Martin County is a fascinating place. Most of the land there, near the Hoosier National Forest, has a lot of trees as you might imagine. Gypsum was discovered in the mid-1900s, and today two major mines -including the nation’s deepest (515 feet)- employ hundreds of locals1. When they’re not mining gypsum, Shoals natives are often found fishing the east fork of the White River, celebrating their catches every July 4th at the town’s famous catfish festival.
Outside all the gypsum, trees, and river water, Martin County 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 provided Shoals High School’s bizarre basketball team name, the Jug Rox. If all of that’s not good enough for you, Shoals is where the Archer Gang -a dubious lot who stole, rampaged, and murdered their way through southern Indiana in the late 1800s- was lynched by a mob and hung from some trees in front of the old courthouse there in 1886. In fact, one of the trees is still there2.
Like I said, it’s an interesting place. Originally part of Knox County as early as 1790, the scenic 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. Nearly as interesting as the lynchings, Jug Rox, and catfish is the fifty-six year span that Martin County burned through an unfathomable nine different county seats!Hindostan was designated the first 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 cemetery3– 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 be 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 Memphis4. County residents in the north and west sides of the county were mad at the relocation, though, so no courthouse was built. A series of courthouses followed in Trinity Springs, Dover Hill, and then back to Trinity Springs.
Most of these places were backwoods and slap-dash: unable to wrangle up a suitable courthouse square in time, officials inevitably chose somewhere else in short order5. 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 officials5. But that’s life in early Indiana- in 1871, commissioners pretty much got the situation figured out, and the county seat moved to West Shoals (formerly the site of Memphis and Halbert’s Bluff) after a few more brief stops. There, they built a 45×45 brick courthouse for $29,000. Government was finally moving along efficiently in a new, permanent space, but it was short-lived: fire decimated the building after only five years6. Some historians believe the fire may have originated under unscrupulous circumstances, given bad blood from all the county seat maneuverings7.
Despite the loss of the courthouse, officials wanted to stay in West Shoals and started rebuilding the courthouse on its old foundation. Though courts and offices moved across the river to a building in Shoals during construction, the second West Shoals courthouse was finished by 1877, and it’s still standing today. The two-story building sits on a foundation of local sandstone and takes the form of a Greek Revival temple with flat, wide arches recessed into its brick walls that create implied pilasters. At three bays wide by six long, the building’s first story windows are rectangular, featuring six-over-six double-hung windows. Above a contrasting limestone stringcourse, the second floor has similar windows, though they terminate in rounded arches. The central bay of the structure’s southwestern primary elevation features double doors topped with a semi-circular transom, capped with a small, iron balcony that frames a pair of what appear arched windows but are actually skinny double doors.
The front of the courthouse’s hipped roof is capped with a triangular pediment that accentuates its Greek design heritage, but its most prominent feature its its four-tiered bell tower. Rising above the gable is a trapezoidal segment with a heavy cornice that once featured a central, circular window on each side. Above that rises a tall, rectangular section that, at one point, held a pair of rectangular louvers in each of its faces. Above that is a smaller, rectangular box that holds two tiny, louvered openings-presumably for the bell. Topping the whole affair is an interesting, octagonal dome. Originally, the building’s roofline featured two rows of ten chimneys, along with a decorative wooden cornice that may still remain under the current aluminum soffit8.
By 1999, the interior of the courthouse was a mess. There was no room to add an elevator, the structure couldn’t accommodate required ADA alterations, and officials were running out of room. That year, county commissioners bought the old Martin County Bank building across the river (Shoals and West Shoals had long since combined) in order to use as a new courthouse. Two nonprofit groups, The Martin County Historical Society and the Trinity Springs Mustering Elm9, 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. That’s what the building’s used for today10.
I didn’t go inside, but when I first went to the courthouse the entire tower was covered in aluminum siding that was beginning to rust. It, along with missing bricks along the walls, fading paint everywhere, and an ugly 1956 addition to the east all sullied my impression of the structure. What’s more, when I got home and reviewed my photos it became clear that either the angles I’d chosen were either terrible, or else the bell tower was leaning as if it’d been the recipient of a “Dreamland Express” to the gut by Punch-Out’s Mr. Sandman. About two years later, I went to take photos of the bank courthouse and happened to glance across the river. Over the surrounding trees, the bell tower looked different. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the aluminum had been removed and the tower was covered in billowing plastic- it was being restored! Apparently I was right- it had been leaning, so the Indiana Historical Society gifted a $50,000 Heritage Support Grant to the historical society to strengthen its supports, replace floor joists and deckling, and repairing water damage11. Since then, Helming Brothers, Inc. has completed the tower’s renovation, restoring it to its 1877 appearance. I haven’t made it back to take updated photos yet, but I’m legitimately excited to.
While I’m ambivalent about gypsum, I love geological landmarks, the forest, and -best of all- catfish! As if I didn’t have another reason to trek the 160 miles down to Shoals, a museum in a nearly 150-year-old restored courthouse puts the place right near the top of my planned destinations. You’ll catch me there some Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday this spring, when I’ll update this post with images of the new bell tower. See you there!
Martin County (pop. 10,160, 87/92)
Shoals (pop. 736)
Cost: $8,588 ($196,302 in 2016)
Architect: William P. George
Style: Greek Revival
Courthouse Square: None
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Non-governmental
Photographed: 7/10/2016, 7/7/2018
1 Douglas Wissing “Scenic Driving Indiana”. 2001. Globe Pequot Press [Guilford]. Print.
2 “The Last Hanging Tree” Explore! Southern Indiana. 10/27/11. Web. Retrieved 1/14/20.
3 “Hindostan Cemetery” Find A Grave. Ancestry.com, LLC. Web. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
4 “Shoals attracting attention with pure civic pride” The Herald [Jasper]. April 26, 1999. Print.
5 “Loogootee” The Herald [Jasper]. August 28, 2002. 8. Print.
6 Enyart, David. “Martin County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/14/20.
7 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Martin County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/14/20.
8 National Register of Historic Places, Martin County Courthouse, Shoals, Martin County, Indiana, National Register # 05000604.
9 “Groups unite to save courthouse” The Vincennes Sun-Commercial [Vincennes]. January 20, 2003. 3. Print.
10 National Register of Historic Places, Martin County Courthouse, Shoals, Martin County, Indiana, National Register # 05000604.
11 “Martin County Historical Society awarded $50,000” Dubois County Herald [Jasper]. 6/30/17. Web. Retrieved 1/14/20.