The Cass County, Michigan Courthouse (1899-2003)

Cassopolis, Michigan has a highfalutin name. For many years, it was all I knew about the place aside from my assumption that Cassopolis Street in Elkhart probably went there. A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to test my theory, and it was successful! But any thoughts about the community’s purported stature went out the car window as soon as I arrived: I wasn’t expecting some sprawling metropolis like Kalamazoo or Saginaw, but Cassopolis -officially the Village of Cassopolis- has a population of only around 1,600 people. There’s a couple of rows of old storefronts, a New Formalist bank from the 1960s, a True Value hardware store, and an old school greasy-spoon called The Twirl. There’s also a massive courthouse right at the corner of M-60 and M-62.

The Cass County Courthouse in Cassopolis, Michigan.

Cass County was formed in 1829, back when Michigan was still a territory. A young lawyer named Elias B. Sherman campaigned for the community of Geneva to become the first county seat, but he retracted his support after the settlement’s boosters went back on their promise to provide him with land in exchange for his help. Sherman issued a petition to have the decree declared void, writing that “the commissioners who named it were self-interested, having personally purchased land thereabout1.” 

As it turns out, Sherman was a rather self-interested fellow, too: he bought eighty acres of his own near Diamond Lake and platted Cassopolis, providing land for a courthouse and naming three streets after the commissioners charged with locating the new county seat. Inevitably, Cassopolis was given that status in 18342. As for Elias B. Sherman? He died in 1890 and was buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery just blocks away from the courthouse.

The courthouse, built in 1899, is pretty restrained and modest by Richardson Romanesque standards.

The first courthouse, a wooden building that measured 34 by 24 feet, was built in 1835 for $4503. It didn’t last long, however, since Cass County’s population skyrocketed from 919 to 5,710 people by 1840 as Quakers helped freed slaves resettle in the area4. In 1841, a group of men who came together as “The Court House Company” raised $6,000 to construct a larger courthouse that would better serve the growing community. A two-story wooden structure that sat on a stone foundation, Cass County’s second government center featured four large columns under a projecting gable that supported a multi-tiered, octagonal cupola5.

In 1860, several county offices moved from the courthouse to a building across the street known as “The Fort.” This arrangement worked for nearly forty years, but eventually became inconvenient6 as the older building began to age. In 1899, the current courthouse was erected to replace it.

The tower of the courthouse still features the original Seth Thomas clock works.

Despite its limestone veneer, the extant courthouse is actually wood-frame just like its predecessors. Pay attention that tidbit, as it’ll be important later. The building cost $60,000, about $2.1 million today if you trust pre-1900 inflation calculators. With inflation running as rampant as it is these days, you probably shouldn’t, so a more useful comparison might be that the courthouse cost about as much as Pulaski County’s in Winamac, Indiana, which was built four years earlier and is of a similar, Richardson Romanesque style.

Actually, the Pulaski County Courthouse shares more than just its stylistic appointments with Cass County’s. Its architects, E.A. and A.W. Rush, were part of the Grand Rapids-based firm that designed the courthouse in Cassopolis. It’s three stories tall, with massive, stone faces that feature prominent, arched, entryways. The building’s capped with a steep, hipped roof and a clock tower that rises ninety feet tall7. An original Seth Thomas clock still ticks away inside, as evidenced by the seat of my pants: I was not expecting it to ring in the 11:00 hour so loudly mere seconds after I got out of the car!

The courthouse connects to a large annex that was built, in parts, in 1970 and 1974.

The courthouse is big but not huge. It’s well-appointed, but not opulent, and much of what impresses me about it is how much it dominates its surroundings. Aside from a building on South Broadway Street that features a mansard roof, no other structure in downtown Cassopolis rises more than two stories. Overall, the courthouse is a pretty restrained example of the Richardson Romanesque mode of architecture, a style that tends to feature more arches, porches, and turrets than are featured here.

In 1970, Cass County officials decided to build a $130,000 annex and renovate the courthouse under a plan that was expected to keep it in service for another forty years. Convinced that the building was a fire trap, the county prosecutor led commissioners on a tour of the building, showing them how the courthouse lacked fire escapes on its third floor and noting how its central, wooden, stairwell -surrounded by papers and other flammable material in storage- served as the building’s only exit. In addition, there was only one electrical outlet in the prosecutor’s office, and it was used to power three electric typewriters, a coffee pot, a radio, and a Dictaphone8. It’s a wonder that the place never burned down!

The west side of the courthouse once featured its primary entrance. It was converted into a large window in 1974.

