Winnebago co. & Courthouse

Winnebago County Courthouse built in 1896-1897
Winnebago County Courthouse built in 1896-1897 at Forest City.


Established: January 15, 1851
Organized: Fall of 1857
County Seat: Forest City

Winnebago County (402 square miles) was named for the Indian Tribe of that name, which means, Men of the Bad Smelling Waters,” or “People of Stinking Water.”

The first white settlers of record moved into the county in 1855, and, beginning in 1857, large numbers of Norwegians started settling here. After Winnebago County was established it was attached to other counties for governmental affairs until an election, held in October 1857, formally organized the county. Since a fire in
1861 destroyed early county records, the exact date of organization cannot be determined.

The seat of government was located in October 1858 at Forest City, which had been platted two years earlier by Robert Clark, and was named in appreciation of the fine timberland near the site. The decision on the county seat location was made by a three-man commission, appointed by the Legislature. Winnebago is another of the very few counties in Iowa that did not indulge to any great extent in that interesting but expensive manifestation of civic pride, the struggle for the location of the county seat, although competition did develop in the 1890’s between Lake Mills and Forest City.

A two-room log building, located in the courthouse square, served as the first courthouse. In 1860, a petition calling for the construction of a more appropriate courthouse was signed by all but one of the voters in the county. Arrangements were then made to sell $20,000 in bonds and construction was begun by Martin Bumgardner. However, when the county board of supervisors began operation in 1861, the more conservative board members objected to such an expensive building. Consequently, a much smaller and cheaper courthouse was finally decided upon. Built of soft brick, locally made, this courthouse was two stories high and 28’ x 36’ in size. It was described as a “substantial building,” and was located in the center of Forest City in the courthouse square. A frame addition was erected in 1877. Although the actual construction cost of this courthouse was said to have been something less than $3,500, bonds had been issued in an excessive amount ($20,000), bearing 10 per cent interest, with the result that the true cost of the
original building, plus interest, was approximately $80,000.

This courthouse was torn down in 1896 and was replaced by the present “splendid structure” at a cost of $20,496. Kinney and Orth of Minneapolis, Minnesota, were the architects, and the contractor was F. A. Gross of LaCross, Wisconsin. Lake Mills residents petitioned to have the new courthouse built there, but a similar
petition with half again as many signatures came from Forest City which also offered money. Menomonie red pressed brick, with stone trimming, was used in the construction. This Romanesque building was completed January 6, 1897, and has continued to serve the county with only minor changes and normal maintenance and repairs.

An Indian head carved in stone decorates the Winnebago County Courthouse

-original source: The Counties and Courthouse of Iowa, By LeRoy G. Pratt, 1977
-transcribed by Linda Ziemann

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