We’ve discussed the biggest Indiana courthouse here and here over the past few weeks, and we discussed the state’s most opulent back in April. Today, we’re going to branch off and talk about the Indiana’s modest modest. Or, at least it was for forty-five years.
Ever heard of Mount Sterling, Indiana? What about Fredonia? Does Leavenworth ring a bell? How about English? I didn’t know anything about any of those places either, but I quickly learned after I started this project back in 2011. See, Crawford County -right on the river- has had a pretty dramatic geopolitical history. Back in 1818, the county seat was formed in Mount Sterling, but it was relocated after only four years since it didn’t have a good water supply. That’s the type of thing we totally take for granted today- water’s everywhere, at least here, in a bottle. But lack of safe water was a big problem for rural Hoosiers back when Indiana was a newborn! Today, the town doesn’t even register on Google Maps, although a search will trigger a generic address for an East Mt. Sterling Road. I’d be willing to bet that the Mt. Sterling Church and cemetery sitting at a wide spot in the road represents the site of the original town.
What about Fredonia? Well, that’s where thirsty county officials moved in 1823 when residents transported vital government records to the town in meal sacks. There, they found a 39×33 foot brick courthouse, two stories1, built in preparation for the move and lasting as the seat of government until 1843. The actual building lasted much longer, though- it’s still there. Partially. I found an old postcard that purports to show the building2, but it’s probably inaccurate- the card depicts a one-story building, much like an old schoolhouse, but nevertheless a small community center in town was designed to replicate the building. Unfortunately, it was built to replicate the structure depicted in the postcard3, which may or may not have been the real courthouse. I don’t know- I didn’t stop at the community center- pictures indicated that it looked like a typical, peaked-roof brick building. Just like the Subway I used to manage in Yorktown. Unfortunately, there’s not enough left of the actual courthouse to make a good determination.
County government spent twenty-one years in Fredonia before they abandoned the courthouse and moved around the bend and to the north in Leavenworth. At last, a town that shows up on a map! Here, county officials governed Crawford County well into the 1890s, until court proceedings determined that English, eighteen miles to the northwest and central to the county, would usurp its title and serve as county seat. According to lore, a procession of 96 wagons, 478 foot soldiers, and 892 mounted horsemen ventured the distance from English to Leavenworth in order to obtain county records- with force, if necessary5. Thankfully, it seems as if no one was killed, and no cannons were deployed like we saw in Wayne County around the same time. Those turn-of-the-century Hoosiers! A real violent group.
A new, brick courthouse served the Crawford County citizenry at English starting in 1895, but it was soon clearly outmoded. One of my favorite movies is Hoosiers. Remember the school? It looked like that. And probably just like that school, the courthouse featured pine floors, no water, no plumbing, and no central heat. I remember a story that my grandma used to tell about when she’d go to cheer on my grandpa at high school basketball games around East-Central Indiana in the early 1950s. One school, which will remain nameless since I forget and will have to ask her, had troughs of running water in the bathrooms for the girls to pee in. I’d imagine the old courthouse in English was the same. Exasperated officials condemned the building as a fire hazard in 19396, but it would be another 19 years before a replacement was erected. That replacement is what we come to today.
The new courthouse was quickly built and dedicated in 1959 by Representative Winfield K. Denton and Justice Arch N. Bobbitt of the Indiana Supreme Court7. Designed by architect Oliver W. Marble and built at a cost of $48,000 ($415,000 today), the building was largely unadorned. The east face -featuring the building’s primary entrance- is one story, with an asphalt roof supported by brick walls with several vertical windows with concrete infills. At the center of the building, a shallow projection of concrete blocks and aluminum siding supports a peaked roof. Two stairs provide access to a set of recessed modern doors that are flanked on each side by a lantern- the only nod to styling apparent in the structure. Above the front doors are letters (not even centered) that spell out the building’s function, and above that is an aluminum-sided gable with functional louvers to provide ventilation to the attic.
The courthouse sits on a hill, though, and it’s hard to take photos of. The northwestern wing is two stories tall built into the dirt and forms a u-shape with a mostly-symmetrical southwestern wing. Both feature their own gables. There’s an air-raid siren there, and the rest of the place seems to support the building’s mechanical structure. A parking lot to the south of the old courthouse leads to the old Crawford County Jail.
