As much as I enjoy driving through small towns across our state, there’s no real reason to go to Salamonia, Indiana. It’s not on the way to anywhere. There aren’t any businesses to speak of, although there’s a neat old schoolhouse. Last someone checked, only about 157 people lived in the village1. So why would anyone bother?
It’s the same with tiny crossroads communities like Jay City and Balbec, although the former features a skewed Whipple through-truss bridge. An ancient log cabin, said to be an underground railroad station in which Eliza Harris from Uncle Tom’s Cabin rested on her way to Canada, stands in the latter.
Sadly, the larger of Jay County’s small towns don’t offer much to a present-day traveler either, unless you like old bridges and history (which I do). Dunkirk has a glass factory where they make Ball jars and beer bottles. Pennville has a couple of interesting cemeteries. People probably only knew Bryant, Indiana for its Bearcreek Farms resort, but even that’s gone now. Redkey gets a pass for Charlie Noble’s nationally-known Key Palace Theater blues venue. Even the county seat, Portland, is small with not much to do. But to be honest, that’s the kind of place I like.
Indiana is vastly becoming a suburban state. From 2015 to 2050, STATS Indiana projects that only 19 of our 92 counties will increase in population more than 10%. 14 more will see population increases of up to 10%. Can you guess where those counties are? With few exceptions, they surround Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinatti, Fort Wayne, South Bend, and Evansville. That’s where people are flocking. Meanwhile, 59 counties -a whopping 64%- are projected to shrink by up to 32% over the next 31 years2. Paint a straight blue line down the western side of the state, a diagonal slash from Laporte to Brookville, and shade in some areas around the HIV outbreak in Scott County and you’ll know where to predict the coming exodus.
Now, I didn’t retain a lot from the 400-level political science course I accidentally enrolled in during my freshman year of college, but I do remember that democracy in America only works if there’s a buy-in from its citizens. As a form of self-policing, citizens across the country need to actively see the fruits of their labor, ideally in their own communities, in order to continue to use their freedoms for good. If a worker in rural Indiana’s labor and taxes most benefit someone far away, he’s likely to disengage, and the livelihood of democracy is more likely to falter. I think about these principles every time I drive through small towns like I listed above. As you can probably guess, Jay County’s in the thick of the population decline.
School consolidations and post office closures, while necessary, undermine the livelihood of these small towns, and thus their citizens. But modern developments along these lines aren’t really new. Jay County is notorious for consolidating eight different high schools into a countywide system in 19753, and at least 23 rural post offices, most in the house or store of a prominent citizen, closed from the late 1880s through 19834. Since 1980, not one incorporated community in the county has seen net growth according to the Census. Not even Portland, which is surprising given its great courthouse.
It took a while to get there, (almost as long as to drive there!) but here we are: the Jay County Courthouse. It’s a building that does its dwindling constituency proud, though not through overdoing it. Architecturally, the courthouse belongs to the neoclassical mode. Faced in Bedford limestone, the east and west facades are identical and hold eleven window bays each. Dividing the two symmetrical groups of five bays is a sixth bay that features a door and decorative pediment. The north and south sides of the courthouse, much more narrow than the others, are identical as well. Each are five bays wide, with the central third bay as the dominant entrance. On these faces, paired Ionic columns support a frieze, along with a cornice that runs around the building’s perimeter. The overall impact of the building is one of solidarity and a lack of ostentatiousness- just like Jay County’s residents, probably. The building is capped with a flat pediment that hides a glass dome to provide sunlight to an elaborate interior rotunda5.
The Jay County Courthouse is notable among its neoclassical peers for an interesting reason. Do you use a wristwach? I sure don’t, and neither does the Jay County Courthouse. Let me back up, actually. It’s one of only two (loosely-defined) neoclassical courthouses built across the state from roughly 1904 (Huntington County) through 1929 (Harrison and Daviess counties) to not have a clock. There’s no clock tower, there’s no clock in a pediment above a colonnade- nothing. Heck, there’s not even a separate clock installed elsewhere on the grounds like some places have done. Well why not?
To answer that question, we need to talk about watches. From the 16th century through the early 1900s, most men wore a pocket watch. It was considered good form. Women, on the other hand, tended to favor wristwatches- there was something decidedly feminine about them. But then World War I happened. Soldiers needed convenient and quick access to the time to help coordinate troop movements and synchronize attacks. Hey- someone suggested. What better place for a watch than a wrist? By 1917, nearly all enlisted men wore their newfound ‘wristlet watches,’ and once they came home they brought the trend back with them. Although the old Jay County Courthouse did feature a clock tower, when it came time to design a new one, officials demurred. Everyone had a clock on their wrist! They didn’t need a courthouse to spell out the time for them. So to this day, there’s no public clock to be found in downtown Portland, a fact I drove up and down US-27 to confirm. But, no matter. Today we all pretty much just use pocket watches again, albeit souped-up versions equivalent to a twin-turbo V8 in the form of our smartphones.
The war had a bigger impact on those involved in the building’s construction other than the decision include a clock tower or not. Unfortunately, the postwar economy bankrupted the contractor, a hapless gent named Dawson who’d originally signed the contract in 1915 before the US entered the war6. Oops! I feel bad for his loss, but I doubt the inclusion of a clock would have made things markedly worse. As a courthouse fan, though, we still got a great building out of the deal. In present parlance, it sucks to suck, but it is what it is. How’s that for a modern dose of philosophy?
These neoclassical courthouses are pretty common around the state, constructed as the courthouses built during the first big boom from the 1850s through the 1870s wore out. County courthouses in Auburn, Danville, Spencer, Delphi, Sullivan, Newport, and elsewhere all feature similar designs. But Portland’s is a little different- it doesn’t fit the generic mold that architects Elmer Dunlap and John Bayard slapped together. Rather, McLaughlin and Huskin assembled a design for a courthouse that, while fitting firmly in the neoclassical architectural scope, manages to do its own thing. And that’s great- especially since it’s so close to me (just one county away), and is different from any other in my area. Great work, architects!
The neoclassical design obviously serves as a callback to the permanence of the structures of ancient Greece and Rome. In a place like Jay County with an uncertain future, I think the county drastically needs this imagery as a source of pride for citizens around the community. Though not the tallest or most ornate county courthouse we’ve come across so far, it still manages to anchor downtown Portland in a dramatic fashion, despite being located on a side street. As best I can tell, the only taller building in the county is the burned out Haynes Mill dog food plant on the way to the fairgrounds.
Sort of poetic, isn’t it? But so ends our trip to Portland and Jay County for now. Though the fate shared by most communities across this swath of Indiana all but ensures continued decline, at least we have another unique, historic courthouse to visit for the time being. Hopefully, it’s enough to instill some pride into the area’s residents. The Jay County Courthouse is definitely one to be proud of.
Jay County (pop. 20,945, 70/92)
Portland (pop. 6,143).
Cost: $$400,000 ($8.78 million in 2016)
Architect: McLaughlin and Hulsken
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current use: County offices and courts
1 “Population and Housing Unit Estimates”. United States Census Bureau. Web. Retrieved February 5, 2019.
2 “Indiana Population Projection Maps and Visualizations”. STATS Indiana. Indiana University. Web. Retrieved February 5, 2019.
3 Shreve, Mason. “Once there were eight”. The Commercial Review [Portland]. Print. June 27, 2015.
4 Forte, Jim. United States and Worldwide Postal History. Web. Retrieved February 5, 2019.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Washington County Courthouse, Portland, Jay County, Indiana, National Register #81000016.
6 Enyart, David. “Jay County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. February 5, 2019.