Clinton County Courthouse

The info here comes from the 1879 and 1976 histories of Clinton County and "The Counties and Courthouses of Iowa" by LeRoy G. Pratt (1977).  There is also the following site: Iowa Judicial Branch which has some history and info about Iowa judges and such.

Clinton County is named for DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828), who was twice governor of New York, Clinton County (708 square miles) extends farther eastward than any other county in Iowa.

Clinton County was first settled in 1836, and the first election was ordered to be held February 19, 1838 to select a county seat. Lyons and Camanche were the contenders. In 1840, the original county seat was established at Camanche. Oct. 12, the county's first term of US District Court convenes.  On the 14th was the county's first jury trial: John Thomas vs. John Eldred for "$5 lent and interest."

Courthouse at DeWittThe county seat was moved to Vandenburg (later renamed DeWitt) the following year as a result of a petition to the Territorial Legislature for a relocation that “would be near the geographical center, convenient to wood and water.”  Losing the courthouse and county offices was a setback to the growth of Camanche, but it continued to be the county's leading commercial center until the tornado of 1860 knocked it flat.

With the change in the county seat from Camanche to Vandenburg, a log courthouse and hotel, 32’ x 20’, was built of basswood timbers, and was first used for legal purposes in the fall of 1841. The courtroom and jury room were on the ground floor, while in the attic “the jurors and witnesses slept, bringing their blankets with them, doing their cooking outside and using the courtroom for their common hall.” This log building was not only used as a courthouse, but also served as a place for public gatherings, dances, religious services, educational instruction, political conventions, and elections.  

The name of the county seat was changed from Vandenburg to DeWitt by an Act of the Legislature on February 17, 1842, again in honor of DeWitt Clinton. The old log courthouse continued in use until 1846, when it was considered to be inadequate. County business was then conducted at various locations — the Exchange Hotel (erected in 1843 and burned in 1865), the Union Church, and a small frame house owned by William Fuller and located on the south side of the square.  

The county court system was established in 1851, giving the county judge jurisdiction in probate matters and all of the powers previously held by the board of county commissioners.  The US District Court met in DeWitt, but the burden of local justice was carried by the justice of the peace courts.  Up until mid 1900's (I think 1972, but I'm not positive), the Justice of the Peace could settle civil disputes up to $300 and cases that were not felonies.

The second courthouse was built in 1854, across from the city park. Clinton Co., IA CourthouseThe specifications required that the brick building be 40’ x 50’, “equal in style of architecture, mechanism, and construction to the Scott County courthouse.” Following these directions the contractors put up a “masterpiece” for $6,000.

The population along the Mississippi River increased more rapidly than did the interior of Clinton County. This brought about a movement to shift the county seat from DeWitt. Ringwood (a piece of open country and duck ponds between Lyons and Clinton), Elvira, and DeWitt Park were all mentioned as possible new locations. After the Civil War, the pressure grew stronger.

A contest then developed between Clinton and Lyons and continued until the day of the election. Even presidential contests were “tame and flavorless compared with this,” however, to the surprise of the rest of the county, a compromise was worked out between the two, to the benefit of the whole county.

It was in 1869 that the river town of Clinton, laid out in 1855 on the old site of New York, became the county seat by a majority of 511 votes. A courthouse was erected there in just 23 days at a cost of $3,200, and the first session of the district court was held on November 21. The neat, two-story frame structure was 44’ x 52’ in size. The building was furnished free of charge to the county for three years, then rented from the stockholders, and subsequently purchased by the county at about three-fourths of its original cost. 

There was talk that the old bell in the DeWitt courthouse would be taken to Clinton when the county records were moved, but public-spirited citizens of DeWitt, in a midnight raid, removed the bell from the tower and buried it in Elmwood Cemetery. Here it remained for more than a year until a bell was needed for the Christian Chapel (now Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church). The men responsible for hiding the bell made another midnight trip to the cemetery and, on the day the new church was dedicated, the surprised congregation heard the familiar tones of the old courthouse bell.

The small courthouse at “Block Eight” in Clinton was soon outgrown and, in 1878, another building — of fireproof brick construction — was erected just west of the frame courthouse to house some of the county offices. This building, 41’ x 42’ in size, cost $5,000. These quarters served Clinton County, with additions and patching up, until a more pretentious building was constructed, and was dedicated in August 1897.

The new courthouse was built following an election held on March 15, 1892, at which a majority of 539 favored the new building. This courthouse was designed by G. S. Mansfield, whose plan was selected over eight others in an invitational competition. Difficulties developed when quicksand was encountered after construction had begun. Further elections were required to approve the expenditure of additional funds, and a new architect and a new contractor were hired, all of which caused a delay in the completion of the building. Built of red sandstone and granite, its large central tower is of copper which has weathered to a bright green color. The architectural style is Romanesque. Its total cost was $168,000 --- “a courthouse indeed a credit to the county and state.”  

A new Law Enforcement Center was built beside the Courthouse in 1970, winning an award for architecture.