Let’s talk about this jail! Along with the courthouse, it was used until 2003. We’ll get to that, but can you imagine this place being even remotely sufficient to hold prisoners in this day and age? I can’t, but it was. I’m not from Crawford County, but I know the place is rural- there aren’t any cities to speak of, and the latest census estimates its population at around 10,000 people. Maybe the jail was sufficient. But the courthouse wasn’t- in fact, the entire town wasn’t. Let me explain.
English was a flood-prone town, more than the average basement getting an inch or two before the sump pump cleared it out. We’re talking floods of a catastrophic level. A deluge buried most of English under nine feet of water in the summer of 1990, and the next weekend brought a tornado that touched down, damaging at least twenty-five homes8. The courthouse was located away from all of this on a hill on Court Street, but the disasters caused significant damage to the county seat at large. Later that year, a proposal suggested that the entire town move to higher ground. Although a relocation committee determined that 90% of residents wanted to move, a survey by the Evansville Courier showed that a little bit more than half of the respondents didn’t want to follow the $6.1 million money trail to relocate about half of the town to one of five potential sites out of the flood plain9.
It’s ironic that a county’s government base ultimately relocated from a town with no water supply to a town with a disastrously excessive supply of the stuff, but it happened. So did the town of English’s move! Today, the 2003 courthouse is located about 2.5 miles to the northeast of the old building on IN-64, just to the side of a Jay-C grocery and behind an old Dollar General that serves as its annex. Much has changed as the Crawford County courts have taken up new stewardship, but little has changed from the viewpoint of the Dollar General pole barn. However unsightly the annex is, though, a new memorial display next to it is quite a stunner for the area and a huge upgrade to Crawford County’s previous facilities. I’m not a huge fan of that polished black stone that seems to appear everywhere, but in this case I’m happy to let it slide. Behind the monument sits the 2003 courthouse and jail, known as the Crawford County Judicial Center. Access to the monument is gained by way of the old Dollar General parking lot.
But what of the old town? There are still some buildings there on the approach, but much of Old English was demolished and replaced by the Lucas Oil Golf Course, which takes advantage of several bridges and features of the old community. Today, driving through Old English is quick- blink, and you’ll miss it. But for me, it was even harder to navigate to New English on my way to Paoli to shoot the Orange County Courthouse there. I totally missed the exit to 64 and had to go back later when I was in the area at Tell City to get photos of the current structure.
The new Crawford County Courthouse is a marked upgrade, but still shares characteristics of its predecessor. It’s similarly unadorned, there’s gravel parking spaces outside, and the whole area just seems…well, unfinished. Totally understandable, though, in a community of limited means, especially when most of those limited means have gone to remediate a series of disasters. However, the new monuments, as well as the new building they support, give a solid center of justice that Crawford County has lacked since its founding. Here’s hoping that it lasts for a long time into the future.
Crawford County (pop. 10,621, 86/92)
English ( pop. 642)
Cost: $105,851 ($869,474 in 2016)
Architect: Schenkel Shultz
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 1 story
Current Use: Non-governmental
1 Enyart, David. “Crawford County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. July 5, 2018.
2 Vincent, Keith “Crawford” Courthouse History. courthousehistory.com. 2016. Web. July 5, 2018.
3 Facebook post. Crawford County Historical & Genealogical Society. Timeline Photos. March 25, 2015. Web. July 5, 2018.
4 A History of Crawford County, Indiana. Greenfield, IN. Wm. Mitchell Printing Company. 1926. Print.
5 “Assembly, Courts, Flood Didn’t Daunt Leavenworth: The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis]. July 13, 1960: 10. Print.
6“$121,000 Voted for Courthouse” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis]. August 30, 1957: 11. Print.
7 “Bobbitt Describes Courts As Defense” The Palladium-Item [Richmond]. November 3, 1959: 6. Print.
8 “More rain brings frustration” Muncie Evening Press [Muncie]. June 8, 1990: 1. Print.
9 “English residents unsold on move to high ground” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis]. July 18, 1990: 45. Print.