The History of Keokuk County, Iowa



The cabin erected by Mr. James away out on the prairie, which had been selected as the county-seat, has already been alluded to.  Although it was erected on Mr. James' sole responsibility, and at his individual expense, yet it was properly the first court-house, for here the clerk of the court had his office and kept the court records; here also the first term of the District Court was held, and it was to all intents and purposes a court house.

At the first meeting of board of commissioners held in Sigourney, July, 27, 1844, the first official action was taken with reference to the building of a court-house.  The following is the record as made on that occasion:

"Ordered by the board, that Samuel A. James be, and he is hereby authorized to receive sealed proposals for building a temporary court-house in Sigourney, of the following manner and description, to-wit: to be a hewn log house, twenty by twenty-four feet in dimensions, the logs to be hewn seven inches thick and notched down close with square corners and at least nine feet high above the floor; to have thirteen sleepers put in, to be hewn straight on the upper side, and also thirteen joist to be hewn straight on the upper and under sides to be well covered by putting up rafters and sheeting close; and the roof shall be put on with good joint shingles to show six inches; to be done in workmanlike manner, and also the gable ends to be well enclosed by weather boarding the same."

It will be observed that by these specifications there was no provision made for any floor, nor door whereby to gain any access to the building, nor yet any windows to admit light whereby the county officials, after having gained admission, could see the floor, or find the door, had there been any.

The new board of commissioners elected, in August, of this year, met in September and amended the plan of the building by supplementing the former order by the following additional specifications:

"Ordered that in addition to the requisites to build a court-house in Sigourney there be the following: That it be laid with a floor of good plank flooring and ceiled with plank overhead; to have three fifteen-light windows, one on each side of the house and one in one end; to have a good batten door in the other end; and the house to be well chinked, daubed and pointed with good lime mortar, all to be done in workmanlike manner.

"And it is further ordered that Joseph Kellum is hereby appointed to offer the said job on 13th of September instant, to the lowest bidder, and the said lowest bidder shall be entitled to proceed to build said house by entering into bond, with security in the sum double that of the bid, to be approved by the clerk of the board, to complete said house in a workmanlike manner on or before the second Monday of November next.

"Ordered that the temporary court house be built upon the lot next west of the southeast corner lot in the block immediately north of the public square."

On the 13th of September, 1844, Joseph Kellum offered said court-house

 job.  William B. Thompson being the lowest bidder, received the contract for the sum of $218.  The building was finished and accepted, by the board in January, 1845.

A history of the Keokuk county court-houses would be almost a history of the county itself, and no more vivid picture of the county's growth could be suggested than that which comes from a comparison of the present house with the old one of pioneer days.

But that old house is enshrined in memories that the present can never know. It stood on the ground now occupied by Jackson's hardware store, and was used for every possible purpose and had a career of great usefulness.  School was taught, the gospel preached and justice dispensed within its substantial old walls.  Then it served frequently as a resting place for weary travelers, and indeed its doors always swung on easy hinges.

If the old settlers are to be believed, the old oak logs often rang on the pioneer Sabbath with a more stirring eloquence than enlivens the pulpits of the present time.  Many of the earliest ministers have officiated within its walls, and if those old walls could speak, they would tell many a strange pioneer tale of religion, that is now lost forever.  The preacher would mount a store box in the center of the room, and the audience would disperse themselves about on benches.

To that old log court-house ministers came of different faiths, but all eager to expound the simple truths of a sublime and beautiful religion, and point out for comparison the thorny path of duty, and the primrose path of dalliance.  Often have those old walls given back the echoes of those who did a song of Zion sing, and many an erring wanderer has had his heart moved to repentance thereby more strongly than ever by the strains of homely eloquence.  With Monday morning the old building changed its character, and men came there seeking not the mercy of God, but the justice of man.  The scales were held with an even hand.  Fine points of law were doubtless often ignored, but those who presided knew every man in the county, and they dealt out substantial justice, and the broad principles of natural equity prevailed.  Children came there to school, and sat at the feet of the teachers who knew but little more than themselves, but however humble the teacher's acquirements, he was hailed as a wise man and a benefactor, and his lessons were heeded with attention.  The doors of the old court-house were always open, and there the weary traveler often found a resting place.  There, too, the people of the settlement met to discuss their own affairs, and learn from visitors the news from the great world so far sway to the eastward.

