If we did some quick calculations (I did so you don’t have to), the average Indiana county would measure just over 389 square miles1, pretty close to the size of Henry (New Castle) and Delaware (Muncie) counties, and only seven square miles south of the state’s median size somewhere between Marion (Indianapolis) and Spencer (Rockport). So why does Ohio County check in at a measly 86 square miles? It’s not only the state’s smallest county, but it’s tiny enough to be the smallest in the entire nation. What gives?
Actually, a lot gives- the area has an intriguing history. We all know that Indiana’s earliest settlements sprung up around the Ohio River. One of the first was Lawrenceburg, founded in 1810 as part of the burgeoning Indiana Territory. Armed with a strategic trading location on the river and the prestigious status of county seat, Lawrenceburg spent the next twenty-five years growing as a regional powerhouse.
At the time, Dearborn County was quite large compared to its peers and measured about 391 square miles, close to today’s average. Aside from Lawrenceburg, several other towns quickly sprung up in the area, including Wilmington- seven miles to the southeast and laid out in 18152. A year later Indiana became a state and Rising Sun was founded as a seasonal flatboat stop at the remote southern part of Dearborn county3. Additional communities followed suit, which tilted the county’s population balance away from Lawrenceburg. The state took note passed legislation in 1835 that demanded the county seat relocate to a more central area: Wilmington.
Imagine being a great singer with a burned-up voice or an NBA all star with a blown-out ACL. You’re still famous, but what makes you “you” is gone. That’s probably the way Lawrenceburg felt- they still commanded a position of commercial prominence, but they no longer had the clout to back it up. Wilmington quickly put up a $4,000 two-story brick courthouse, and county business officially relocated the next year.
Though residents in Lawrenceburg were inconsolable at the move, folks down in Rising Sun were pretty happy- they’d been campaigning since 1817 to get their own county only to get slapped back into submission by the government up north. But with the county seat move conclusive, officials in Rising Sun hatched a plan. Conferring with their counterparts, a deal was struck: If Lawrenceburg would throw its support towards the formation of a new county with Rising Sun as its seat, the new county would absorb enough residents to tilt the population center back to Lawrenceburg and restore its rightful title as county seat. In 1843, the plan was successfully executed: Eighty-six square miles of Dearborn County became Ohio County, with Rising Sun as the county seat. The same year, Wilmington was abandoned as the government moved back to Lawrenceburg. It was a total win-win for everyone involved. Except for Wilmington.
And that’s why Ohio County’s so small. It took officials there two years to build a courthouse, but they built it well. The 1845 county courthouse is the state’s oldest such structure in continuous use, and Ohio County is the only one in the state to have only had one courthouse.
So what about the building itself? Along with the rest of downtown Rising Sun, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Greek Revival building faces northeast towards three small commercial buildings on Main Street- IN 262, but is otherwise three blocks away from the city’s commercial core. The feature most apparent, from the front, is the building’s enormous round columns, tapered, that support a pediment that covers its front porch. Four columns obviously separate a building into three distinct bays, and the central bay of the courthouse features an interesting double staircase that combines into one to provide access to the second-story porch. Above the staircase, the central bay contains a prominent double-hung window5, while the flanking bays feature normal wooden entry doors with transoms like you’d find in an old school.
Originally, the brick courthouse extended back four bays and measured forty feet wide by fifty feet long6. The second floor featured double-hung, twelve-over-twelve windows, while the first story featured two similar windows with shutters in the first two bays, and another door in the fourth. In 1980, the courthouse was extended to the southwest, featuring two window bays slightly shorter than the original building separated by a wooden entryway featuring, again, double-hung doors with a transom. A second sympathetic expansion in 20027 added significant space to the courthouse’s rear and southwest faces, giving the building an L shape and featuring a new, gabled entryway and five new window bays. Despite the additions, the southwest face sits far enough back from the original courthouse to make taking pictures of its front easy without encumbering it with newer construction. Nevertheless, the additions are among the most historically-accurate appearing ones I’ve seen over the course of this project, and were necessary to keep the 174-year-old building viable.
My research tells me that the Ohio County Courthouse is one of three remaining Greek Revival courthouses in the state. Offhand, I can name the Orange County Courthouse in Paoili, built in 1850, as the second but had to consult my photo library to identify the third, which is the 1854 courthouse in South Bend. There’s actually a fourth courthouse in the same style that still exists too, but you’ll have to do some digging to find it, literally- every neoclassical element of Fayette County’s 1849 building was covered up in an 1891 project to modernize it8. Please don’t go dig it up, although, its original walls are still in there somewhere under layers of brickwork.
