It’s been a while since we talked about a modern courthouse- we’ve almost run out of them! But after discussing two similar neoclassical courthouses over the past two weeks, it’s time for a change. Martin County, of which Shoals is the seat, has an interesting history. It’s also 173 miles south of Delphi down I-65. So we’re going about as far in the opposite direction as possible- historically and geographically.
Most of the land there, down south near the Hoosier National Forest, has a lot of trees as you might imagine. The rest of it features lots of native limestone and sandstone ridges. Over time, this unique topography has given us awesome sights like the famous Jug Rock geological formation- a freestanding table rock that gave us Shoals High School’s unique basketball team- the Jug Rox. Originally part of Knox County as early as 1790, this land was ceded to Daviess County in 1817, three years before Martin County carved out a space all its own, along with a tiny part of neighboring Dubois County.
We’ve discussed times where the county seat has moved in the past, but none match up to what happened in Martin County. Over a fifty-six year span, the seat of government moved nine times! Hindostan was to be the first county seat in 1820 and residents did their best to secure that title by lobbying officials with 160 acres of land, $5,000 cash, a courthouse square, and $300 for a courthouse bell. Everything was good to go until a nasty plague spread through the town. In 1828, officials moved out. Today there’s nothing left of Hindostan aside from a cemetery1– most of the residents died by 1833.
Greener pastures beckoned in Mount Pleasant, where the seat moved in 1828. Government buildings were erected the following year, but in 1844 officials decided that area government would work better if it were located within 3.5 miles of the county’s center. So officials picked up again, moving to Halbert’s Bluff, then Memphis2. County residents in the north and west sides of the county were mad at the relocation, though, so nothing was built. A series of courthouses followed in Trinity Springs, Dover Hill, and then back to Trinity Springs.
To make a long story short, most of the selected county seats couldn’t wrangle up a suitable courthouse square in time, so officials inevitably chose somewhere else in short order3. All that’s left of those old seats is the jail at Dover Hill, long since converted to a residence but apparently still holding some old jail cells downstairs. Ironically, none of the communities that actually took the time to plat out a courthouse square ever received the nod from county officials1. But that’s life in early Indiana- by 1876, commissioners pretty much got the situation figured out, and eventually the county seat moved to West Shoals.
Platted on the site of previous county seats Memphis and Halbert’s Bluff), Shoals and West Shoals eventually combined into the Shoals we know today- cut down the middle by the White River like the zipper on your favorite hoodie. The historic 1877 courthouse still stands, visible from a distance as you hook right coming into town on US-50. The old courthouse has a great story to tell, though we’re not going to right now since I’ve yet to go back and get photos of its restored clock tower. Though the building continued to serve its constituents reasonably effectively, its layout and hardy construction led commissioners to make some tough choices around the new millennium. Despite a northeast brick addition in 1956 that added some restrooms and storage areas, the structure had serious problems meeting ADA requirements. An elevator would cost too much to add, so the courthouse needed to relocate.
Thankfully, commissioners didn’t have far to look for a new courthouse. On August 13, 19994, they bought the old Martin County Bank building across the river to serve as the new seat of county government, raising alarm amongst history buffs that the old building would fall into disrepair if abandoned. Two nonprofit groups, The Martin County Historical Society and the Trinity Springs Mustering Elm5, joined forces to ensure that the venerable courthouse wouldn’t go to waste, and in 2002 with the move complete, county government sold the building for $1 for use as the Martin County Museum, with an option to buy it back at the same price in the future.
Despite the old courthouse really showing its age, the architectural contrast between the two courthouses couldn’t be more obvious. It’s builders, Midwestern Engineers of nearby Loogootee6 didn’t emphasize frivolities. In fact, nearly the only ornamentation of the new one is found within the stone immediately left of the courthouse’s entry: three diamonds featuring the initials “MCC”. The M and the first C appear original and surely reference the Martin County Bank. The second C appears of a different design, though. I’m sure it was added when the building became the courthouse. Imprinted underneath the decorative carvings is the building’s date of construction, 1982.
The building’s fortresslike design, which I’ll charitably call “functional,” was a common one for banks around that time period- no doubt you’ve got a similar one in your own hometown designed to reinforce the idea that a customer’s money was safe within its walls. As nondescript as the building appears from the front, the northeast side is a little more interesting as its method of construction becomes apparent. The length of the building is made up of twenty-six vertical panels of scored concrete with a narrow, smooth limestone band running horizontally near the top and bottom of the wall, a pattern repeated on all sides of the courthouse.
A group of five narrow windows, bookended by the structure’s limestone bands, are roughly centered at this side of the building and were designed to drop into the width of each vertical panel. Though the courthouse appears to be a single story from the front, it rests on a hill. The bottom limestone band frames a set of double doors at the northeast corner of the structure, providing street-level access to the building’s basement. Just about all that’s left to see of the building itself is its original, two-lane drive through window and canopy at the building’s southwest.
Now, a courthouse without a clock tower just doesn’t seem right. Several county seats around the state without clock towers of their own eventually got wise and added a standalone clock somewhere on the green. In Muncie, we got one a few years back during a beautification effort around our modern county building. But until then, the closest we had to a clock tower was a slew of those big, digital, time-and-temperature bank signs. The Martin County Courthouse actually has both, with the old-style clock serving as an interesting juxtaposition to the modern courthouse and its matching electronic sign. Despite the building’s small stature, the clocks give it more of an official aura. The period streetlights and flagpoles out front don’t hurt, either.
So that’s the 2002 Martin County Courthouse. Originally I passed through town on a longer trip and only stopped at its 142-year-old, National Register of Historic Places-listed7 predecessor. When I went back later, a parade was on tap for that afternoon and I wasn’t able to inconspicuously get decent photos of the current structure.I also noticed that the old courthouse across the river was receiving some much-needed work on its bell tower- to the tune of $50,000 as I later found8. I told myself I’d have to stop back and take some photos of the finished product. Of course, now that it’s been done for several months, I’ve yet to make it back. But when I do, we’ll talk more about Shoals’ other courthouse, an actual historic building.
Martin County (pop. 10,160, 87/92)
Shoals (pop. 736)
Architect: Midwestern Engineers, Inc.
Courthouse Square: None
Height: Two stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 7/10/2016, 7/7/2018.
1 “Hindostan Cemetery” Find A Grave. Ancestry.com, LLC. Web. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
2 “Shoals attracting attention with pure civic pride” The Herald [Jasper]. April 26, 1999. 4. Print.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Martin County Courthouse, Shoals, Martin County, Indiana, National Register # 05000604.
4 “Loogootee” The Herald [Jasper]. August 28, 2002. 8. Print.
5 “Groups unite to save courthouse” The Vincennes Sun-Commercial [Vincennes]. January 20, 2003. 3. Print.
6 Deacon, J. “Martin County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Martin County. Indianapolis. Web. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
7 “Martin County Historical Society awarded $50,000” The Herald [Jasper]. June 30, 2017. Web. Retrieved June 19, 2019.