IOWA COUNTY’S FIRST THREE COURTHOUSES
“Iowa County was formed in 1829, when it was still part of the Territory of Michigan. The new county’s Board of Supervisors met for the first time in Mineral Point in May, 1830, and began the long process of organizing the local government, including making accommodations for the justice system.
For the use of his house during the fall term of the circuit court, the sum of $11 was voted to James Scantlin. At the October session of the Board, a log cabin was purchased of G. B. Cole, of Mineral Point, for the first county jail. The purchase price was $50, and an equal amount was awarded to Jonas Meirs for repairing the same. Thomas McCraney presented a bill for $50, for transporting the laws of the Territory from Green Bay to the county seat, but payment was refused and a resolution was adopted characterizing the charge as excessive and exorbitant.
The first courthouse was a primitive log structure with a door, a window of sorts, a table and a few chairs. Next door was the log jail. Meetings in the little cabin were few, for both the county board and the juries chose to meet in more adequate quarters provided by the local hotels. Ab Nichols received most of the business in his “Mansion House”, nearby.
In 1831, a contract for a new jail, to be built on the north side of a lot occupied by James Scantlin, was let to John Brown for the sum of $538. When the building was completed, the Supervisors refused to accept it from the contractor until iron stocks had been installed. During the Black Hawk War, the jail building was razed to supply timber for Fort Jackson; the federal government later paid the county $18.80 for materials.
In 1835, the second courthouse was built, under the direction of the County Sheriff Levi Sterling, at a cost of $575. It was 24 feet square, made of heavy oak logs, and two stories high. The lower floor was a single courtroom with an eight-foot ceiling. The upper story consisted of three courtrooms although these had only a seven foot clearance; a winding stairway connected the floors. The walls were stoped and painted with lime mortar. The judge’s bench was two feet high with steps; the table for the clerk of the board was seven feet long and three feet wide. Both floors had seats for juries.
In April, 1838, Iowa County was reorganized. At the first meeting of the Board of Commissioners of the newly reorganized county, they directed Abner Nichols to examine the courthouse and determine what was needed to render the building habitable. The report included “lathe and plaster all around and overhead. Below to be weather boarded with one-inch furrow lines, put on with strong spikes. Buttoned shutters to be hung on the upper windows. Ceiled overhead; ceiling to be matched. Walls to be lathed and plastered, and lined with chair boards. The lower room to be supplied with a neat bar and jury benches and boxes.
In 1841, space was inadequate for all of the activity required for the fast growing county and a large log and frame, one story building was constructed for the county clerk,, treasurer, and register of deeds. The facility, known as the “County Offices”, also included a spacious, fireproof vault.
In 1842, the courthouse itself was found to be inadequate, and bids for a new building were solicited. The contract was awarded to Elizar Smith and Michael Carson, for $6,150. Construction dragged on for over a year, during which the design was changed and a pediment roof, four 28 foot columns, a 10 foot portico, and a front dome were added. The dome was to be built according to plans drawn for the courthouse in Rockford, Illinois. For the changes, the builders were allowed an additional $1,318.50.
A murder trail still prominent in the lore of Mineral Point occurred in 1842. William Caffee shot and killed Samuel Southwick at a house party in Gratiot’s Grove, in February of that year. He was indicted in April, arrested, and jailed in Mineral Point. On July 26, the County Board of Supervisors authorized Sheriff George Messersmith to hire four men to guard the jail at night.
Two days later, the Board opened and accepted bids for a new courthouse and jail. Caffee’s trial and conviction occurred in the old log courthouse, and his subsequent execution took place in a circus like atmosphere. One wonders if the trial and the ensuing publicity helped make the determination that the old building was inadequate and needed to be replaced.
After losing the “County Seat War”, the Court and county officials moved to the new courthouse in Dodgeville and the City of Mineral Point took over the old building in July, 1861. The City Council rented the office building to a bank and directed the City clerk to move into the courthouse and the name of the building was officially changed to the City Building.” Sesquicentennial Story: The Iowa County Courthouse,p.9-10.