Although neoclassical courthouses that sort of ape its style popped up everywhere in the early 20th century, Greek Revival never really hit it big in Indiana. More common during the early years were what Ball State courthouse researcher David Hermansen termed “Coffee Mill” courthouses, squarish brick buildings with a hipped roof and central cupola that vaguely looked like the byzantine appliance they’re named after (today I would call them “PopSocket” courthouses after the ubiquitous smartphone gripper). Of the forty-eight PopSocket courthouses built in Indiana, most were 40×40 feet, spanned two stories, and provided about 3,000 square feet of usable space. In fact, that’s the very type of courthouse that Wilmington built upon ascending to county seat status in 1836.
We’re now nearly two centuries removed from what happened in Dearborn County back in 1836. We’ve discussed what became of Ohio County’s new courthouse, still in use after all these years. What else is there? Well, aside from the courthouse, the county’s big claim to fame is the Rising Star Casino Resort, a massive complex featuring a 294-room hotel and riverboat for dockside gambling. Back in Lawrenceburg, Seagram’s opened up a distillery, now known as MGP Indiana, which makes nearly fifty brands of private-label whiskey and bourbon. IN 1996, the Argosy Casino, now Hollywood Casino Lawrenceburg, opened up as the closest Indiana riverboat casino to downtown Cincinnati. IN 1980, Perfect North Slopes, an alpine skiing resort, opened up just north of town. Lawrenceburg’s population, along with Rising Sun’s, has slowly, but steadily, increased.
What about those schmucks in Wilmington? Well, it gradually dried up after the county seat moved. The 1817 post office closed ninety years later, and today the place is barely a spot on the map. A 1958 rerouting of IN-350 bypassed the town entirely9, and after a two-story Odd Fellows’ hall was torn down or fell over around the year 200010, the only non-residential building in town was the Wilmington United Methodist Church, built in 1900. Well, that and the old courthouse.
The old courthouse was used for a long time as the town’s Masonic Hall, but today it seems essentially abandoned at the corner of Wilmington Pike, the old IN-350, and King Street. It’s in very poor shape. Today, no population information exists about Wilmington since its no longer incorporated. The area would make for a nice historic park if someone could step in and save the courthouse, which seems to be used as a barn, garage, or corn crib. Though a leaning, faded, historical marker stands in front, it’s easy to believe that few people know of the building’s history as one of only three PopSocket (okay…coffee mill) courthouses left in the state.
Though the condition of Wilmington’s courthouse is sad, not every town wins the courthouse wars. Even rarer is a county that wins them and still manages to keep their original building- Ohio County is alone in that regard. While I hope county officials, who have shown no inclination towards doing so, are able to keep the Wilmington structure standing, Lawrenceburg is home to a fine old courthouse of their own, one that just received renovations to expand it to the modern era. Ohio County’s has too. The courthouse in Rising Sun has served its community for 174 years. Here’s hoping that it sticks around for another century.
Ohio County (pop. 5,994, 92/92)
Rising Sun (pop. 2,226).
Built: 1845, expanded 1980, expanded 2002.
Architect: George Kyle
Style: Greek Revival
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: Two stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 “Indiana Land area in square miles, 2010 by County” indexMundi. 2019. Web. Retrieved from https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/united-states/quick-facts/indiana/land-area#map May 11, 2019.
2 Shaw, Archibald. History of Dearborn County, Indiana: Her People, Industries and Institutions. Indianapolis: B. F. Bowen and Company, Inc. 2015. p. 176.
3 History of Dearborn and Ohio Counties, Indiana. Chicago: F. E. Weakley & Company. 1885. p. 448.
4 Enyart, David. “Ohio County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. May 11, 2018.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Rising Sun Historic District, Rising Sun, Ohio County, Indiana, National Register #06000935).
6 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved from http://courthousehistory.com.
7 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Ohio County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquare.org
8 Enyart, David. “Fayette County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL 9 Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. May 11, 2018.
9 Indiana State Highway Department (1957). State Highway System of Indiana (Map). Indiana State Highway Department. OCLC 78547924. Retrieved May 11, 2019 – via Indiana State Library and Historical Bureau.
10 Masing, Milton A. Dearborn County, Indiana in Vintage Postcards. Arcadia Publishing. 1999. Print.