Tale of the Courthouses

The first Dubois County courthouse, pictured at left, was built in 1818 in Portersville along the White River. The first clerk’s office is pictured at right.

Story by Candy Neal

The Dubois County Courthouse that we see today is the fourth one the county has had.

And the history leading up to the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is fascinating.

The first courthouse was located in Portersville, which is the northwest section of Dubois County, just south of the White River. Portersville was the first county seat.

The Indiana General Assembly formed Dubois County, using a portion of Pike County. The decree was made Dec. 20, 1817 and went into effect the following year, on Feb. 1, 1818.

One of the county’s earliest settlers, William McDonald, had a log house near the base line on the banks of Mud Hole Creek, which was a branch of Mill Creek, according to George R. Wilson, who wrote “Wilson’s History of Dubois County.”

“At this place the commissioners, who were to locate a county seat for Dubois county, met and selected the land upon which Portersville now stands,” Wilson wrote, “perhaps because it is on the banks of White river, streams in those days being valuable as means of transportation. Court was also held at the McDonald house until the first court house could be erected.”

A marker now sits at the first courthouse’s location in Portersville.

This courthouse that was built in 1818 was along the White River, “and it was just off the Buffalo Trace,” Dubois County Historian Art Nordhoff said. “So it was right in the heart of everything.”

“It was on a river, which is what they liked,” he said. “The rest of Dubois County was forest then.”

It was a two-story log cabin with two chimneys. A second office was built and made into an office for the clerk/recorder, and a third building was made as the jail. “It was all in the same area, on the Square in Portersville,” Nordhoff said.

Wilson wrote: “This court house was two stories high; the lower room was the court room, while the upper story was divided into rooms for jury purposes. There was a separate building for a clerk’s office. The jail was also two stories high, the lower story being built two logs thick, to form a “dungeon” for criminals of the worst class, such as horse thieves — then the most despised of all men. In those days imprisonment for debt was possible, and the upper story was used as a debtors’ prison.”

The courthouse was surrounded by forest and was on the banks of the White River. “Parties having suits in court would camp under these monarchs of the forest until their suits were disposed of,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson gave more details of what people involved with a court proceeding did for overnight accommodations:

“From McDonald’s house court adjourned to meet at Portersville. This village had but one hotel, then called a tavern. The judges and lawyers took possession of the tavern, while witnesses and jurors had to go elsewhere,” Wilson wrote. “Accommodations were not to be had, so when men were summoned as jurors they knew that they had to go prepared. It was before the day of matches, so each one took with him steel, flint, punk, and powder; balls, gun, salt, bread, a dog, a horse, and a blanket. The blanket frequently consisted of a bear’s hide, such as is now called a robe.

The first Dubois County clerk’s office was located in Portersville, adjacent to the courthouse.

“The jurors spent the night at ‘Jury spring,’ about one-fourth of a mile south of Portersville, with no shelter save their bear skins and the blue canopy of heaven,” Wilson continued. “They told jokes and played games until sleep overcame them. Early in the morning they were out for wild game, which was plentiful and furnished good meat. When court opened they were ready to serve as jurors and decide the ‘weighty case according to law and evidence.’”

A permanent marker now sits at the first courthouse’s location in Portersville, on Portersville Road East between Portersville Road and Portersville Road North. Also, a piece of wood from the first courthouse is located at the Dubois County Museum. And some of the wood from the first courthouse was used to build Rudolph’s Hotel and a farm shed in Portersville. When that was torn down, Nordhoff’s father retrieved some of the wood and made about 20 gavels, which he gave to the court and some of his friends.

By 1830, Dubois County had 1,774 residents, 50 of those in Portersville. The Enlow Mill was in Jasper along the Patoka River and a settlement was being developed in Ireland.

“But the county seat was way up here on the edge,” Nordhoff said of Portersville.

A group of men, including B. B. Edmonston Sr., Major T. Powers, Jacob Enlow, Joseph Enlow, Benjamin Enlow, and Henry Enlow, wanted to build a new courthouse, but not in Portersville.

“The Legislature said pick a site as close to the center of the county as possible,” Nordhoff said. “The Legislature appointed a committee to do that. And the committee was made up of people in the counties around us, not in this county.” It’s not noted why the Legislature chose non Dubois County residents for the committee, he said.

The committee selected the Jasper area because of the location’s proximity to the Patoka River.

Some of the wood from the first courthouse was used to build Rudolph’s Hotel and a farm shed in Portersville. When that was torn down, Art Nordhoff’s father retrieved some of the wood and made about 20 gavels, which he gave to the court and some of his friends.

“They liked the river, because that was transportation,” Nordhoff said. “And of everything along the river, this is the logical place, because the Enlow Mill was there. And it’s the crossing of the Yellow Bank Trail, just to the west of the mill.”

The Yellow Bank Trail was one of the major trails created by Native Americans, and it had been expanded by people who came to the interior of the state from the Ohio River, Nordhoff explained.

“You can see land coming up there in the river, just below the dam. That’s the Yellow Bank trail. That’s where they could cross the river,” Nordhoff said. “When the river is low, you can cross the river there. That’s the reason they put the mill there, because that was the transportation route.

“So then they were deciding where they were going to put this. They wanted to be on a river. So where along this river would they go? They would go where there is a trail, and there was some population, the population being the mill.”

The Legislature told the Jasper community to lay out a Square similar to the one in Portersville, with lots around the Square. “And the Legislature said that the people from Portersville could trade lots and get a lot in Jasper that matched the lot they had in Portersville,” Nordhoff said. “If someone lived in Portersville and they wanted to be in the county seat town, they could trade in their lot and get the same location in Jasper.” Some people did.

