The bluffs that rise above the Ohio River in southern Indiana are truly a sight to behold. Around Leavenworth, the road sits nearly two hundred feet above the normal pool of the Ohio River1. That’s four feet taller than the courthouse in Terre Haute! If you get off I-64 and take Indiana Route 66 south, you’re soon driving thirty-four stories above the riverbank. It’s unreal, and a little scary, especially as the road curves to follow the flowing river. I didn’t take any photos for fear of my life, but just roll with it.
Google somehow managed to thread their Street View car down Alton-Fredonia Road around and south of Leavenworth, but they did it at the wrong time of year. Trust me- you don’t want to miss a leisurely trip down that pike when the leaves are off the trees. Your height above the river will leave you speechless, especially if you see a barge down there plowing its way downstream to wherever it is that barges go. And that’s where I found myself on Thanksgiving, 2017- just west of Leavenworth, heading south towards Fredonia, Indiana. Ever heard of it? Maybe you have, since we talked about it briefly a few months back. Nonetheless, let’s go back, now that it’s firm into February and the trees are still barren.
The history of Crawford County -where we’re headed now- is complex and compelling. In 1818, the first seat of government for the county was founded in Mount Sterling. An outline of Crawford County on the map looks like an inverted stairway on the western border, along with a random blob to the east that follows the trajectory of the Blue River down to the Ohio. So where does Mount Sterling sit? Well, sort of in the middle of all of it. A central location is usually helpful and desired by county governments, but Mount Sterling’s not on the map anymore- the best clue we have to its location is the old Mt. Sterling Road, southeast of English, and the old Mt. Sterling church just east of Senns Road. I bet that’s where it was, but haven’t confirmed it. Since we can’t even position the town on a current map, we have no clue at all where this first Crawford County courthouse would have been situated or what it would’ve looked like, although county courthouses of that era were generally frame structures. The county seat didn’t stay there long, anyway. The water supply wasn’t good enough due to its central location, its altitude, or the fact that early pioneers had notoriously poor hygiene, from what I’ve gathered.
At any rate, thirsty officials of the burgeoning county packed up and moved down to Fredonia in 1822, after only four years of setting up camp in Mount Sterling. There, they built a two-story brick courthouse that measured 39×33 feet and was designed by a guy named Allen D. Thom. Sources indicate that the building was free to the county, but I can’t verify that. I did read that residents transported county records to the new courthouse in meal sacks, and their efforts weren’t wasted. The county seat existed in Fredonia for twenty-one years, until it moved again to Leavenworth, that larger town to the northeast that we mentioned already. There, it lasted for more than fifty years until the courthouse moved to English. Continual catastrophic floods led to a final relocation, in “New” English, about fifteen years ago, and that’s where the courthouse stands today, about 2.5 miles northeast of the old town.
So where did that all leave my project? A little confused, to be honest. Prior to that Thanksgiving, I’d been to every county except Perry, which holds three or four historic courthouses, depending on your stance. I’d been to Crawford County and taken photos of its abandoned 1959 courthouse in English, but took the wrong turn to Paoli and missed the modern courthouse in the same damn town. Since I was in the neighborhood, I had to go back. Gamers know the allure of 100% completion, and although I’m not one, I still had to accomplish it photos of every courthouse in the state. That meant I had to go back to Crawford County and get some photos of that modern courthouse, built in 2003 in “New” English.
As I developed an itinerary, I ran across some Flickr photos of some decrepit brick walls that were labeled as the old Fredonia courthouse, the second county seat. I zoomed in to Fredonia on Google Maps and could only see what I assumed were piles of brush. I saw the sign in Street View, but beyond it was a scrub of trees that I couldn’t really focus on. I figured I’d have to stop there, lest I make it back into Muncie having missed another historic courthouse more than 200 miles away. That had already happened with the abandoned Dearborn County courthouse in Wilmington, and I wasn’t keen on it occurring again.
All I knew was that there was an old, wooden sign -like you’d see at the entrance to a state park- that described the location of the old courthouse. I was all in to even just get a snap of that sign, if nothing else. After all, I made it to Wilmington, I made it to the old cupola used as a kid’s playhouse in Bloomfield, I took photos of the old fire station cupola in Monticello just in case it had been part of an old courthouse, and I wasn’t going to let another artifact slide. So I turned south off of I-64 towards IN-66. And I followed the route past where the state road turned off towards Leavenworth, along the mighty bluffs of the Ohio River. This was a single-paved, narrow, two-lane road all the way to my destination. I kept going.
