Happy new year! Indiana was pretty much a rough-and-tumble wild west frontier back in its early days, minus the dwarf doctor Miguelito Loveless running amok across our plains and forests. No, Hoosiers didn’t wear cowboy hats, and no, we weren’t all that far west given the scope of the Illinois and Missouri territories. But we sure did ride horses, and we sure did engage in all manner of skullduggery to ensure that our hometowns got the title of county seat, which was a big deal back then.
We’ve talked about some of these political battles before. In Benton County, the back-room, special interest dealings of a wealthy carpetbagger solidified the courthouse’s place adjacent to his railroad. In Noble County, residents of five extant communities threw their hats in the ring during a special county seat vote, only to all lose to a town that only existed in theory. In Wayne County, things got ballistic and residents got blitzkried’! A cannon was dragged out and fired towards the county jail to prevent vital county records from being relocated. You can still see the cannonballs today.
Tons of these early, angry maneuverings happened all over the place. Holding onto the county seat- especially if you were near a natural resource- meant instant economic prominence. Nevertheless, one of the most intriguing cases of courthouse one-upmanship occurred over the course of more than a century; many years after all indications of prosperity for any of the involved communities had all but totally dissolved.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2017, I ventured down to Perry County- the only place I hadn’t made it to on my courthouse project. I didn’t have a phone that worked, and didn’t bother to take a map for the 237-mile trip. But I pretty much knew how to get there! My nearly-new phone wouldn’t recognize a charger and even if it did, I couldn’t turn it on since the power button too had stopped working. Even though the Walmart in Muncie wouldn’t sell me a phone until later in the day due to a spate of burglaries, I decided to travel without one. If my car broke down, or if I got lost, well, I’d have to deal with it like the pioneers.
As I expected (but not as I’d feared), the trip lacked the intrigue of Perry County’s courthouse history. In 1817 -a year after the state was established- the county set up a seat of government at Troy, on a bluff high above the Ohio River. For some reason, they only camped there for a year in an existing building- it was probably hard for officials to get access to a good water supply so high up. So they moved to Rome, 23 miles due east and across the big river from the village of Stephensport, Kentucky. Here, the county government put up their feet for thirty-eight years1 before county lines were redrawn and officials uprooted themselves to the burgeoning river town of Cannelton. As if changing county seats three times in less than forty years wasn’t antiquated enough, officials floated the community’s records fifteen miles down the river to the new county seat. Unreal!
Without a proper courthouse, the government of Perry County took up residence in an old school. It worked well for a long time until 1893, when during a big trial, the floor of the second-story courtroom shifted due to the accumulated weight of the onlookers2. After that, officials got serious about building a permanent courthouse, and they got to planning.
The boys in the back room surely got a-planning! To paraphrase the Good Doctor (Seuss) in the classic, The Butter Battle Book.
For a long time, Cannelton was the place to be. For one, it was home to the Cannelton Cotton Mill, an 1849 institution that was once the country’s largest industrial building west of the Allegheny Mountains3. When it opened, it employed more than 20% of the city’s population- and that’s total population, not just those in the workforce. It was a big deal. But despite the town’s commercial endeavors, it had a problem. Tell City, located just to the north of Cannelton and nearly touching it, had a population of 2,094, which dwarfed the smaller county seat. Residents of Tell City got to thinking how nice it’d be if they could attain the position of county prominence and could reap the economic spoils of becoming the Perry County seat. Mayor A.P. Fenn got to work. Without any notable backroom boys, but along with the rest of Tell City’s citizens, he broke ground on what was intended to be the new county courthouse in 1896.
The vigilante efforts of Mayor Fenn weren’t ridiculous. The seat of neighboring Crawford County had moved from Leavenworth to English during the previous year, and Tell City residents were going to end up facing about half the bill of a new courthouse in Cannelton. By the end of the year, Fenn and his constituents had constructed a fine courthouse, and offered it to the county government for one dollar.
Unfortunately, Cannelton residents had been busy building their own. Just like in the aforementioned Butter Battle Book, their courthouse rose to completion at the same time as their butter-side-down opponents in Tell City, and they marketed it to commissioners at the same price: A buck.
Obviously the price was so low as to entice county officials, but a courthouse for the price of a butter-side-down McChicken? I’d do that any day, and I’d do it twice on Sunday. Their offer matched, Cannelton residents hatched an ingenious plan to implement their new building. The plan, by the way, circumvented the Tell City agent on his way by horseback to Boonville (forty miles away) to get a restraining order to the contrary from the nearest circuit court judge.
Tell City’s man on horseback was long gone, but county commissioner John Tull, a Tell City resident, was wise not to remove himself from the county seat until after business hours. Yet Cannelton sprung to life after he eventually made his way home- as soon as he cleared downtown, a series of hand signals relayed his departure to the Cannelton fire station and soon, residents descended upon the old school to move the county’s records to the new courthouse- just as they’d done by barge thirty-eight years ago. Once everything was relocated to the new courthouse, Cannelton residents celebrated with a huge bonfire. It seems as though the Yooks in Cannelton had survived Tell City’s army of Zooks’ secret Kickapoo-Kid weapon.
The next day, the restraining order arrived4. Obviously, it was too late, and Cannelton remained the county seat for nearly a century longer. Cannelton’s Yooks would remain in power for nearly a hundred years.
