The Wabash County, Indiana Courthouse (1879-)

Let’s take a trip up to Wabash County, Indiana by way of a quick stop at Urban Dictionary. There, we’ll examine an overused piece of Gen Y vernacular, the word “lit.” In 2014, Urban Dictionary user fatoubobala defined lit as “when something is turned up or popping1.” Four years later, user @realdolanddump -probably a zoomer if his tone is any indication- advised that the word was “what millennials use when describing [something] that is ‘fire’ or ‘dope,’ meaning cool or awesome2.”

By those definitions, Miami, Las Vegas, and New Orleans are all “lit” cities while Provo, Utah, is decidedly not. Though most of the nation’s most turnt-up places cluster around the coasts, I’ve got a secret: the oldest lit city the nation is right here in Indiana, a fact that leads us to Wabash.

The 1879 Wabash County Courthouse in Wabash, Indiana.

Before we go any further, I’ve got to admit that our quick sojourn to Urban Dictionary has doomed me to recall an overwhelming supply of millennial jargon that I’ll spend the rest of this essay struggling to not deploy. But it’s all Gucci; I’ll low-key do my best, fam (sorry).

My brief experience in Wabash as a tourist never pegged the crunk-o-meter a whole lot higher than when I tried pay for my Super Wally with a credit card instead of cash at the Penguin Point on State Road 15 about seven years ago. My impression of the town was that Wabash strays pretty far from “lit.” But don’t sleep on Wabash! The place was written into the record books when it became the first electrically lit city in the entire country way back in 1880, even if it was only the courthouse square that was actually electrified3.

Sandstone elements like those seen around this entrance, serve as a marked contrast to the building’s red brick.

The current courthouse in Wabash is the county’s second. Originally, a 40×40 foot brick structure known to some as a “coffee mill” design due to its resemblance to that pioneer apparatus4 graced the hill there. It was built and paid for by Martin Boots and a Mr. Branson. Occupied by the fall of 1838, the structure lasted for thirty-two years until it was destroyed by a fire in 1870. As part of his payment, Martin Boots stipulated that a hitching post should always be maintained at the square or else the land would revert to his descendants5. I didn’t see a hitching post anywhere near the courthouse square when I was in town, but there were several parking lots that could’ve easily accommodate a horse and buggy or two.

That said, I assume that county officials maintained hitching posts on the square for at least eight years after the first courthouse burned, since it took that long to build Wabash County’s second, extant, courthouse. I haven’t been able to determine where the county government met during those eight years, but by 1879 everything was operational in Wabash’s new structure. Benjamin V. Enos, an Indianapolis architect, designed it to feature every modern amenity then known, including gas lights and a gas generator in the basement. That’s what brings us up to the square being lit- no, not with Patrón and Monty No. 2s like LeBron might prefer after the Lakers win. Electricity!

The west side of the courthouse is more sparse, yet similarly symmetrical. You can see where chimneys have been removed above the left and right quoins here.

Early in 1880, officials began toying with arc-lamps provided by the Bruch Electric Light Company. On March 31, they yeeted caution to the wind (again, sorry) when workers hung four 3,000-candle lamps from the top of the courthouse, running two telegraph wires down the side to the basement where they were connected to a 12-horsepower steam generator. Running electric lines down from a courthouse: Haven’t we seen that movie before? As I recall, there was a DeLorean involved.

Contemporary journalists stood by, fawning, as the experiment took place. “The people stood almost breathless, overwhelmed with awe, as if in the presence of the supernatural…” they scribbled. “The strange, weird light, exceeded in power only by the sun, rendered the square as light as midday. Men fell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight and many were dumb with amazement….It drove the darkness back and out of the entire city of Wabash so that now the people could see to read on nearly all of the city’s streets by night6” 

If the stunned locals had been born a hundred years later, their verdict might have been that electric lights just hit different, no cap. What’s more, they illuminated the town from high above the courthouse hill for the following eight years7.

The masonry and metal clock tower, from which electric lights once hung, features delicate details.