Simple emigrants stood there, and filled listening ears with tales of events ever the sea.  There the shameful story of the coup d'etat was made clear with many explanatory passages and matters of detail never dreamed of on the boulevards of Paris, where the drunken and infuriated soldiery fired upon unresisting, peaceful citizens, merely to create a stupefying terror upon which the Empire might be founded.  There, long after this event, was told another story of a different character.  The sufferings from the Irish famine were expounded by men and women racy of the soil, who could tell with a shudder of the days when it first became apparent that the food crops of the nation had failed.  The story was a truly sickening affair, such as no European people had unfolded for more than a century, and when the first recital was ended the wanderers were urged to begin again.  The sad story was continued for days and weeks at intervals, with a pathos which brought tears to the eyes of the strongest men.  The doubts that brooded in the air in old Ireland when stories came to the peasants from afar, about crops looking beautiful at night and by morning were a stench over the country side.  How the poor creatures said an Ave Maria with redoubled faith over their potato fields, but could not postpone the evil day when a smell of putrefaction penetrated every dwelling, and it was known that over millions of acres of food upon which many millions relied for sustenance, the destroying angel had passed.  The famine followed, with its deaths beyond number, reckoned by the ignorant at millions in excess of the whole population of Ireland, but actually carrying off nearly seven hundred thousand men, women and children.  Then their eyes would glisten for a moment, says a countryman, as they told with tears of joy of the fleets of ships that came over the Atlantic laden with grain, which a noble charity had sent from America to the sufferers.  "Even England, the hard-hearted Saxon race, which since the days of the Plantagnet [sic] has never ceased to be our oppressor—even England bowed down in the dust by our side to pray for us, and to give us succor."  Thus the court-house of the old time was the scene of many an affecting pow-wow.

This old court-house continued to stand on the ground where first located until the year 1873, when it was torn down and for its successor appeared the commodious business room where Mr. Jackson now dispenses hardware and agricultural implements to many of the same persons who formerly had dispensed to them from that location justice tempered with mercy, and theology characterized by good practical sense.

On the removal of the county-seat to Lancaster the court-house became the property of Mr. Joseph Knox who was one of the most successful merchants of early days, and after his day it fell into other hands and continued in use till 1873, when it was removed two miles east of Sigourney and is now doing duty as a cow stable on the farm of Mr. Win. Bineman.

It is a shame that the people of modern times have such little reverence for the relics of former days.  After this house ceased to be available, for business purposes, and its removal was determined on, it should have been taken to some other part of the city and located upon some lot purchased by public subscription, where it might have remained to have at least witnessed the semi-centennial of the county's history.  It is sad that, in their haste to grow rich, so few have care even for the early work of their own hands.  How many of the early settlers have preserved their first habitations?  The sight: of that humble cabin would be a source of much consolation in old age, as it reminded the owner of the trials and triumphs of other times, and its presence would go far toward reconciling the coming generation with their lot, when comparing its humble appearance with the modern residences, whose extensive apartments are beginning to be too unpretentious for the enterprising sport of the irrepressible "Young Americas."

On removing the county-seat to Lancaster, it became necessary to erect another court-house.

At a meeting of the board at Lancaster, August 9, 1847, the following record, relating to the erection of a court-house, was made:

"Ordered by the board, that sealed proposals will be received by the clerk of the board of commissioners until the 10th day of September next, for building a court-house in Lancaster, of the following dimensions, to-wit: thirty-two feet by eighteen feet, a two-story frame house; first story-nine feet in the clear; upper story eight feet in the clear; the sills ten inches by twelve; the posts eight inches square, resting on a wall eighteen. inches thick, of limestone rock, two and one-half feet high, one foot above ground and one and one-half under ground; good oak sleepers, oak flooring: lower, one and one-half inches thick, and the upper one inch thick; tight and grooved floor, square jointed; the upper joists eight by three inches, upper and lower joists two feet from center to center; six fifteen-light windows, upper and lower story; one panel door, six panels, and one plain door; and upper story one panel door and one plain door, as below; weather-boarding black walnut, front weather-boarding jointed; oak shingles; good rafters; all to be done in a workmanlike manner.  The contractor to furnish all the material."

