Most of the state’s charming old courthouses can be found in southern Indiana. A great example is Greensburg’s in Decatur County. The 115-foot-tall building, built in 1860, is one of five pre-Civil War courthouses still utilized by county government today, along with those in Morgan, Ohio, Orange, and Jefferson counties. Constructed of pinkish brick, the building sits in a scenic central square in the middle of a picturesque downtown. Ball State professor David Hermansen described the courthouse as “…an interesting and curious solution, asymmetrical in plan and picturesque and rambling in silhouette1.” It’s also got a big-ass tree sticking right out of the top of its clock tower.
No one’s quite sure how it got there, but everyone around town seems to know a variation on the local joke:
- Where does the Greensburg courthouse tree get its water?
- From the springs in the clock!
Hyuck hyuck hyuck! All kidding aside though, before there could be a courthouse tree, there had to be a courthouse.
I know, I know. We’re not here to talk about the courthouse. Unfortunately, we’re here to talk about the courthouse tree, which has captured the public’s imagination for more than a century. It’s actually more than one tree: prior to 1888, no fewer than five trees called the clock tower home2. That year, three were pruned. Of the two remaining, one got as tall as fifteen feet with a five-inch-wide trunk before it finally died. But no sooner did it perish than another one sprouted up on the opposite corner of the tower. Another tree soon joined it, and both of them stand today.
Tourists have migrated to Greensburg from far and wide to get a glimpse of the famous courthouse tree for themselves, even at the expense of appreciating the actual building. The tree has been featured on Ripley’s Believe it or Not3, and the actual building was described by no less than William Jennings Bryan as “the finest specimen of Gothic Architecture that [he] had seen in his travels throughout the world4”, for its own merits.
Despite his pedigree and opinion, Bryan was wrong. The courthouse isn’t really Gothic, although it definitely has elements of that style. It actually combines Gothic features with those of the Italianate and Romanesque modes of architecture. Interestingly, even though designer Edwin May’s other remaining courthouses in Hamilton (sort of) and Knox counties are relatively straight-forward Second Empire affairs, he really let his other influences go in Greensburg, acting just like your Uncle Randy at the Old Country Buffett by heaping mounds of disparate styling cues onto his plate and wiping his face off with the courthouse’s blueprints. But whereas your uncle may have left the restaurant with a profound case of the meat sweats, fans of historic courthouses are today left with another unique entry into Indiana’s collection, tree or not. May didn’t turn out too badly either- he eventually recovered from his architectural free-for-all and, in 1888, designed the neoclassical Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis along with architect Adolph Scherrer.
But no one wants to hear about the courthouse, its designers, or the statehouse for that matter. We want to hear about those trees in the tower- whether they’re aspens, as originally thought, or mulberries, as contemporary analysis seems to confirm. As the saplings were trimmed in the late 1880s, the courthouse was renovated too. Under the direction of the prolific McDonald Brothers, the building underwent an extensive makeover in 1890. In 1903, the structure’s pink exterior brick was slathered in white stucco as part of what appeared to be a short-lived trend in courthouse architecture in southern Indiana, but the coating was removed seventy years later.
After that, the building wasn’t substantially altered until 1994 when an expansive addition (designed as a modern interpretation of the building’s hodge-podge of styles) was added to the rear of the courthouse, attaching via a glass atrium4. The expansion cost $9.7 million, but officials got their money’s worth. At long last, the building satisfied ADA accessibility requirements, and workers could finally leave their cramped offices inside its outmoded rooms and corridors to inhabit space that suited the modern needs of the county. An expansion of the building had been floated since the 1960s, but was continually shot down5 by the county. But finally the community came around and the courthouse was expanded, allowing the old building to be used and appreciated up through the present day. I love those stories!
But who cares- back to the tree: How the hell did it get there? As I said, no one really knows. The commonly-accepted theory is that birds flew over the clock tower while it was under construction and ‘deposited’ (ewww…) seeds inside the roof. The combination of grime and moisture that the seeds found themselves in proved to be a perfect spot for germination. The explanation sounds legit, if a little farfetched, but it’s sort of hard to know for sure what event unfolded to cause the trees to grow. Even a climb up the dusty ladders past the bells and clocks to the highest point inside the clock towers yields no answers! Apparently, the roots of the trees lie somewhere between the tower’s vaulted ceiling and the shingles outside6. The trees’ mysterious roots, along with the conditions for their growth, remain invisible to the public, as well as anyone with special access to the clock tower. What a bummer for arborists and courthouse enthusiasts alike.
Historians will note that trees were common political symbols back in the early days of Indiana. Take the Constitution Elm in Corydon, where delegates were said to have debated and drafted Indiana’s first constitution. The Council Oak, near South Bend, also comes to mind- it’s where French explorer Robert LaSalle convened with the chiefs of three area tribes to allow for exploration of the Mississippi River. The Kile Oak in Irvington, Indianapolis isn’t politically notable, but it’s a gigantic tree in the middle of a historic neighborhood that stands ninety-two feet tall (with the aid of cable supports), and features a circumference of more than seventeen feet. It’s big.
Greensburg’s courthouse trees rise among their historic statewide peers, though. Put simply, there just aren’t that many trees trees living inside clock towers around these parts! Nevertheless, I delayed writing this article for a long time- there’s just not that much I can add to whatever else has already been written about the trees in the tower, and there’s been a lot. But regardless of the shrub, the Decatur County Courthouse stands on its own architecturally, especially since the relatively-sympathetic addition doesn’t take away from views of the original building. You’ve got to love an addition that’s obscure enough not to subtract from the courthouse you came to see, but is substantial enough to preserve the building’s vitality. After venturing to more than ninety-two counties across the Midwest, I know I do, and that sentiment goes for the tree as well as the modern addition.
The bottom line? Any courthouse that features a tree in its tower, or any tree that features a courthouse clock tower, is fine by me. Let’s draw as much attention to these venerable buildings as we can, however we can. Decatur County’s courthouse certainly deserves it.
Decatur County (pop. 26,277, 62/92)
Built: 1860, expanded in 1890, expanded in 1994.
Cost: $120,000 ($3.2 million in 2016)
Architect: Edwin May; McDonald Bros.
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 110 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 Indiana County Courthouses of the 19th Century, By David R. Hermansen publ ! d Ball State Univ. Faculty Lecture Series 1967-68
2 Enyart, David. “Decatur County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. April 10, 2018.
3 “History of Greensburg’s World Famous Tower Tree” History. Decatur County Court House, 2018. Web. April 10, 2018.
4 Greensburg Daily News: 8 18, 1966: Print.
5 “County annex 30 years in making” The Columbus Republic [Columbus, Indiana]: May 28, 1995. Print.
6 “Inside the Decatur County Courthouse” WTHR. July 22, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhzwKlXA1r0