But oh, how they didn’t! After their political defeat, The building that Tell City’s Zooks had constructed to be the new courthouse was eventually put into use as a new city hall- a title that it still holds to this day. While relatively chaste by contemporary architectural standards, it sits on a square in the middle of town and appears to be the Perry County courthouse if you don’t know where the real one is. Brick walls and a whitewashed belfry make the building totally dwarf the scale of Cannelton’s old courthouse, but I think this opinion must not have been unique to me. I think residents of Tell City recognized it too, as dreams of usurping Cannelton as the Perry County seat never died. The Tell City Zooks continued their efforts to obtain the county’s championship belt kept on going all through the early 1990s.
Those efforts are what eventually landed the city with the Perry County courthouse! A 1992 election, which sneaky Cannelton officials -expecting the worst- tried to pad by nominating friendly candidates to the board of county commissioners, succeeded for Tell City. In 1992, commissioners voted in favor of moving the courthouse 2-1, accompanied by a county council vote of 5-25. By the early 90s, growth between the twin cities on the river wasn’t even close. Tell City’s population had outpaced Cannelton’s by a total of more than 8,000 to less than 2,000. But it wasn’t just a shift in residency that led to the change. The Cannelton courthouse, measuring about 10,400 square feet, was just too small to deal with a modern county’s business despite a modern courthouse annex standing behind the Cannelton structure. Nevertheless, estimates of refurbishing the existing courthouse cost much more than building a new, purpose-built seat of government, and the only place it made sense to do so was in rural Tell City. Cannelton landowners made this especially clearly refusing to pony up and sell for the town’s greater good. The new courthouse in Tell City would be built on a 4.5 acre lot6 that the county was finally able to acquire- large enough to consider future expansion.
As you might expect, Cannelton officials were pissed off. “It will leave a cavity, a void in the city, which we really can’t afford to have,” said the city’s mayor Hargis Hafele7. However, Tell City officials were obviously thrilled to have finally made the change.
“I know they’re disappointed, but hopefully these are the type of wounds that can heal,” Tell City mayor William Goffinet said, maybe gloating from an old courtroom in Tell City’s city hall.
“I think the decision was made long ago by people wanting to move this thing down the road,” Mayor Hafele countered. “They ignored all the petitions, the hearings,” Hafele complained, citing a 4,500-signature petition against moving the courthouse. “If there’s any [legal recourse], we will exercise it. If not, we’ll say we’ve been robbed and go on through life.”
Around the same time, Perry County commissioners released a statement indicating that they “believe the best interest of the entire county needs it. We also would like to believe that old competitive barriers of one city pitted against the other are, and should rapidly, diminish.8”
That’s probably enough to put a sock in it for the next century. Tell City won, and Cannelton lost. Overall, the new courthouse looks like a modern facsimile of Richmond High School, following an H-shaped plan with a central atrium and administrative offices in the middle and courts and other rooms on either side. Mercifully, the jail is located in a separate building immediately to the rear of the courthouse- not connected like many justice centers are these days. A nice little cupola provides the building with a bit of gravitas, although it looks a bit like an animal hospital or retirement community to my eye.
I’m unsure of what the next century will bring, but the (for now) Perry County Courthouse is a reasonably attractive modern structure despite my wish that the historic city hall could have been utilized for its original purpose. All in all, I was just glad to make it down there without a GPS, and even more glad to shoot the two courthouses in Tell City, the one in Cannelton, one in Rome, and a few more in Crawford County to wrap this project up. From my eye, Tell City seems to be doing okay in its niche. Maybe eventually Cannelton’s best brains will develop a Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, the ultimate weapon to counter their counterparts and take back the county seat. We’ll see.
But until then, Cannelton’s another story. Maybe the loss of the courthouse contributed to its slack at least slightly, but the former county seat’s historic district made the Indiana Landmarks 10 Most Endangered list this past year9. Again- I’m not sure how much of an impact the county seat swap had on Cannleton’s livelihood, but hopefully the city’s downtown can recover. It’s a great little town with a fantastic view of the river, and chock full of neat old buildings. The old cotton mills -still viable after more than 150 years as striking landmarks, anchor the town’s historic downtown district. Hopefully, commissioners have the foresight to recognize the viability of the old county seat -even without the courthouse- and can pump some cash towards it to further the area’s viability. But until or unless that occurs, we have Perry County to thank for the most recent skirmish of the courthouse wars- a battle that took more than 150 years to resolve, butter side up.
For now, at least.
Perry County (pop. 19,347, 75/92)
Tell City (pop. 7,323)
Cost: $2.6 million ($4.2 million in 2016)
Architect: Andrew Churchill
Courthouses Square: None
Height: One story
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 National Register of Historic Places, Perry County Courthouse, Rome, Perry County, Indiana, National Register #81000006.
2 “Perry County Old Courthouse Museum in Cannelton” Little Indiana. February 24, 2015. Web. Retrieved from http://littleindiana.com/2015/02/perry-county-museum-cannelton/1 county boundaries.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Perry County Courthouse, Cannelton, Perry County, Indiana, National Register # 75000011.
4 Enyart, David. “Perry County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. December 19, 2018.
5 “Cannelton may lose status as Perry County seat”. The Times [Munster]. November 7, 1992. Page 10. Print.
6 “Perry County seat moving”. The Kokomo Tribune [Kokomo]. August 6 1994. Page 7. Print.
7 “Move slated for Perry County seat”. The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. June 29, 1992. Page 1.
8 “Commissioners Vote to Move County Seat” The Star Press [Muncie]. June 30, 1991. Page 31. Print.
9 “Cannelton Historic District” 10 Most Endangered. Indiana Landmarks. 2018. Web. Retrieved from https://www.indianalandmarks.org/endangered-property/cannelton-historic-district/.