This order was never carried into effect, as the record of the January meeting shows the following:

"Ordered that a court-house be built in Lancaster, of the following dimensions: 30 feet by 20; a two-story building, frame house; the first story ten feet in the clear, the upper story eight feet in the clear.  The clerk is ordered to advertise for sealed proposals, to be received at the clerk's office by the 24th inst."

In accordance with this order, the following contract was made and entered into on the day named:

"Contract entered into this day with Jesse B. Mitts and James M. Mitts for the erection of a court-house in Lancaster, with items of specification, for the sum of six hundred and ninety-nine dollars, when finished, and which contract is deposited with S. A. James, to be retained by him till called for by both contracting parties, or their orders.  Ordered, that Jesse B. Mitts and James M. Mitts be allowed the sum of two hundred dollars, town funds, on their contract of date January 26, 1848, for the erection of a court-house in Lancaster; and the clerk of this Board is instructed and prohibited from issuing the same to the said Mitts until the frame for said house shall have been erected according to contract."

This, the second court-house, was completed according to contract and received by the commissioners.  It was used for county purposes and for holding public meetings and served the varied other purposes which are required of a public hall.  During the period in which the county-seat was located at Lancaster this building was the scene of many hotly contested cases at law, and during the hot political campaigns of 1848 and 1852 it rang with the most fervid appeals, and the political issues of the day were expounded from the Democratic standpoint, the Whig platform was enunciated, and even the Free-soil principles were elaborated. Politics ran high in those days and the character of the appeals which were made by county central committees was even more enthusiastic and urgent than in more modern times. The following call for a political meeting in 1848 is reproduced because it is thought that the novelty of the phraseology and references to local affairs will interest the reader:


"At Whisler's Mills in Keokuk county, on Saturday, the 27th day of May, is where each Democratic voter of the county is requested to attend.  The intention of the meeting is to take such measures as will unite the Democratic party of the county at the next August election and for its permanent organization thereafter. Another duty of the meeting will be to appoint delegates to attend the State Democratic Convention at Iowa City and the Congressional Democratic Convention at Fairfield, both of which are to be held in June next.

"Democrats!  You are often appealed to for the protection of your principles. Was the appeal ever more necessary than now?  Will you stay away from this meeting and thus permit the murderers of our friends now in Mexico to gain additional voices in our national council?  God forbid!  Our national honor and the blood of our beloved Mills, with a host of brave spirits cry for our action.  Let us do!

"The time is fixed and it is hoped that every true Democrat who can, will be there.


"May 1, 1848.                                              Democratic Central Committee."

On the return of the county-seat to Sigourney there was considerable litigation about the matter, an account of which is given elsewhere.  In consequence of this litigation no measures were immediately provided for the erection of another court-house at Sigourney, the county officers being located in different buildings around the square.  This litigation having been disposed of in 1857, S. Harned, who was then acquiring his title, judge, began the erection of the present court-house.  At this time there was no board of county commissioners or supervisors, and the county judge discharged the duties of the board as well as to act as auditor and attend to probate matters.  There was no provision of law whereby it was necessary to take a vote on the proposition to build a court-house. The building of a court-house, its location and the amount to be expended, all came within the individual jurisdiction of Mr. Harned, and although the building was erected at a time when there existed the most bitter sectional animosity, there was never a breath of suspicion, and so faithfully and honorably did he manage the work that his official acts were never for once called into question.  The plans and specifications of the building were prepared early in the year 1857, and the contract immediately let to Coleman & Lehman, of Mt. Pleasant.  The building was completed the following year and the records and county offices removed there late in the fall.  The total cost of the building was seventeen thousand two hundred dollars.  Although the building is no great ornament to the public square, and no particular credit to the county, yet it well serves all the purposes of a court-house, and will not suffer by comparison with any court-house erected in the State at so early a period.  The different county officers are comfortably and conveniently located, and the fire-proof vaults and safes are ample and reliable, so that the large number of records and documents which have accumulated in the county archives are well provided for.  The court-room is commodious and well furnished; it was recently greatly improved and now presents quite an inviting appearance.

Transcribed by Steven McBride. Thank you, Steve!


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