An inept county government! Back-room, special-interest scheming! Second Empire masterpieces and decapitated clock towers! Modern additions. We’ve talked about several of these topics over the past few weeks here, and they all dramatically combine to tell the story of the Benton County Courthouse. This makes it, in my view, perhaps the most quintessential Indiana courthouse.
Although Benton County was founded in 1840, a county seat wasn’t finalized until three years later. It was originally known as Milroy, but commissioners learned of a town by the same name in Rush County more than a hundred miles away and were forced to change the name to Hartford. However, the clumsy officials were again caught off-guard by the fact that there was already an established Blackford County seat of by the same name a hundred miles away in the other direction! For future generations who ask how we looked up place names and other stuff before the internet, it turns out that we usually just didn’t. What can I say? Life’s easier with Google. Finally, the town was renamed after commissioners made absolutely sure there wasn’t another in the state. The name Oxford finally stuck, and a 70-foot-tall brick courthouse was built to seal the deal in 1854.
Oxford flourished, but the real story was happening twenty miles southeast in Lafayette where a guy named Moses Fowler was scheming to make his mark on Benton County. Fowler was not a nobody. In fact, he was a somebody– one of the area’s richest and most prominent citizens who amassed an estimated $3 million fortune1 ($83 million in 2017!) by the time he died in 1889. Originally a grocer and wholesaler, Fowler eventually turned his attention to banking and controlled four financial institutions in Lafayette alone. Eventually he acquired 20,000 acres2 in Benton County to hold cattle for a meat-packing company he organized in yet another wildly successful business enterprise*. As the scale of his enterprises grew, Fowler and his partners needed a reliable form of transportation between Lafayette and Chicago, so they planned a railroad to connect them- by way of all his Benton County farmland.
Blazing Saddles’ Hedley Lamarr could have learned a few things from Fowler. In 1872, he platted his own town (named after himself, of course) and the rail spur –part of what later became the celebrated Big Four Railroad – was finished, running right through it. Now, all Fowler had to do to maximize his investment was wrest the county seat away from Oxford. If successful, it would make the career of a lesser man. Someone like Fowler, though -used to creating empires out of nothing but the force of his will- may have considered it all in a day’s work.
You probably know where this is going. Although Oxford had blossomed, by 1873 the courthouse and nearby jail were in an embarrassing state of disrepair. Yet commissioners turned a blind eye- that is, until murderer James McCollough carved his way out of jail through the decomposing wall of its foundation. Appalled, officials finally took notice and hired architect Gurdon Randall to assess the condition of the buildings that same year.
Randall, fresh from designing Indiana courthouses in Marshall and Warren counties, was highly respected in his field and merciless in his assessment of the buildings3, calling the decaying courthouse foundation “hardly in a condition to carry the walls resting upon [it]”and proclaiming the entire building “a complete wreck from foundation to cupola”4. Commissioners reading the report were so shaken that they immediately relocated to city hall, across the street, to order plans for a new courthouse. Randall’s firm won the contract and completed the design for a new courthouse within a month.
Observing the debacle from the sidelines, Fowler and his partners sensed that it was time to pounce. They donated the rights to two lots in Fowler for a new courthouse to officials in Oxford, as well as a petition to move the county seat and $250 to cover expenses. It didn’t go over that well- the county freaked. An influential commissioner, Robert Atkinson, resigned in protest and Fowler withdrew his petition in order to wait it out until county elections took place later that fall.
As Fowler suspected, two new, sympathetic commissioners were reelected, as was Atkinson, the commissioner who had resigned to protest his strong-arming. The petition was presented again, this time with more than a thousand signatures from community residents. In 1874 the commissioners, (minus Atkinson, who had mysteriously disappeared) voted in favor of relocation to Fowler. Atkinson reappeared the next day. To this day, it’s unclear whether he’d returned from urgent business elsewhere or if he’d managed to finally kick his way out of a locked steamer trunk his opponents had sealed him in. Regardless, the vote was cast, and $40,000 (more than $880,000 today) streamed in to fund construction of the new courthouse, provided by Moses Fowler himself5.
The monolithic, Second Empire courthouse that stands in Fowler today – rising a striking three-and-a-half stories above the surrounding prairie, not including its massive clock tower- was completed that same year and served the county largely unmodified until 1936. Fifty-two years of high winds and lightning can’t be good for the tallest building within twenty miles though, and postcards during that timeframe showed a gradual loss of specific architectural details such as the clock tower’s spire, dormer windows, and the actual clocks themselves. Like so many others at the time, the tower was removed for safety reasons. The bell was later recovered by a local Eagle Scout, and placed on the front lawn6.
It took more than 120 years (five decades after the courthouse lost its tower), for the county to finally run out of space. In 1995, officials hired Pyramid Architecture/Engineering to complete an 8,000 square foot addition7 to the rear of the building, accompanying a new jail, attached via hallway to the courthouse’s west side. While it provided desperately-needed space and accessibility, the addition didn’t quite match the old building in terms of scale, detail, or even overall appearance. Connected by a glass atrium and two large columns, the expansion preserved most of the masonry from the building’s original entrance within the lobby. The bottom line on the addition is that while I’ve seen better across the state, any addition that preserves governmental use of a historic courthouse is fine in my book. At any rate, the historic part of the building is visible unobstructed from the north, and the jail portion was designed to be mostly flush with the lawn in order to not detract from the overall scene.
Despite its architecturally-compromised state, the Benton County Courthouse somehow managed to squeak its way into the National Register of Historic Places. More than its design, what stands out is its overall story. The sum of each element of the building’s history – the incompetent officials, the crafty scheme of a rich special interest, the destroyed clock tower, and a modern addition- encapsulates, to me, the story of Indiana courthouses in a nutshell. While there are more prominent courthouses in the state, the legacy of tiny Benton County and its courthouse remains a favorite of mine.
Benton County (pop. 8,767)
Fowler (pop. 2,296).
Built: 1874, decapitated in 1936, expanded in 1995.
Cost: $54,000 ($1.14 million in 2016)
Architect: G.P. Randall
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3.5 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 “Moses Fowler had far-reaching influence” The Journal & Courier [Lafayette]. Retrieved from http://www.jconline.com.
2 Past and Present of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, Illustrated, Volume II. B. F. Bowen &
Company: Indianapolis. 1909.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Benton County Courthouse, Fowler, Benton County, Indiana. National Register # 08000741.
4 Birch, Jesse Setlington. History of Benton County and Historic Oxford. Crawford and Crawford, Inc.: Oxford, IN, 1928.
5 Counties of Warren, Benton, Jasper and Newton, Indiana, Historical and Biographical….
F. A. Battey & Co: Chicago. 1883.
6 “Benton County’s Tower Bell in New Home” The Benton Review [Fowler]. 1992. Print.
7 “Benton County Indiana Government Center” Projects. Pyramid Architecture/Engineering. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.pyramidarch.com.