Bucolic farmland was soon swept away by the crazy scenery. I almost got thrown off the road by some locals with huge Ford trucks. A few miles and some curves led me into what I’d recognized in Google Maps, some houses with a road that branched off to the west and looped back south- Cemetery Cut. I could see the old sign denoting the courthouse up ahead, but no courthouse. So I turned onto Cemetery Cut.
My research indicated that any old courthouse would probably be to my left, but as soon as I had time to remember that, I discovered it on the right. There it was -just like one of the old schoolhouses I’d found around Muncie- somewhat intact, and ready for some photos. I stopped the car and got out, camera at the ready.
There’s an old postcard purporting to show this courthouse, but I’m not quite sold on whether it’s accurate or not. I didn’t have a copy of it when I went to Fredonia, but I recently acquired one as of June, 2019. Whatever structure’s depicted in it appears to be a single-story brick building with a gabled roof that culminates in a simple, wooden bell tower. A chimney protrudes from the building’s rear, and ivy crawls up one wall and across the metal soffit. Overall, the building depicted seems like a wider version of an old schoolhouse.
What I found seemed vastly different, though, from the main angle I was able to observe the building from. The old courthouse didn’t appear to be nearly as wide in person, and it featured an interesting semicircular portion facing what I imagined was the building’s rear. Other sources have doubted the authenticity of the postcard. Unfortunately, actual information about the building seems to be lacking.
Nevertheless enthused about photographing it (and certainly not about the lengthy drive home), I bounded out of my car to patrol the old courthouse with my camera. A mutt quickly ran towards me and proved to be very nice. It’s always good to make friends while courthousing!
As my new friend scratched his back on the grass and periodically ran up from his trailer home to lick my Cheeto-laden hands, I took more photos of the courthouse. Only two walls really stood, the front and the back. I tried to imagine it in terms of the postcard I’d seen, but couldn’t come up with anything. Apparently local residents had better brains than I did, since they copied their Fredonia Community Center after the original courthouse. couldn’t find the place and didn’t drive by it, but an internet search once I got home confirmed that they’d at least designed it based on the old postcard. I wonder what this courthouse looked like originally.
I got back in the car and bid my new doggo friend goodbye. Normally, I make a trip around each courthouse and take photos of each angle so I never have to go back to some of these remote spots if I wake up in a cold sweat, having erroneously dreamt of what the southwest side of the Orange County Courthouse or whatever looks like. Brush impeded me here, but I was satisfied with what I captured. The inadvertent strategic nature of my trip -with no leaves on the trees- helped me immeasurably, as did my newfound dog friend and Belinda Carlisle, who insisted via my radio that indeed, Fredonia -heaven- was a place on earth. It was really that outstanding of a location. If not for the depth of a well I’d have to dig, I’d relocate there in a heartbeat.
This post has been different from most of the others. It centers on a courthouse that’s unused and in ruins. The town whose heyday as a county seat has all been but forgotten. Yet that’s the problem, and that’s the big differences between this and the courthouses we normally talk about. This type of courthouse is generally mentioned as an aside in the history of a newer one. But parts of the history of Crawford County’s old courthouse in Fredonia are actually forgotten.
But as of June, 2019, it’s not forgotten- at least to me. In reviewing the mysterious building in the postcard, I’m not quite sure that it’s not the old courthouse, just viewed from the other side. The portion I saw, with the semicircular apse, was the side facing west, which presented itself away from a grove of trees and was easy to photograph. That old postcard could have been taken from the eastern side, now obscured by foliage and a nearby trailer. For what it’s worth, I mentioned that Fredonia residents built a community center modeled after the old courthouse which appears pretty similar to the building shown in the card, albeit different from other courthouses of the time. People who live there probably know better than I do as to the original appearance of the courthouse.
Nevertheless, today’s historians and armchair sleuths are used to being able to find answers, especially online or in official documents. But sometimes we hit a wall, and we can’t determine with certainty what a courthouse looked like, where it was, or even where a whole town was. And we have to find a way to make peace with that! It can be hard, especially for those of us who are seduced by the singular allure of working a task or project to 100% video game completion. So in the interest of personal growth, I’m happy to allow the story of the second Crawford County courthouse in Fredonia, to remain completely incomplete, and to celebrate it for what it is today: a beautiful set of old brick walls, standing in a field, protected by trees – a mystery. And I’m happy to have seen the bluffs and make friends with a doggo along the way.