The Starke County Courthouse in rural Knox has a tantalizing pedigree. Its architects, John F. Wing and Marshall Mahurin of Fort Wayne were responsible for a ton of landmarks around Indiana, including the Hancock and Monroe county courthouses along with the replacement tower of the Adams County courthouse, city halls in Fort Wayne and Kokomo, the 214-foot tall St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, and the Riley School in Greenfield. Google them- you’re going to like the way they look; I guarantee it. Better yet, got on eBay and search for postcards detailing their works. Then send them to me.
It doesn’t seem possible, but the guys who actually built the courthouse -George Caldwell and Lester Drake of Columbus- have perhaps an even more storied portfolio. In 1902 they completed the 200-foot-wide dome of the West Baden Springs Hotel, the country’s largest until the 24,000-person Charlotte Coliseum was built in 1955. Two years later, they finished up the truss work for the St. Louis World’s Fair Palace of Agriculture, a building that contained eighteen acres under one roof. The old TWA/Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis -former home of the NFL’s Rams- only holds twelve. Suffice it to say that Caldwell and Drake, along with Wing and Mahurin, were ahead of their time, as well as responsible for some of our region’s biggest landmarks. The courthouse in Knox is the only example of their collaboration, though, and it’s worthy addition to both portfolios.
The structure towers over the rest of Knox, where the next-tallest edifice appears to be the 35-foot tall 1902 Reiss & Horner building two blocks south1, a former opera house2. Despite its small size, Knox retains a hospital, a public library, its own school, and several fast food restaurants as well as a Tractor Supply Co. outlet. No less than Buster Baxter (the main character of PBS’ cartoon ‘Postcards from Buster’ series) “filmed” his first episode here, discovering what it was like to work on a farm3. Unfortunately, Buster’s brief stay did little to help the community’s economy: Knox was reported as the poorest town in Indiana in 2015, with only 5.5% of residents having a bachelor’s degree compared to the state’s average of 23.2%. With a median income of $30,000, the 3,535 residents of the community make about $75,000 less than the median household income of Zionsville, our state’s most prosperous town4.
I don’t have a bachelor’s degree. Maybe I should move to Knox! Zionsville doesn’t have a historic courthouse, anyway. Actually, it doesn’t have any courthouse! Unlike those pretentious communities that make up the donut around Indianapolis, Starke County is legitimate and honest about its limitations, but proud of its achievements. That’s often good news for our old courthouses- quite frankly, if Knox had been more prosperous, officials there may have elected to replace the structure long ago. That’d have been a real shame, as residents in Muncie, Anderson, New Albany, Jeffersonville, Logansport, and elsewhere might attest.
I’m glad Starke County still retains an old courthouse, because it’s one-of-a-kind in Indiana (though the Ottawa County, Ohio courthouse -another Wing & Mahurin structure- is nearly identical 230 miles away via 80/90). The building’s main elevation is its south face, which is three bays wide with a central pavilion that winds up as a wall dormer. There’s a projecting entryway that measures a single story, and enormous cuts of rock-faced stone are used across the building’s street level. Like gargoyles? The Starke County Courthouse has some in the form of light fixtures at each corner of a balustraded balcony above the main entrance. Above them are a series of double-hung windows on the building’s second and third stories, followed by a series of square lights that fit within the round arch of the courthouse’s central pediment. Each of the single window bays that flank the monumental entry are composed of gothic-arched, double-hung windows.
Above the bulk of the courthouse rises a square clock tower that consists of two main parts, if you look closely, separated by a cornice and baluster that apes the design of the balcony over the main entrance. The first part continues the building’s greater theme of rusticated stone and arches, while the second has a high, hipped roof that caps a series of four arches per face. The central two arches are recessed and support a clock face immediately below a steep gable that segments the building’s pyramidal roof5. The overall feeling is similar to that of a castle, as just about all Richardson Romanesque courthouses resemble one.