This second courthouse, like the first one, contained a school that was taught by the county clerk five days a week. It was also made of wood from surrounding forests. And it faced the south. “Why? Because that’s where the river was,” Nordhoff said.

Wilson noted a court case that was held at the courthouse against Jacob Drinkhouse, who “was sent to the state’s prison on what was entirely circumstantial evidence. He served seven months and was then pardoned.”

Drinkhouse lived in Portersville and made coonskin caps. “David Harris misplaced fifty dollars, and Drinkhouse was thought to have taken it,” Wilson wrote. “The Harris family afterwards found the money. Drinkhouse was not generally trusted, and evidently the jury thought the punishment should fit the man and not the crime.”

The courthouse burned down in 1839, but the reason for the fire was never documented.

“I’ve never read it, and no one has ever told me,” Nordhoff said.

In 1830, a committee selected Jasper to be the site of the county’s next courthouse because of its proximity to the center of the county and to the Patoka River. It later burned down in 1839. Artistic rendering published in “Wilson’s History of Dubois County.”

Wilson noted the burning, but did not offer any explanation. “The burning of the court house at Jasper, August 17, 1839, destroyed the old court records, and the loss of the trustee’s office, of Bainbridge township, by fire, caused the loss of much interesting matter relative to the early laws and law enforcement.”

“Every record burnt,” Nordhoff said, “all the court records, all the deeds, all the miscellaneous records, everything. Everything was lost.”

The courts moved to a house and hotel that was located at Fifth and Mill Streets for less than a year, and then to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church at Sixth and Mill Streets, for six years, “during which time church services were held at residences and in groves,” Wilson wrote.

The Dubois County Commissioners hired Alexander McGraves to start building a new courthouse, but the contractor “quit when he had completed the foundation,” Wilson noted. “In this manner it came to a standstill.”

Then Father Joseph Kundeck, who had already constructed two Catholic churches in the area, approached the county commissioners in 1845 with a proposal to design and build the new courthouse, which the commissioners approved.

Father Joseph Kundeck approached the county commissioners in 1845 with a proposal to design and build a new courthouse, the county’s third. The red brick building was used until deemed too small around 1909.

“His proposal included a completed price of $6,000 but he suggested that an additional row of stone be placed on the foundation so that a step could be added to the entry,” Nordhoff said. “He also requested letters of credit from the county so as to allow him to purchase in Pittsburgh many of the items required in the building.

The courthouse was completed in 1845 and was in use by June 1847; its total cost was $6,770. “The lime used in the building’s construction was burned from rocks found at the base of Reider’s Hill, being in the area north of the current location of the Springs Valley Bank and Trust Company,” Nordhoff said. “The stone columns used near the front door were quarried locally at a cost of $14 each. The two similar columns for the second story of the front door cost $15 each. The courthouse bell was purchased at a cost of $50.”

Two vaults from the third courthouse — one used in the recorder’s office and the other in the treasurer’s office, Nordhoff said — are now at the county museum.

The third courthouse was used until it was determined to be too small, around 1908 or 1909, Nordhoff said.

In 1909, the Dubois County Council appropriated money for a new courthouse. By that September, the old courthouse was in the process of being torn down. And by that November, the first bricks of the new courthouse were being laid.

“They took bricks from the outside of the old courthouse — now we’re talking about conservative Germans — and they saved 50,000 bricks,” Nordhoff said. Those bricks are embedded in the inside walls of the current courthouse, he said.

“That’s the reason every time in this courthouse they tear through a wall to put in a new door, people scrap to get those bricks. Because those bricks were made by Fr. Kundeck,” he said. “When you tear out a wall, you can tell which bricks are the old bricks.”

The courthouse’s design is the same as the Upson County Courthouse in Thomaston, Georgia, which was built in 1908. The two courthouses, designed by Milburn & Heister, look very much alike.

The present Dubois County Courthouse is shown under construction in May 1910. Construction began on September 20, 1909, just three months after the county council voted 5-2 in favor of the project. During construction, court was held on the second floor of the Nicholas Melchior Building on the east side of the Square. County offices were temporarily relocated to the jail and sheriff’s residence. The building was completed in the Fall of 1911.

Wilson noted that “during the construction of this court house, court was held in the second story of Nicholas Melchior’s store, on the public square. The various county officers, except the clerk, were quartered at the jail and sheriff’s residence.”

By 1912, the new courthouse, the county’s fourth, was complete and being used. “The building is erected with a view of being fire proof,” Wilson wrote. “It is constructed of steel, concrete, brick, stone, marble, and granite.”

That is the courthouse that stands today.

Ideas of a building a new courthouse — which would have been the county’s fifth if it had been built — surfaced sometime during Jasper Mayor Jack Newton’s term, which was from 1964 to 1971.

“There were discussions about tearing down the courthouse and building a city-county building,” Nordhoff recalled. At that time, city offices were on the first floor of what is now the Dubois County Title building. “They were really cramped and they really needed the space. And (Newton) was hearing from the courthouse that they didn’t have enough space, which they didn’t.”

Although Newton was promoting the joint-building idea, it didn’t go anywhere, likely because of cost, Nordhoff said. Ultimately, Jasper built its current City Hall, and the county obtained the former Dubois County Bank building across the street from the courthouse.

Renovations were made to the current courthouse in the 1990s, during which time offices moved to the former St. Joseph School, which is now St. Joseph’s Parish Center. Renovations — including offices that were moved around and enlarged, court chambers that were remodeled, the opening of a section of the third floor with the addition of structural beams underneath the section, and a remodeled basement, — were completed in 1997. A third courtroom was added to the building’s third floor in 2003.
Will this be the county’s last courthouse? Well, county officials have discussed the need for additional space for offices. So who knows?

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