It’s weird to think of today, but Indiana’s only been a state for a little more than two hundred years. It was a frontier not so long ago, and although sometimes those frontier settlements turned into cities like Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, or Evansville, most of them didn’t. Some continue to thrive as small towns, and some dried up completely, taking most of their history with them. But fans of state history can find a happy medium in acknowledging the important roles that even the vanished settlements played in taming the Indiana wilderness.
Take Wayne County for example, and its courthouse. Although it’s one of the largest and finest in the state, the story of the courthouse in Richmond isn’t so much about the structure itself, but the circumstances that led to its construction. Nearly sixty years of contentious animosity between factions of the county’s population, vociferous legal battles, and violent artillery fire made up what locals refer to as the “courthouse wars” and culminated in the massive Richardson Romanesque building we see today.
But the first Wayne County courthouses weren’t even in Richmond. Wayne County was organized in 1810, and the community of Salisbury became the county seat one year later5. However, residents of the centrally-located village of (wait for it…) Centerville began scheming almost immediately to relocate the county seat to their growing town. Back then, being named the county seat carried a lot of weight for a burgeoning community, and the state legislature soon determined that if Centerville could build a better courthouse than Salisbury’s, then they could claim the county seat. As the courthouse in Centerville neared completion, state officials came to both towns to compare the structures. Sensing defeat, residents of Salisbury literally refused to let them go inside their own courthouse. So officials did what you or I’d do when judging a courthouse- they counted the bricks in each building from the outside1, reasoning that whichever courthouse was bigger must be the better one. Easy-peasy, right? If only it were that simple, but apparently it was. Centerville easily won the county seat in 1820 but the decision was fought in court for years. Current and former residents of both towns hated each other for generations because of it.
Meanwhile, Centerville took off like a rocket while Salisbury withered. But a nagging feeling of uncertainty about its permanence as county seat began to rise there, and citizens campaigned for a new, expensive judicial complex to add to their courthouse in an effort to fight this unwelcome notion. In 1867, a 20-cell jail was finished at a cost of $80,0003 ($1.4 million today) complete with a $10,000 (~$170,000 today) decorative iron fence and sheriff’s residence that meant Centerville would surely never be usurped as the undisputed Wayne County seat.
It’s funny how things change, though. By 1873, it was clear to many in the county that Richmond, located several miles east, was better positioned than either Centerville or Salisbury to be the seat of Wayne County from then on4 due to its growth. The thought of losing the prominent position as county seat was too much for Centerville residents to handle- they’d only recently narrowed Main Street from its original 100-foot width in order to keep up with the increasing business that the title brought. Though residents mounted a spirited public awareness effort to keep the courthouse in town, the county put it to a vote. 55% of voters approved a petition to move the county seat to Richmond and that was that. The decision was made.
Without wasting any time, archived documents housed in the Centerville jail were sent east to the new county seat. Remarkably, later that fall, a portion of the jail was disassembled and moved along with the iron fence. But Centerville residents weren’t going to throw in the towel just yet- a group of vigilantes mounted one last stand and dragged the town cannon, a three-pound mortar known as ‘Black Betty2’, across the street to a strategic spot across the street from their own jail. Aiming at the front door, they fired a load of scrap metal in a valiant, if violent, effort to interrupt the proceedings.
The cannon fire blew the jail’s door from its hinges and put several large holes into the front of the building. But the effort proved futile. County documents, the jail, and the fence were all relocated anyway, while the National Guard kept watch. Finally, a new, brick courthouse was built in Richmond, where the Centerville jail was reassembled along with the decorative iron fence.
But that hastily-assembled courthouse in Richmond wouldn’t last long. Built to replace that brick structure in 1893, the current courthouse in Richmond is gargantuan. It’s so big that building it took literally six hundred railcars’ worth of limestone along with three million bricks! 125 stonecutters were onsite to cut all those boulders, which were so big that the contractor had to use steam-powered hoists to lift them all. The three-story tall building measures about 214 by 128 feet, giving it roughly 82,000 square feet of usable space (the size of the old Marsh on Greyhound Pass in Carmel). The attic of the courthouse is mostly taken up by an enormous steel truss system that supports the steeply-hipped roof. Although the limestone construction gives the building a monochromatic appearance, exterior details like its Romanesque arcades, projecting string courses, dormers, and steep gables break up the monotony and add a sense of delicacy to the massive structure.
Most county courthouses were designed to confirm the prominence of their community in comparison to other counties, but the scale and rusticated massing of the building gives the impression of a big ol’ middle finger in the face of Salisbury, Centerville, and their passé attempts at county governance. After decades of drama, the building’s weight seems to have been designed to anchor Richmond’s place as the seat of Wayne County once and for all.
With that said, it’s been more than 120 years since the Wayne County Courthouse Wars ended, and Richmond remains the commercial center for the entire region of Indiana and western Ohio. But what happened to the former county seats? Well, Salisbury didn’t have much reason to exist after the county seat moved to Centerville. The town quickly vanished6 and its several hundred residents packed their bags and moved to Richmond, taking their old log courthouse with them. That first courthouse was later disassembled again and moved to Centerville, where it still stands today as the only log courthouse left from the former Indiana Territory. Wanna visit Salisbury? Well, good luck- It’s completely gone. I’ve been ‘there’, and the best directions I can give are to take Salisbury Road south from US-40 until you get to the Whitewater River where the road intersects with Abington Pike.
Today’s Centerville is more bedroom community than boomtown. Their old courthouse burned down many years ago after stints as an organ factory, a general store, and a grocery. The 1867 sheriff’s residence, incorrectly believed by many to be the former courthouse, was expanded to the east in 1924 while being used as a Masonic Hall and now serves as the Center Township Library, with shrapnel holes still visible scattered around the building’s front door. The square’s decorative iron fence was eventually moved back from Richmond and now graces Bryan Cemetery just southwest of town.
In researching and writing these posts, I sometimes get the sense that the people who built our historic courthouses and lived in these washed-up county seats would be absolutely shocked at how much has changed. Unfortunately, sometimes the writing’s on the wall, and progress has to march on. Hopefully, it’d be nice for a Salisbury or Centerville transplant from the pioneer days to know that some of the buildings they built, used, and admired still have a legacy. In Wayne County, we’ve got three levels of what happens to a small frontier town, and two historic courthouses to show for it.
Wayne County (pop. 67,893, 24/92)
Richmond (pop. 36,345)
Cost: $435,807 ($11.6 million in 2016)
Architect: James W. McLaughlin
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 130 feet
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
1 Nunemaker, Jessica. Little Indiana- Small Town Destinations. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 2016. Print.
2 Wonning, Paul R. Exploring Indiana’s Historic Sites, Markers & Museums. Versailles. Mossy Feet Books. 2016. Print.
3 “War for the County Seat” WAYNET. Waynet, Incorporated. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.waynet.org.
4 Spahr, Walter E. History of Centerville, Indiana. Richmond. Wayne County Indiana Historical Society. 1966. Print.
5 Fox, Henry Clay. Memoirs of Wayne County and the City of Richmond, Indiana. Madison. Western Historical Association. 1912. Print.
6 Lafever, Carolyn. Wayne County, Indiana: The Battles for the Courthouse. Stroud. History Press. 2010. Print.
7 “Wayne County, Indiana’s Courthouse” WAYNET. Waynet, Incorporated. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.waynet.org.
8 “Bryan Cemetery” We Relate. WeRelate.org. Retrieved from https://www.werelate.org/.