Now, Starke County was late to the game in terms of organization, as it was founded 1835 and governed by Porter County to its north until 1850. Only after its expansive wetlands were drained did the place become settled, and the first courts were held in the home of the county’s treasurer, Jacob Tillman6. A log courthouse was built in 1851- around the time many counties were building brick structures (some of which still stand today7), which was followed by a wood-frame courthouse in the colonial style that cost $20,000 and was completed in 18638. By contrast, Indiana still has seven brick courthouses in Fayette, Jefferson, Jennings, Morgan, Ohio, Orange, and Decatur counties that predated that building, while structures in Ripley and Steuben counties weren’t far behind. Regardless, that frame courthouse stood for thirty-five years before Wing & Mahurin were called in to bring Starke County into the 20th century.
As you can see, they definitely did, especially with Caldwell and Drake’s expert assistance. But that’s not to say the courthouse’s life has been all candy and nuts for Christmas since it was constructed. 1984 brought the construction of a wood-framed county annex to the north of the courthouse, a postmodern building set along an oblique line from southeast to northwest that houses most of the county’s offices9. That’s okay- the building blends into its surrounds naturally and doesn’t take away from the majesty of the actual courthouse.
Modern structures aside, is there such a thing as good controversy? I’d like to think so. Last year, officials in neighboring Winamac planned to demolish their similar old courthouse, citing its age, layout, and lack of security features as county officials’ main motivations. Age is a reasonable concern, as is an archaic layout, but in terms of security features, Starke County led the way by implementing a single point of entry at its annex back in 201910. Surely officials in Winamac could lock a few doors. After a protracted battle between preservationists and county commissioners, that’s what they decided to do11. Who knew that Knox held a progressive streak? I didn’t, but I’m glad. According to a lawyer friend, It wasn’t long ago that the Starke County Courthouse didn’t even have a security checkpoint, not to mention other security measures. Unfortunately, they’ve become necessary during times like these, and I don’t mean the “trying,” “unprecedented,” or other overused phrase to describe COVID-19. If normal security measures that came into play thanks to Timothy McVeigh and Mohammed Atta have to be put into place to keep our historic buildings in use, then I’m all for them. It’s a big change, but at least it might help preserve these landmarks.
The lawn was in bad shape when I went to Knox, but I didn’t care- it was my first trip back on my project since I’d quit in 2015, and I’d drawn up a schedule of fourteen or fifteen courthouses that day, from Hartford City up to Goshen and back to Muncie via Peru and Marion. It was exhausting! None of those counties, aside from Huntington and Blackford, were ones I’d been to during my first attempt at this thing, since I’d mostly ventured south and west. As tiring a day as it was, the trip served as a great reintroduction to courthousery. I’ve never been back to Knox since, and I’m not at all sure that I ever will. But if I do find myself in the area again, I’ll be sure to appreciate the town more than I did. After all, what it lacks -what keeps people from stopping by recreationally- is the reason that we have a great courthouse -with an even greater pedigree- in that part of Indiana.
Starke County (pop. 23,363, 66/92)
Knox (pop. 3,704)
Cost: $130,000 ($3.73 million today)
Architect: Wing & Mahurin
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 137 feet
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 8/15/15- 9/92
1 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. 1904. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 4/19/20.
2 Jonas, Alexander. “Knox Characters I have Known” Musical Stepping Stones. WKVI. 1970. Web. Retrieved 4/19/20.
3 “Meet Me at the Fair” Postcards from Buster. October 11, 2014. PBS. Web. Retrieved 4/19/20.
4 Briggs, James. “The Richest Town in Indiana” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. June 17, 2016. Web. Retrieved 4/19/20.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Starke County Courthouse, Knox, Starke County, Indiana, National Register # 86003170.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Starke County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 4/20/20.
7 Counts, Will; Jon Dilts (1991). The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press. Print.
8 Enyart, David. “Starke County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/20/20.
9 “53 E Mound Street” Starke County Commissioners. ThinkGIS. 2020. Web. Retrieved 4/20/20.
10 “Security Updated at Starke Count Annex Building” [WKVI]. Web. Retrieved February 3, 2019
11 Historic Pulaski courthouse to be saved” The Pharos Tribune [Logansport]. Web. Retrieved 4/20/20.