Last time we talked about courthouses, I mentioned the project I’d spent the first week of June, 2019 helping my mom with, as part of a teacher creativity Lilly Endowment grant. From an 1820’s log cabin in Richmond (albeit one with a pool, jacuzzi, and good enough WIFI to watch the Toronto Raptors win the NBA finals), we researched the places, names, and context from the 1866 diary of Mary Jane Edwards, a Quaker from tiny Raysville who taught freed slaves during the earliest days of reconstruction and also, my great-great-great aunt. It was invigorating to trace the footsteps of my ancestors, but it was demanding and exhausting work. The more we met with historians, professors, and genealogists to answer our questions, the more questions we seemed to have.
While the first part of the diary deals with the adventures of Mary Jane and her sister Lizzie in the deep south, the second half of the diary is what grabbed ahold of me- the parts that described her day-to-day life on the 240-acre family homestead in southern Henry County. While the sisters regularly worshipped at a meetinghouse about a mile away from their home, they periodically ventured southwest several miles to monthly meetings in and around Carthage, Rush County. Because mom and I were trying to document the different locations mentioned in the diary, we ventured there as well, following Mary Jane and Lizzie from a distance of 153 years.
Carthage has just under a thousand people, and Ripley Township is home to about 2100. Some of the first settlers in Rush County were Quakers who migrated from North Carolina and Virginia in protest of slavery and settled in the township in 1821, a year before the county was formally organized. Though the county jail was the first public building constructed in Rush County, the first courthouse followed a year later in 1823, a two-story, brick building measuring 20×20 feet1 with walls twenty-two inches thick. Four years later, Quakers in Ripley Township established their first meetinghouse fifteen miles northwest of the courthouse, in an area known as Walnut Grove. There, Quaker settlers also established a small school2.
By 1840, the county had grown nearly 70% over the previous decade, mostly centered around Rushville, and that first courthouse was no longer able to adequately serve the community. In 1847, a new 50×80 foot brick courthouse, also two stories, was designed by John Elder and built at a cost of $12,000. Two years later, Elder was forced to flee the state in 1850 in order to escape the pursuit of Rush County creditors incensed at his mismanagement of the project3. Needless to say, Rushville’s was his last courthouse in Indiana.
Meanwhile, the Quaker presence in Ripley Township encouraged free blacks to settle in the area and attend the Walnut Ridge school. The area flourished. By 1870, the county’s population had reached 17,626 people, and of the 1,502 residents living in Ripley Township, 339 were black. That’s more than 22%, a number that dwarfed second-place Rushville township, where only forty-seven blacks lived (compared to 3,280 white residents4). Today, as is the case with much of rural Indiana, Rush County is overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly non-Quaker to boot. Despite additions in 1890, 1972, and 1976, Walnut Ridge is still a small, rural, monthly meeting, and the friends meeting up the road in Carthage proper looks to have been shut down entirely, though I later found out it wasn’t and attended a service there with my mom.
Rush County continued to grow. By 1896, the county was nearing 20,000 people and a third courthouse was in order. Growing at a similar trajectory was the reputation of the Rush family, father and son A.W. and E.A, who were coming off designing two enormous Richardson Romanesque courthouses in Pulaski and Fulton counties. I’m sure their last name didn’t hurt their chances at the gig, but Rush County officials were taken with the their interpretation of the style, which emphasized strong massing, rounded arches, heavy rustication, and enormous towers and turrets. Though similar effects were achieved in Pulaski County for $50,000 and Fulton County for $150,000, county officials pledged an unheard-of $250,000 towards creation of a new county courthouse to dwarf both of them. The community was so proud of the new design that schools and factories closed down while the cornerstone was laid5.
After two years of construction, commissioners entered the building to find marble stairs, stained glass windows containing an allegorical figure of justice and the Indiana state seal, oaken woodwork, and Italian tile. Though any remaining plain-speaking Quakers may have scoffed at the building’s ostentatiousness upon its dedication, they certainly couldn’t have turned their noses up at the building’s hardiness: all of its original accoutrements still exist today, as county officials have done a magnificent job of taking care of the old courthouse. In fact, as of the building’s 1975 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, county officials were in the process of drawing up contracts to restore its exterior only after locating the original supplier of the courthouse’s tiled roof6. Now that’s dedication.
The courthouse is one of our state’s tallest, reaching 196 feet above street level, though the bulk of the building measures just 3 1/2 stories tall. Though it’s sheathed in limestone, the courthouse is supported by an early attempt at a steel frame. Each of the courthouse’s four corner towers are capped with a pyramidal roof, as is the main clock tower, which is framed by four conical turrets and rises from a steep, hipped roof.
Aside from the first floor windows which are rectangular, the rest of the building features the rounded (not pointed) arches of the Richardson Romanesque style. A smooth, projecting stone course serves as a lintel that separates the second floor from the first, and a rectangular cornice supports corinthian pilasters that divide the second story’s arched windows, the tops of which have been filled in. Interestingly, no one knows the identity of whoever the two busts carved above the west entrance of the courthouse are supposed to represent, so I might as well say they both represent me! Inside, as we mentioned, very little of the building has been changed.
Let’s zoom out a sec. Though I’d been through rural Ripley Township before while driving around with friends several times (as recently as three weeks ago), I never really stopped to take in what the area had to offer until I went there with my family’s Quaker diary heavily on the brain. Though the setting was the same one of cornfields and rural churches I’d yawned through only weeks earlier, the township held new meaning to me with the addition of some familial context that the old book provided. In 1973, the Rushville Daily Republican lamented the same feeling when describing the county courthouse:
“Despite the fact that the courthouse looms large in the local skyline, people tend to take its magnificence for granted. One may ‘look at’ the structure every day, but seldom is it really seen. It is both a rewarding and fascinating experience to take the time to ‘see’ the courthouse7.”
I wholeheartedly agree- I love taking the time to “see” our old courthouses, and I’m often guilty of the opposite of what the Republican suggested is common. I tend to forget the functional viewpoint of a courthouse as a place to conduct county business. Instead, I focus on the building’s architecture, social context, or history, admittedly sometimes to the detriment of the overall quality of my writing.
Though the Rush County Courthouse is much more substantial a physical landmark than meetinghouses like Walnut Creek or Carthage, I believe they’re all worth taking the time to “see,” whether that’s pulling up next to one and taking photos with an eye to detail, or getting on Google and doing a quick dive into their history. If you’re like me, you might be surprised to see what can easily be dug up. Maybe there’s even a personal connection to be made with the old buildings. Though the 1896 Rush County Courthouse didn’t exist in the days of my family’s old diary, I hope it stands for another hundred and fifty years. If the care and attention to detail local officials have given the building over the years means anything, it probably will.
Rush County (pop. 17,004, 76/92)
Rushville (pop. 6,051).
Cost: $257,385.38 ($7.39 million in 2016)
Architect: A.W. & E.A Rush
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 196 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
1 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. March 16, 2019.
2 National Register of Historic Places, Walnut Ridge Friends Meeting House, Carthage, Rush County, Indiana, National Register # 84001616.
3 Alexander, Mary M. Thomas. Sketches of Rush County, Indiana. Rushville. The Jacksonian Publishing Company. 1915. Print.
4 “Washington County, Indiana” American Fact Finder. United States Census Bureau. 2018. Retrieved from https://factfinder.census.gov.
5 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Shelby County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquare.org
6 National Register of Historic Places, Rush County Courthouse, Rushville, Rush County, Indiana, National Register # 75000048.
7 “Rush County in Perspective” The Rushville Republican [Rushville]. April 25, 1973. 8. Print.