I’d have to look it up somewhere, but I’ve been to seventeen or eighteen of Michigan’s county courthouses so far and I’ve already encountered the same amount of modern structures over that small sample as I have in Indiana! I wouldn’t be shocked if the abundance of available timber, compared to limestone, turned otherwise survivable fires into destructive conflagrations.

In 1974, a $1.1 million plan to renovate the courthouse and add a second annex to house the county’s administrative offices was approved. The new building, which connected to the 1970 annex, was attached to the old courthouse by means of a three-story tower that features a lobby, an elevator, a new staircase, and restrooms. As part of the project, the interior of the courthouse itself was heavily renovated: concrete floors were poured, wooden doors and trim were replaced, and ceilings throughout the building were dropped9. It was during this project that the building’s original main entrance, facing west, was closed.

Though county administrative offices are still housed in the 1974 annex, It might come as a surprise that the 1899 courthouse has actually been abandoned for nearly twenty years! It did to me. In 2003, officials opened a new Cass County Law and Courts Building, which looks like a veterinarians office, on M-62 northwest of town. The 1899 courthouse has been in a mothballed state of disuse ever since, though it remains in decent structural shape aside from its south and west foundations, which are slowly deteriorating due to water seeping down from the roof and lawns. 

A three-story atrium links the abandoned courthouse to its modern annex.

Despite its abandonment, the old Cass County Courthouse still stands as the most prominent building in Cassopolis by far, and it’s prominent to me, personally, since it was the first I visited in Michigan as part of this project. The building remains valued by area residents and stakeholders, who overwhelmingly voted to preserve the structure in a survey conducted in 2014. Seven years later, county commissioners voted to hire a Kalamazoo-based company called Intersect Studio to create a plan to again use the old courthouse for some county offices in a project that would likely cost $5 or $6 million10. We’ll wait and see.

Cass County (pop. 51,613, 29/83)
Cassopolis (pop. 1,684)
1/83 photographed
Built: 1899
Cost: $60,000. ($2.1 million in 2022)
Architect: Rush, Bowman & Rush
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 90 feet
Current use: Abandoned
Photographed: 2/18/18

Sources Cited
1 The History of Cass County, Michigan.  2002) Southwest Michigan Business & Tourism Directory [St. Joseph]. Web. Retrieved 10/7/22.
2 (See footnote 1).
3 Matthews, A. (1882). History of Cass County, Michigan : with illustrations and biographical sketches of some of its prominent men and pioneers. Waterman, Watkins & Co. (Chicago). Print.|
4 Dwyer, D. (2022, February 17). After more than 150 years, the legacy of a thriving Black community in Cass County continues on. Michigan Radio. Web. Retrieved 10/8/2022.
5 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved 10/7/22.
6 Cass County Courthouse State Historical Markers. The Historical Marker Database. 2013. Web. Retrieved 10/7/22.
7 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map- Cassopolis, Michigan. 1899. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Library of Congress. Web. Retrieved 10/8/22.
8 Historical Notes from the Last Courthouse Renovation (1977). Cass County, Michigan. Web. Retrieved 10/7/22.
9 Cass County Courthouse Rehabilitation Study (2010, October 7). Quinn Evans Architects [Ann Arbor]. Web. Retrieved October 7, 2022.
10 Colton, S. (2021, December 17). Commissioners eye new future for historic Cass County Courthouse. Leader Publications [Niles]. Web. Retrieved 10/8/22.

4 thoughts on “The Cass County, Michigan Courthouse (1899-2003)

  1. My grandparents lived in Cass County most of the time our lives overlapped. They lived in a singlewide trailer on a little lake (that doesn’t exist anymore — it was drained) a mile east of M-62 between Cassopolis and Dowagiac. In the 70s and early 80s when I’d go up there a lot, Cassopolis was dumpy and Dowagiac was fairly nice. But there was this bar in Cassopolis that made TRULY OUTSTANDING cheeseburgers. Oh man, to be able to have one today.

    I have no memory of the Cass County Courthouse.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d read your posts about going to stay at Camp Grandma and knew that your grandparents lived around there. I specifically remember that your grandma seriously knew where to find a cheeseburger! I wonder what that bar is called.

      It’s strange to drain a lake; I’d love to learn more about the reasoning behind that call.

      I’ve been in Dowagiac once as a kid and remember it being fine. Courthouses in Paw Paw, St. Joseph, and Allegna have eluded me thus far.


    1. I thought so too! Hopefully the county will come up with some use for it. The courthouse in St. Joseph County just due east has a similar physical arrangement, but the old courthouse is still being used.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s