What constitutes a building? No, really. When I was twelve, my dad gave me a booklet of graph paper and told me to go and design an addition to his house. Happily, I obliged.
The house he moved into when he met my second stepmom was a split-level ranch which had seen the previous addition of a great room at its rear. When dad told me to design an addition, encouraging my love of architecture, he stipulated that I take the original living room and add a two-car garage onto it. Further, I had to turn the existing garage, the lowest spot in the house, into a new master bedroom. Finally, a wall would be built to divide the then-current master bedroom into an office and second guest room. Gleefully, I took measurements outside and started sketching. Sometime once I finished, dad sent my sketches to a builder, and, with minor changes regarding the orientation of the garage doors, my ideations came into existence. Unfortunately, none of those sketches remain to my knowledge.
I spent a lot of time at that house. Roughly every other weekend and on holidays, my brother and I’d go up to hang out with dad, his dogs Dutch, and Bobo, drink Diet Pepsi, watch the Sci-Fi channel, and eat Pizza Hut or cold fried chicken from Martin’s Supermarket. We’d play croquet, hang out in the pop-up camper dad bought, or shoot guns on his acre of property. Dad’s house was surrounded by forest and out in the country enough to allow for such things.
But nowadays, I don’t have much reason to go to Elkhart. The last few times I’ve been were to take courthouse photos, along with a few trips through towards our family’s property in Michigan. The area is a lot different- finding the old route to his house seems harder. There’s a new US-33 overpass through Goshen, a new Ivy Tech sprouted up almost in that old backyard, and the times I’ve called my dad’s old cell phone to hear his voicemail one more time all resulted in hearing the voice of my step-mom’s prior ex-husband. I don’t much care for that.
The times I did, going past and not pulling in the driveway led to some cognitive dissonance for me. The place seems so different since dad died, part and parcel. It makes me wonder what still exists from when he lived and I spent time there, and I thought of the philosophic trope the Ship of Theseus. The idea is that a historic ship, sailed by a mythological hero, is now in a museum’s harbor. Wood bows and cracks, and gradually the old pieces are replaced- swapped out for new ones. A few centuries later, nearly everything’s been gradually replaced. Is that ship the same as the original? What if every rotten old piece of lumber was sent to a warehouse somewhere and reassembled. What’s that ship? Is it the same as the original, the same as a replacement, or something else entirely?
There are several answers, but my experiences with dad’s old house lead me to think that both scenarios forget the human question. Dad’s old house exists now in a physical area alien to me and foreign from its surroundings during his time there. It’s different even in its current physical state than when I started going there, due to the additions I sketched up. But what’s more is that it feels like there’s very little left with his imprint, and probably much less with mine. For all intents and purposes, it’s a different place, one that I don’t have a connection to despite my time and memories there.
And that’s what leads us to Centerville, where the Ship of Theseus question dogs us more than anywhere else in our state as far as historic courthouses are concerned. Indiana’s only extant log courthouse is in Centerville, but its status as that is sort of up for debate. If you’re like me, you prefer everything to line up in orderly fashion- I started this project to document every historic courthouse across Indiana hoping it would. Obviously, things never go according to plan, though, and we’re left with these weirdos like we find in the middle of Wayne County.
The place was organized in 1810, and the community of Salisbury quickly became the county seat just a year later1. The log courthouse was built in 1811 by William Commons2 and lasted just a year before a brick version was constructed. Despite that, residents of centrally-located Centerville almost immediately formulated a scheme to relocate the county seat to their burgeoning community. Back then, being named county seat carried a lot of political and economic weight, and the state legislature soon determined that if Centerville could build a better courthouse than Salisbury’s, then they could claim the title. As the courthouse in Centerville neared completion, state officials came to both towns to compare the structures. Sensing defeat, residents of Salisbury literally refused to let them go inside their own courthouse. So officials did what you or I’d do when judging a courthouse- they counted the bricks in each building from the outside3, reasoning that whichever courthouse was bigger must be the better one. Centerville won, and Salisbury dried up. Today, there’s nothing left of the town aside from Salisbury Road, which you can take south just past Richmond’s westernmost McDonald’s outpost and follow it towards its crossing with the Whitewater River.
