I love basketball. It’s hard to hate it here in the Hoosier state where we eat the game for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My grandpa played in high school, and his brother went on to a storied career at Memphis State where he battled the great Elgin Baylor in college, later ‘competing’ in a tour as part of the Washington Generals against the Globetrotters in the Philippines. Myself? I’m not the paragon of athletics by any stretch, but I rose up the intramural ranks to traveling teams during middle school where my main highlight was assisting on a game-winner at Hoosier Gym in Knightstown. They filmed Hoosiers there, you know. I eventually topped out at 5’9 and there’s not much room for people of that size to play center, so I got into history and stopped working out. That’s a great recipe for a lack of basketball success, but it’s also a great recipe for going to every historic courthouse in the state. Needless to say, my jump shot isn’t what it used to be, but my courthouse game is strong.
Despite the sport’s prominence in my neck of the woods, basketball isn’t confined to being a big deal in East Central Indiana; it perpetuates the whole state. As I sat here and thought about what courthouse to write about, I realized that there was no better town to illustrate the rural importance of basketball showmanship than Kentland- clear on the other side of Indiana’s boundaries.
Even though it’s a small town, Kentland is a unique community. In 1950, 1,800 people lived there. But basketball was so popular around those parts that the school board built a gym that seated 2,2001– more than 120% of the town’s population, assuming that everyone there went to see the South Newton Rebels and managed to invite 400 more people to fill the gym to the brim2. The county was full of aspirations and misappropriated political foresight too- although it took them a while to build out their massive gym, county officials did just that with their courthouse nearly fifty years prior. Commissioners who constructed the Newton County Courthouse in 1906 also anticipated an uptick in population, but it never ended up reaching Hoosier Hysteria levels. Today, South Newton schools has an enrollment of about 250 students, and Kentland’s population has remained about the same as it has all along- roughly 1,600 people per recent census estimates. Despite its stylings that imitate those of larger communities nearby, the Newton County Courthouse stands to deliver resources to its citizenry in a competent, understated manner. Unlike the town’s high school gym.
Basketball aside, Newton County was the last county in the state to be inhabited3. We’ve talked about bizarre pioneer conditions that we take for granted with regards to our state’s southernmost portions, but this area was simply just a swamp for a long time. People stayed away. Though the county had been legally designated for years, it finally reached an extant state once Indiana officials dredged the area in 18504.
Driving there from Muncie wasn’t dredgery, but it sure was drudgery. Kentland is not a quick drive. In fact, it takes about two-and-a-half hours if you’re going straight there down I-69 to 465 to 65 to 24. But I did not go straight to Kentland. I reached the Newton County seat by way of Lafayette and Fowler, where I took two sets of courthouse photos. Accounting for time taking photos, it took me an additional hour to finally arrive at the Newton County seat. To make matters worse, once in town I was underwhelmed. The current Newton County Courthouse, built in 1906 but not visible from the town’s main intersection, replaced one constructed in 1861 prior to the Civil War. The former courthouse -apparently a two-story tall, three-bay wide frame structure with a wooden belfry- lasted for fifty-five years. It didn’t last without a fight, though. As is common during our state’s early history as well as when the Indiana Pacers play basketball in Detroit, a fight broke out. Apparently, the ruckus occurred between the residents of Beaver City, Brook, Morocco, and Kentland when those smaller -yet more centrally located- towns attempted to pry the seat of government away from the existent county seat in Kentland. Beaver City stole the show, apparently copying the design of the 1861 Kentland Courthouse towards a building all their own5, but their effort is gone now. The fights continued, but a ninth and final effort to move the county seat, this time to Goodland in 1903 (approved by voters but rescinded by the state’s supreme court) kept the county seat where it is today. The current building was constructed shortly after.
Most people arrive in Kentland via the intersection of US-41 (which goes from Evansville to Hammond in Indiana) and US-24 (running from Ohio to, well, Kentland). The courthouse is a few blocks to the northwest. When I was there, the highway intersection was unceremoniously marked with an abandoned gas station, an open Marathon and McDonald’s, along with a strip mall featuring a few other businesses like Subway and Dollar General. Kentland proper, though, has more to see. To get to the courthouse, you simply take US-24, signed as East Seymour Street in town, up to North 4th Street. After a block, you’ll find yourself deposited at the rear yard of the historic courthouse with almost nary another historic building in sight. It seems that those are all concentrated on the building’s west front, along 3rd Street. None of them match the scale of the courthouse.
The building, just like the town’s high school gym, is understated but overbuilt per the county’s population. Neoclassical in origin -but with definite beaux arts influences- the courthouse rises three stories above the square, including a partially-visible basement. The building’s primary front -facing west- features a central, projecting bay is seven bays wide, with an interior lit by arched windows on the courthouse’s top floor6. A triangular pediment, otherwise unadorned, caps the courthouse. Fans of clock towers stay away- there isn’t one here.
The building’s east facade is similar to its west side but without most of the ornamentation. There’s no columned entrance, nor is there a parapet, as this side’s entrance was left to do it’s own thing. The north and south sides are relatively boring, though the north elevation features a second-story window that was converted to a fire escape years ago in order to match state standards.
Inside, the building is similar to its state when originally constructed. Window surrounds, as well as doorways, counters, and staircases from 1906 remain intact. Probably most interesting to historic preservationists are the original courthouse vaults, designed and installed by MacNeale and Urban, of Cincinnati. Though some have been repainted, several remain in their original condition. A 1989 remodel divided the courtroom into two distinct areas, as well as adding an elevator. As with most government buildings in 2019, security stations have been added at various places.
Despite the changes, the Newton County Courthouse remains very close to the original intent of the architects who erected it 113 years ago. Although the days leading up to its construction were rife with political difficulty and infighting, the courthouse still stands ready to serve its constituents. Overall, despite its understated Renaissance Revival styling, the courthouse stands as a unique entry into our state’s portfolio, as does the town’s old gym, located just two blocks northeast. Though many towns in our state have fallen victim to regional consolidation, Kentland remains independent- just like our state’s fierce support of our sport of choice is. The current slogan of the Indiana Pacers is “We Grow Basketball Here”.
Despite our collective march towards new urbanism and regional power centers, we still grow courthouses here too, just like this one. If our hometown heroes spring up in the context of sports played across the country, so should our courthouses. Despite any notions of its relatively-sedate appearance, the Newton County Courthouse deserves our respect as a hometown hero that never lost track of its fanbase.
Newton County (pop. 14,087, 82/92)
Kentland (pop. 1,720).
Cost: $34,855 ($927,000 in 2016)
Architect: Joseph T. Hutton
Style: Renaissance Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2.5 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 Neddenriep, Kyle. Historic Hoosier Gyms:: Discovering Bygone Basketball Landmarks. The History Press [Charleston]. 2010. Print.
2″Population and Housing Unit Estimates”. United States Census Bureau. Web. Retrieved 2/22/19.
3. Clinton Goodrich, Dewitt & Tuttle, Charles Richard. An Illustrated History of the State of Indiana [Indiana]. R.S. Peale & Co. Print.
4 Enyart, David. “Newton County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. February 22, 2019.
5 A Standard History of Jasper and Newton Counties, Indiana. Lewis Publishing Company [Jasper County]. 1916. Print.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Newton County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquare.org