Being back in school has really underscored how much I love to research. I should have known that already from the work that goes into this blog, but so far, it’s all been pretty straightforward. But over the time that I’ve been doing this project, one subject totally stumped me: the 1841 Whitley County Courthouse. In some ways, it continues to.
Whitley County has a great courthouse in Columbia City. Built in 1890, the structure represents T.J. Tolan’s best impression of what the Allen County Genealogical Society termed a “castle” style courthouse, and I remember it fondly from summers my family spent at several lake cottages nearby. According to the society’s database of Indiana courthouse histories, castle is one of seven categories our courthouses fall into, along with log, frame, brick, coffee mill, stylized, and modern. Even if the descriptions are a bit juvenile (what, exactly, resembles a castle?), I’m inclined to follow them. I was aware of one of each type across the state. One of each type, that is, except for the frame courthouse.
But I’m done talking about that great courthouse for now. I was idly scrolling through the databases one day when I happened to click on the entry for Whitley County. A line jumped out at me immediately:
“Builder: Richard Baughan. 36×18 2-story. $411.50. Occupied October 1841. Completed December 1841. Building still stands as an inhabited house1.”
It still stands as an inhabited house! I’ve approached this project from the perspective a completionist, and although I’m not usually into houses, this one’s clearly different. I had to find out where it was, return to Columbia City, and document it like all the rest.
Although I should have known better, I started by reaching out to, to the best of my knowledge, expert sources. I sent inquiries to both the Whitley County Historical Museum and the official Whitley County Historian as appointed by the state historical society. Neither got back to me- not sure whether they were reticent to identify a private dwelling to a stranger, but nevertheless, I never got anything back. Maybe they didn’t know themselves, and I was blazing a new trail. If I sound a little salty, it’s because I am. I believe history should be available to anybody who’s interested enough to ask about it, especially from the people whose charges are to inform us all.
Anyway, I did what I should have done to start with and turned to Google Books, a source I’ve used ever since I became too lazy to go to the library in high school. The first I came to was A History of Whitley County, Indiana, published in 1907. The text turned out to be the only book with any relevant information, and so the only source I needed. Let me tell you, it gave me almost everything I required.
Apparently, the first Whitley County Courthouse was indeed two stories, and was completed in 1841. Its first story was used for courts, shows, and public meetings, while the second story featured two rooms. The first was plastered, sealed, and used by the county clerk and recorder. The other wasn’t finished, but was utilized by other officials and anyone else who felt like it2. After four years, the building’s windows were filled with glass, and its fireplace was torn out and replaced with a stove. The construction of a fireproof brick office building nearby on the square got officials clamoring for a new brick courthouse, so after nine years the county traded their old Chevy for an Oldsmobile.
That old Monza of a courthouse wasn’t positioned at the center of the square, so officials were cool with it sitting unused for three years, until it was sold to a Sylvester Knapp for $35.00 in 1854, with the understanding that he’d finally move it away. He did, and the property was eventually acquired by a Dr. William Swayzee. By the time of the book’s writing, Swayzee had transferred the old courthouse to the Eyanson family, who kept it as “an old frame still standing at the corner of Van Buren and Whitley Streets…opposite Dr. Linvill’s.”
Now I had a location to check. I went to that corner on Google Street View, where four buildings stood, oriented properly in the collage above. The first building was the old Linvill Memorial Hospital, built in 1907 on the foundation of the home of Dr. David Goff Linvill, which was constructed in in 18793. Linvill and his uncle had come to Columbia City to practice medicine in 1849. His uncle’s name? William Swayzee, the eventual owner of the courthouse.
That corner being out of the running, we had three more to check. The building across Whitley Street, on the northeast corner, was an old saltbox that appeared to have been added on to many times. Based on a satellite view, it didn’t seem to be the courthouse. To its south sat a house that, frankly, was definitely not the old courthouse I was looking for. Finally, I checked out the house on the southwest corner of the intersection- directly opposite Dr. Linville’s hospital. It looked like it checked out.
But how could I be sure? I decided to pull the property records in the county assessor’s GIS database. I found that the house was built in 1920, but it measured 37 feet across facing the street- close enough to the dimensions listed in the book. It was clear that some additions had been made over the years that muddied up the dimensions, and the real estate investor I worked with explained away the discrepancy in construction date via the numerous additions the house had received. Content that I’d found the last frame courthouse in the state, I returned to take photos of it. I also found an old jail just down the street that I’d missed the first time I was in Columbia City.
I posted the photos with the caveat that I wasn’t a hundred percent sure they were of the actual courthouse, then I sat on them for a while. I got around to the rest of the state’s courthouses, along with seventeen of Michigan’s and fourteen of Ohio’s. Then last week, on Tuesday, I started to write this post. I went back to find the sources I’d originally used on Google Books, and opened up the assessor’s database again. What I discovered was sort of astounding. I’d been wrong.
I’m very hubristic when it comes to research. Keep in mind- I don’t fit in with people from my age group, and I never have. At seven years old, I cried at the Pleasant View Elementary School library when I was told they didn’t have any books about cathedrals or architecture. How millennial of me. So I feel like the research I do, even by its sole virtue of me being the only one to do it, means inherently I am correct. Again, how millennial of me. I assume I’ve overturned all the stones just because I wouldn’t have even researched topic x if someone else had to my satisfaction. But I was wrong, at the worst time possible- the day I was writing this post!
I guess it would have been worse if I’d already published it. Like I said, I went back to the assessor’s cards. Here they are for the properties on the corner, except for the old hospital4. The one at the northeast corner -which I’d originally been so quick to cut from contention- checked out. The front of it, especially when viewed from an angle, looks like it could have been a courthouse, or at least a house from the 1840s. But the portion oriented north-south is a perfect match, behind some newer additions, including the bay window. What’s more, the building was stated to have been erected in 1890- the year the current courthouse was built. I’m not sure if that’s significant- that old jail I mentioned earlier is listed in the assessor’s database as being built in 1875, which leads me to think there wasn’t some catastrophic, undocumented loss of records during the move to the current courthouse in 1890. But maybe some extenuating circumstance can explain the difference away. Regardless, 1890 fits in more with the overall courthouse story than that random 1920 the house I originally photographed exhibits. But I’ve been caught up in allowances for discrepancies once already with this courthouse, and I want to proceed with caution. That’s how good people turn into conspiracy theorists, after all.
But as it stands now, I believe that the building on the northeast corner of Van Buren and Whitley Streets is the 1841 Whitley County Courthouse, the only frame courthouse still standing in the state. Although compromised, I believe the building’s dimensions, method of construction, and location per both the assessor’s database and the old text solidify it as the courthouse. I’m hesitant to claim myself as the authority here until I get some additional corroboration. Prior to posting this, I’ve re-sent messages to both the county historian and county historical society. Maybe they will help- if they feel like it.
But I’m clearly not holding my breath. If anybody -experts or otherwise- can help me identify this building, I think we have a chance to make a small part of history more accessible to everyone.
Whitley County (pop. 33,292, 49/92)
Columbia City (pop. 8,750).
Cost: $411.50 ($9,934 in 2016- inflation invalidates this comparison).
Architect: Richard Baughan
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Residential
1 Enyart, David. “Whitley County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. July 21, 2018.
2 History of Whitley County, Indiana. B.F. Bowen Company: Indianapolis. 1907. Print.
3 Talk of the Town – Whitley County. Jennifer Hartman Romero: Columbia City. 2008. Web. Retrieved July 21, 2018.
4 Beacon: Whitley County, Indiana. Schneider Geospatial: Indianapolis. 2018. Web. Retrieved July 21, 2018.