657 ($5.15 million today)
Architect: H.E. Myers
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 156 feet
Current use: Some county offices and courts
1 W0k3. “Top Definition: Real Shit” Urban Dictionary. Aaron Peckham. Web. Retrieved 5/8/21.
2 Heath, Chris. “18 Tigers, 17 Lions, 8 Bears, 3 Cougars, 2 Wolves, 1 Baboon, 1 Macaque, and 1 Man Dead in Ohio” GQ. February 6, 2012. Web. Retrieved 5/8/21.
|3 Leckrone, Jim. “Freed tigers, lions and bears cause panic in Ohio” Reuters. October 19, 2011. Web. Retrieved 5/8/21
4 “Muskingum County Courthouse” The Supreme Court of Ohio & The Ohio Judicial System. The Supreme Court of Ohio [Columbus]. Web. Retrieved 5/8/21.
5 “Muskingum County”. Ohio History Central. Retrieved 5/8/21.
6 Longfellow, Rickie. “Back in Time: Zane’s Trace” Highway History. U.S. Department of Transportation. Federal Highway Administration. 6/27/2017. Web. Retrieved 5/8/21.
7 FamilyTrees. “Muskingum County Courthouse And Jail – Zanesville, Ohio” Waymarking.com. Groundspeak, Inc. Web. Retrieved 5/8/21.
8 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print.
9 Deacon, J. “Marion County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web. Retrieved 5/8/21.