THE COUNTY SEAT WAR
“Now the feeling is, one hundred and fifty years is long enough to hold a grudge, and the Sesquicentennial celebration includes a “Forgiveness Ceremony” whereby Mineral Point finally lets go of the resentment and forgives Dodgeville.
In order to understand what is being forgiven, and why, the following is a summary of the County Seat War.
When the miners were digging their first badger holes, in 1827, they were digging in Crawford County, Michigan Territory, not that many of them knew, or cared. Iowa County, Michigan Territory, wasn’t created until 1829, with the seat of county government designated as Mineral Point.
On July 4, 1836, Wisconsin Territory was formed, with Henry Dodge sworn in as Governor, at the courthouse square in Mineral Point. Iowa County shrank in size, with a large section to the west becoming Grant County and a section on the east being added to Green and Dane Counties. At this time, Mineral Point was again designated the county seat of the remainder of Iowa County.
In 1846, the County was divided again, with the southern portion cut off to form Lafayette County. These boundary changes left Mineral Point in the southern part of the county. Soon after this final size reduction, grumblings were heard and agitation was begun to move the county seat to a more central location. In 1855 two petitions were presented to the by then State of Wisconsin seeking the removal of the county seat. One petition proposed the new site to be Dodgeville while the other favored Linden. The Dodgeville petition went to a Senate committee, headed by Amasa Cobb, a prominent Mineral point lawyer. Cobb’s committee rejected the petition, citing the cost of building a new courthouse when the county already had adequate facilities in Mineral Point and stating that in 1847 after a spirited contest, “the inhabitants of the county have with great unanimity acquiesced in its permanent location there.”
The question came up again in November, 1858, when the voters of Iowa County, by a majority of 350, voted to move the county seat to Dodgeville. At the Jauaruy, 1859, session of the Board of Supervisors, a building committee was appointed to select a site and prepare plans for a courthouse and jail. Dodgeville offered the use of the town hall, free of charge, to the County Board, and the county offices were then removed to that city.
The election was challenged as not having been properly “notice” and on July 11, 1859, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin nullified the results.
Mineral Point, of course, was jubilant. In addition to pride, designation as the county seat assured the lucky community of economic success. In those days before telephones, and long, long before copy machines, fax machines, and email, lawyers in the county set up their practices close to the court house. Additionally, anyone coming to the courthouse on business was likely to do some shopping in town before heading home.
When Mineral Point learned that the “County Seat Question” was settled in their favor, they literally brought out the big guns. The Mineral Point Tribune reported “Mr. T. J. Otis arrived here about three o’clock this morning, and in a few minutes the whole city was aroused by the firing of cannon, ringing bells, etc. About seven o’clock, “young America” formed a procession and with tin-trumpet band marched through the different streets…making the air ring with their huzzas. Our City Cannons not being large enough to shout forth victory in a manner loud enough to suit our citizens, a messenger was dispatched on the morning train to Warren, to procure a large 12-pounder…A delegation of our citizens have gone out in the direction of Dodgeville this afternoon, with the “Big Guns for the purpose of giving our neighbors at the would-be County Seat a salute.”
On April 2, 1861,the question was again put to the voters and this time the vote was decided in favor of Dodgeville by a margin of 162 votes. The residents of Dodgeville received the news with profuse joy, a procession of fireworks, and other demonstrations of delight.” Sesquicentennial Story: The Iowa County Courthouse, p.11-12.
“The Building Committee met on Friday, January 21st and of the plans offered, the one drawn by Ernest Wiesen, Esq., of Mineral Point was adopted by the Commissioners. The second choice was a plan by C.L.G. Blessing.
Ernest Wisen was a man of cultivated taste. He was a graduate of the University of Berlin, wrote and conversed in seven languages, and was aware of architectural trends and tastes.” Sesquicentennial Story: The Iowa County Courthouse, p.17.
For more details and stories please look in our bookstore for the book: Sesquicentennial Story, The Iowa County Courthouse, Celebrating 150 years, June 13, 2009, Dodgeville, Wisconsin.