SOLVED: Whitley County- Columbia City (1841-1850)

The 1841 Whitley County Courthouse. I’m absolutely sure, this time!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the first Whitley County Courthouse, an 1841 structure that apparently still stood as the last remaining example of a frame courthouse in the state. I found out about it after I’d already been to Columbia City in 2015 to take photos of the current courthouse, an 1890 Beaux Arts mammoth designed by Brentwood Tolan. Reading about it’s predecessor, I realized that I had my work cut out for me: Find where the old courthouse stood, and then go back and take photos of it. Neither straightforward task turned out as easily as I thought they would. 

You can read about the saga as of July 23rd here, but a quick recap: A History of Whitley County, Indiana, published in 1907, identified that the old courthouse was two stories tall and measured 36×18 feet, costing $411.50 to build. Apparently, it’d been used for nine years until 1850, when a new, fireproof brick courthouse was constructed. But the old courthouse wasn’t positioned on the center of the square, so officials were fine to leave it sitting downtown for three more years until a guy named Sylvester Knapp bought and moved it to the corner of Van Buren and Whitley Streets east of the town center. Eventually, a Dr. Swayzee acquired the building, which the text referred to as “an old frame still standing at the corner of Van Buren and Whitley Streets…opposite Dr. Linvill’s,” where, apparently, it still stood more than 160 years later. 

Google Street View confirmed the existence of four buildings on the corner of Van Buren and Whitley. On the northeast side sat the old Linville Hospital, built in 1907 on the foundation of Dr. David Goff Linville’s 1879 home. To its east stood a white frame building with a layout that didn’t look like the courthouse the book described. Immediately facing it from the southeast corner sat another house that didn’t fit the bill. Finally, on the southwest corner -opposite Dr. Linville’s- sat the old courthouse.

The first house I identified as the courthouse.

It looked like I’d imagine an old courthouse would- it was a substantial old house, it had a hipped roof, it had stairs leading to the entrance (another source I’d read but can’t place advised that it had been moved to a new, raised foundation once it’d been moved), and it truly sat opposite (which I’d taken to mean across from the main entrance of) the old hospital. I pulled it up in the Whitley County assessor’s GIS system. It’d clearly had additions, but the main building fit the dimensions of the courthouse to a T. Bingo! The only thing that bugged me was that the assessor said the house was built in 1920. But my boss at the time, a real estate Investor, advised me that there were myriad reasons the date of construction could be wrong. With everything seeming to line up (and the various inaccuracies ignored), I went back up to take photos of the old courthouse in July of 2016, confident in my expertise and smart research. 

I sat on the photos for about two years, hesitant to name the building as the old courthouse after all. I wanted this blog to be a definitive resource for people who shared my interest in these old building and, truth be told, was a little uncomfortable with being the first of the courthouse projects to identify this one. But nevertheless, a few weeks ago I started to write about it.

I went back to the county assessor’s property database to pad out my argument. As I reviewed the three properties in question, a wave of nausea spread over me. I’d been wrong for two years- it wasn’t the house on the southwest corner. Rather, the old courthouse appeared to be the one on the northeast corner, which I’d first been so quick to write off. It started to make sense- the portion of the house that was oriented north-south measured 18×37- almost exactly the dimensions of the old courthouse. I’d assumed the part facing the street was the original structure, and it was nowhere near the right size. Further, the assessor listed it as being built in 1890, the same year the current courthouse was built.

To its southeast sat the house I’d originally taken photos of. Turns out, it wasn’t the right size at all. It fit the bill of 37 feet long, but measured a corpulent 26 feet wide- much bigger than the old courthouse. I checked the third house on the corner one more time just to be safe. At least I was right on one thing- that clearly still wasn’t the courthouse. So the next weekend, I ventured back up to Columbia City for a third time in order to take photos of the correctly-identified courthouse. 

The second house I identified as the courthouse. 

I cobbled together a post and published it on July 23rd. In it, I mentioned my frustration with both the county historical society and the official county historian, neither of whom responded to my emails asking about the courthouse two years ago. I was pretty salty, but I assumed that there was just some natural reticence on giving out information about someone’s residence- I admit that I felt the same taking photos of it. But the day after I posted the blog, I got a call from the 260 area code- Columbia City. A woman asked for Mr. Shideler. This is Ted, I said.

The caller was a volunteer with the historical society and wanted to update me on her progress in positively identifying the old courthouse. Sylvester Knapp had moved the old courthouse to the southwest corner of Van Buren and Whitley Street, opposite Dr. Linville’s hospital. I’d been right all along! The original house I’d taken photos of was the old courthouse, and I’d just made a needless trip to Columbia City to take photos of a random old house.

This version of the Linville Hospital was originally built in 1907. I did not identify this as the courthouse.

But not so fast, she said. Eventually, someone wanted to build a larger house at the southwest corner, so the old courthouse was moved again- one lot south. The basement to the big house, the one I’d originally taken photos of, was the enlarged basement of the old courthouse, she said. Her husband had actually lived there for a while many years earlier! She said that the old courthouse had always featured an exterior stairway to the top floor, but it’d been rebuilt in recent years with a new configuration. Some of the windows of the old courthouse were original, too- or they were the original size, at least. 

The historian went on to say that she had several period images of the old courthouse that she’d be happy to mail me once she took down my address. Further, she knew the current owner of the building and could send me a copy of the property abstract. “Is that the definitive proof you’re looking for?” she asked. It was more than enough. I thanked her profusely.

The actual 1841 courthouse. Note the vertical windows and raised foundation.

I googled 108 S. Whitley. Indeed, it was to the immediate south of the first house I’d taken photos of up there. There was an exterior staircase. The house seemed to feature a lot of those narrow, old windows that made it look like something from an old schoolhouse, Conner Prairie, or Metamora. I checked the assessor’s database. Sure as shit, the house measured 18×36 feet. According to the file, it was built in 1900. That made more sense now that I knew it had been moved.

The next weekend, I went back to Columbia City to take more photos. It was hard- a tree blocked most of the view, and there were people outside working on a fence. I snapped my photos from the car in order to arouse as little suspicion as possible, but managed to squeeze off a few decent ones. I’ll have to go back once the leaves have fallen. 

Another suboptimal shot of the old courthouse. “Focus” (heh) on the raised foundation, exterior staircase, and tall, original window configurations.

I was blown away that, after two years, I’d finally gotten a positive ID on the old courthouse. But further, I was blown away at how ashamed I felt of myself. I’d given some serious shade to the historical society in my original post, but here, a volunteer had called me -a total stranger- with an earnest and informative update on my request for information. I learned a lot during this project, but that day I learned that maybe I shouldn’t be such a jerk in making assumptions about people’s willingness to help. I stand corrected, and am happy to make a generous donation to the museum’s efforts. Although various friends and family members have accompanied me on my courthouse trips to chat and keep me company, the Whitley County saga truly shows that sometimes you just can’t do everything on your own. I’m grateful and humbled that my call to the big guns resulted in identifying this courthouse. Hopefully, this blog will eventually serve the same purpose for others. 

Author: tcshideler

When I'm not driving around, drinking fountain pops, and taking photos of county courthouses, I like to perform and record rock music in my band, spend time outdoors fishing and camping, read, and watch pro basketball and hockey.

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