These days, the courthouse draws much of its aesthetic from limestone trim that accentuates its red-brick massing rather than from an array of steam-powered lamps. The first floor of the building features arched windows, and access to the interior is gained by ascending a flight of stone steps that extend above its raised basement and water table. The building’s primary entrances are found below porticos held up by groups of Tuscan columns, and its hipped roof -originally tin- supports a monumental, domed clock tower that rises to a height of 125 feet. In 1958, decorative elements that I can best describe as minarets were removed from the corners of the courthouse, as were sixteen chimneys and a variety of weather vanes.

The courthouse seems pretty intricate upon first glance, but it’s actually sort of sedate in comparison to its brethren built in the late 1870s, a period that began to see the delicate8 Second Empire and Italianate styles of the day give way to heavy-handed Richardson Romanesque courthouses. Perhaps the building’s most striking feature is the way its sandstone cornice, sills, quoins, and entry porches contrast the red brick that makes up the bulk of its walls. The interior of the courthouse is relatively spartan, featuring a metal grand staircase, stamped ceilings, and simple, walnut woodwork.

The courthouse, eight or nine blocks south of the historic Wabash High School, sits on a substantial hill, allowing it to tower over most of the community.

The Wabash County Courthouse is a handsome, historic building in a town with a lot of cool old sites and sights, so what are you waiting for? Why not head up that way? As you follow State Road 15 north towards town, you’ll plunge through a a dramatically-excavated hillside to find the courthouse looming memorably off in the distance with only a swath of gas stations and hardware stores to separate you. Crossing the river will find you in Wabash proper, where the Honeywell Center-established by founder of that multinational conglomerate in 1941- hosts concerts, shows, and special events year-round. The four-story Eagles Theater -built in 1906 as part of the Wabash Eagles Lodge and recently renovated- stands just northeast, featuring movies and live performances. Of course, there’s the historic courthouse, too, along with one of Indiana’s most impressive Carnegie Libraries.

Like old schools? I do! The gothic revival Wabash High School stands proudly on North Miami Street. If you’re a fan of Central Indiana’s extinct and bemoaned Marsh Supermarkets, the chain’s first discount LoBill foods store opened up here at 950 Cass Street, a location that’s now home to a Save-A-Lot. If that’s not enough, a statue of Abraham Lincoln sculpted by Charles Keck and known locally as “The Great Emancipator” was added to the courthouse lawn in 1932. It depicts a bearded Lincoln sitting on a rock with his hands on his knees, in similar format to the Lincoln Monument found in Hingham, Massachusetts. Standing around seven feet tall, the sculpture is hard to miss, though a review of my photos indicate that I managed to do just that during my brief time in town.  What can I say? I was hangry after Penguin Point and the last light of the day was fading fast. A man’s got to have priorities, after all.

The stately Wabash County Courthouse absolutely deserves a visit- especially while its open.

Though not as lit as Miami, Chicago, or New Orleans, Wabash was truly the first “lit” city, and the courthouse there would be one of Indiana’s best, even if it didn’t have that extra electrical tidbit that brings it over the edge for a history aficionado. If you visit, you too could be lit in Wabash, so long as you bring your own Patrón and cuban cigars. Or if you’re smarter than me, at least some cash for the Penguin Point and maybe a flashlight in order to relive what might be the Wabash County Courthouse’s biggest claims to fame. Something like the Inova T4R should do the trick!

Wabash County (pop. 32,888, 53/92)
Wabash (pop. 10,666)
13/92 photographed
Built: 1879
Cost: $95,000 ($2.44 million in 2016)
Architect: B. V. Enos & Son
Style: Renaissance
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 125 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 8/15/15

Sources Cited
1 fatoubobala (2014, January 24). “Lit.” Urban Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 1/6/2020.
2 @realdolanddump (2018, July 5). “Lit.” Urban Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 1/6/2020.
3 Silverberg, Robert (1967). Light for the World: Edison and the Power Industry. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand. Print.
4 Enyart, David. “Types of Courthouses” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/6/20.
5 Weesner, Clarkson W. “History of Wabash County Indiana” The Lewis Publishing Company [Chicago]. 1914. Print.
6 “Wabash lighted the way 125 years ago”. Wabash Weekly Plain Dealer. March 30, 2005. Retrieved March 20, 2016.
7 “March 31, 1880: Wabash, Indiana, becomes the first city completely illuminated by electric lighting” The Street and the City – Awakenings. March 31, 2016. Web. Retrieved 1/6/19.
7 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Wabash County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/6/2020.

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