Back when Wayne County was essentially pioneer country, building materials were hard to come by. By the mid-1820s, most of Salisbury’s businesses had moved to Centerville, and the logs from the old courthouse were sent to northeast to Richmond, where they were used, hidden under wood siding, to build a house on North 5th Street. In 1952, the house was torn down, and the logs were removed and rebuilt in Centerville4 on the grounds of the high school. The old Centerville High School was located at the southeast corner of W. School Street and South Ash Street a block north of the current one, where it still stands. Next door, the old courthouse sat for forty-six years until the log structure was moved yet again to its current location behind the Mansion House downtown.
What’s the Mansion House? The three-story building, one of downtown Centerville’s most prominent, was built in 1840 as an upscale hotel and tavern, also serving as the Western Stage Company’s office5. Today, it’s a museum, and behind it is the courthouse. The Salisbury courthouse today is what I would describe as a typical, two story, log cabin, four bays wide and featuring a gabled roof perpendicular to the building’s front. Windows on the bottom floor match the height of the asymmetrical door, and an elderly plaque presented by the local chapter of the Daughters of American Colonists certified that the building was re-erected here in 1952 as the only remaining log courthouse in the entire northwestern territory (a smaller plaque below indicates the courthouse’s reconstruction at its present location in 1998). The courthouse is open for by-appointment tours, or during local festivals. I’ve not made it to either.
So Salisbury’s gone, but whatever happened to Centerville, the new county seat that holds its predecessor’s courthouse? Well, a lot. By 1873, it was clear to many that Richmond -several miles east- would provide a better county seat6, and citizens began to mobilize around that notion. After a political battle involving literal cannonfire, the county seat moved shortly after, and it remains there to this day. Centerville’s courthouse is long gone, but its jail remains a few blocks west of the old Salisbury courthouse. Today, Centerville’s more of a bedroom community for Richmond than the boomtown it once was. It’s known today for its variety of antique stores, as is nearby Cambridge City.
Although Centerville’s replacement is gone, the 1811 courthouse is just visible on the north side of US-40 just west and behind of the aforementioned Mansion House. Despite its history and similar appearance to a 1960s postcard that depicted it, all of building’s tear-downs, moves, and reconstructions make it necessary to view it skeptically in an academic light. In fact, the official 2011 Indiana Landmarks report on our state’s historic courthouses nearly skips over it entirely, dismissively listing it only in a footnote as “[appearing] to be the 1811 Wayne County Courthouse…disassembled and rebuilt several times, most recently at Centerville7”. So is it the original courthouse, a house built from the original courthouse, or a reconstruction of one or the other? No one knows for sure, just like Theseus’s ship. For a courthouse completionist like me, though, it’s another oddball to add to the portfolio, regardless of its possibly-dubious stature.
And that definition is sort of how my dad’s old house three hours to the north seems to me nowadays. Last time I went past it was on a trip to our family’s forest in northern Michigan. Going through Elkhart wasn’t the fastest route, but I took it just the same. The new overpass in Goshen disrupted the flow of what I was used to, Ivy Tech took away the remoteness of the place, and a new bypass around the entirety of Constantine, Michigan decimated my memories of passing a mid-century modern elementary school, two grand old homes with covered widows’ walks, a quaint downtown, and a prominent hydroelectric dam. It’d been longer than I thought, and dad’s old house -along with the route we used to take to the property- had changed while I hadn’t. I don’t know what else is left in those buildings and places for me other than the memories. Although no one living remembers the old Salisbury courthouse in its original state, I can’t help but feel some modern-day commiseration with the stragglers left after their town dried up. It seems like that’s been me for my whole life, always behind the curve. And maybe that’s why I love our state’s old courthouses- in whatever state they remain.
1 Fox, Henry Clay. Memoirs of Wayne County and the City of Richmond, Indiana. Madison. Western Historical Association. 1912. Print.
2 Enyart, David. “Wayne County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. May 6, 2019.
3 Nunemaker, Jessica. Little Indiana- Small Town Destinations. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 2016. Print.
4 “Salisbury Log Courthouse” Morrison-Reeves Library History. Morrison-Reeves Library, 2016. Web. Retrieved from https://mrlhistory.org/salisbury-log-courthouse/.
5 “Mansion House Museum” Visit Richmond. Richmond / Wayne County IN Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2019. Web. Retrieved from https://visitrichmond.org/listing/mansion-house-museum
6 Spahr, Walter E. History of Centerville, Indiana. Richmond. Wayne County Indiana Historical Society. 1966. Print.
7 Indiana’s Historic Courthouses. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.