Historic courthouses have taken me to some teensy places, including some that don’t even exist on a map. Hamlets like Rome, Wilmington, and Fredonia -all thriving county seats two hundred years ago- have long since become bypassed, eclipsed, and largely forgotten. But some tiny county seats remain home to active courthouses, and the smallest of all is the town of Vernon in Jennings County. Only 236 people live there as of the 2020 census.
Yes, Vernon’s tiny. But looks are deceiving since it sits just south of North Vernon, a former suburb that’s largely eclipsed the county seat in nearly every way with a population of 6,608. Driving north on State Road 3, I literally blinked and missed the courthouse! By the time I opened my eyes I was in North Vernon. I’m not exaggerating! Remember when you were a kid and had a loose tooth that was dangling by a thread, this close from breaking off and netting you a quarter later that night? Think of that tooth as Vernon. Your mouth is North Vernon. It’s sort of gross, but the analogy makes sense to me. Or at least it did when I wrote it.
Despite its size, some notable people have passed through Vernon during its history. Ovid Butler -founder of the Indianapolis university that took his name- lived there for eight years after he turned sixteen. At twelve, Horatio C. Newcomb moved to town, later to join Butler’s law firm in Indy and become editor of the Indianapolis Daily Journal before he was elected mayor there. Newcomb’s old paper was eventually purchased by John C. New, another Vernon native who was appointed United States Treasurer in 1875.
If that weren’t enough, a woman named Hannah Elizabeth Milhous was born in nearby Butlerville ten years later. She wasn’t famous, but her son was: President Richard Milhous Nixon came to town in 1971. There, in front of the courthouse in Vernon, the president gave a speech dedicating a nearby historical marker to his deceased mother2. A person like the president in a place like Vernon. Can you believe it?
The courthouse Nixon spoke in front of is unique in many ways, but not in others: Italianate isn’t a common mode of courthouse architecture in Indiana, so Jennings County’s belongs to an exclusive club from the get-go. That being said, architect Isaac Hodgson designed the 1861 structure to be identical to his 1857 Morgan County Courthouse in Martinsville3! No one really knows whether he was pressed for time in designing the courthouses or if he just had a real penchant for Italianate designs4 around that timeframe, but his other courthouses from the 1850s and 1860s tended to be of the Norman mode, a subset of Romanesque that features round arches and enormous proportions. The best example of those tendencies that’s still available to be seen is in New Castle, where Hodgson’s 1869 Henry County Courthouse is just about equal parts Norman and Second Empire. Hodgson’s other remaining courthouse is in Columbus, and it’s an exuberant Second Empire structure that was built in 1874. All in all, the man designed eight courthouses across the state, most notably his masterpiece in Indianapolis which was demolished in 1962.
Hodgson’s Martinsville courthouse has been substantially altered and expanded beyond its original design5, so let’s forget it for now and zoom in on the courthouse in Vernon. I think its most fascinating element is what appears to be a little house attached to its northern face. Surely it never served as a home, I thought, but indeed it had- it’s where the sheriff lived. Back in the day, state laws dictated that sheriffs were required to live in the same building as the jail since their wives often served as jail matrons. Of course the folks weren’t required to live in a cell, so a house was built onto the front of the jail for the lawman and his family. Amazingly, many of them still stand as separate structures around Indiana’s courthouse squares!
Officials in Jennings County went a different way -perhaps at Hodgson’s direction- by combining the sheriff’s residence, jail, and courthouse into a single building as a precursor to today’s justice center. I think that’s intriguing. Without modern sally ports and security checkpoints, transporting a prisoner from the courtroom to the jail was once as easy as walking him down a hallway.
The courthouse in Vernon was built out of local burnt brick and stone from Vinegar Mill, a place that dates to about 1840 in the present-day Muscatatuck Park just east of town and purportedly the site of the first functioning stone cutting blade in Indiana6. The roof of the courthouse was built of 40-lb. English tin, which it retains, and the building’s overall design consists of standard Italianate tropes like low-pitched roofs, overhanging eaves with heavy brackets, arched windows, and a campanile-type tower. The interior of the building was renovated during the 1950s, but it was restored to its original design thirty years later after being listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Vernon Historic District in 1976.
Some researchers think that it’s only a matter of time before Jennings County’s government will move to Vernon entirely7. The sheriff’s office, jail, and fire department straddle the zone between the two communities, and some of the lesser county agencies already exist in North Vernon. If a move occurred, it’d bump up Jennings County’s county seat from 92nd in terms of population to 55th, but I don’t think it’ll happen. Of course, I originally wrote the majority of this post in 2018, so it may have happened by now. I hope not.
I clearly don’t have my finger on the pulse of southern Indiana’s geopolitical maneuverings, but officials recently built a new government center in Vernon in 1999, while another structure there -a superior court probation building- was built in 1955 as a then-new jail and sheriff’s headquarters. That’d be a lot to uproot! Though I didn’t take any pictures of the modern county annex, it does its predecessor and colleague proud in terms of style, featuring two-story arched windows, an abbreviated tower from which hangs an American flag, and other design cues copped from the old courthouse. See a Google Streetview image of the Jennings County Government Center above. if you’re interested.
This looks stupidly obvious all typed out, but I think a historic courthouse like Vernon’s is precisely why the small communities that have them continue to remain relevant. The community’s downtown area, with a jewelry repair shop, family restaurant and tap room, post office, historical society, liquor store, and pizza parlor certainly outpaces many cities five or six times its size. Add in a random collection of firsts attributed to the town by Wikipedia (first public playground in Indiana, first elevated railroad overpass west of the Alleghenies, first all-women’s jury in Indiana, and first Disciples of Christ church in Indiana along with all of those notable residents) and you’ve got an interesting place. I’m glad that a unique, historic courthouse -one of just eight in Indiana that predate the end of the Civil War- still serves to look over this quirky community. Though it may be past its heyday and you’ll have to go to North Vernon for a hotel room, fast food, or a grocery; Vernon still has a lot to offer to the historically-minded. I’m glad I turned back after I blinked! I would have missed this weird little town and its great old Italianate courthouse.
Jennings County (pop. 28,241, 58/92)
Built: 1857, remodeled in 1950s and 1980s.
Cost: $26,375 ($677,262 in 2016)
Architect: Isaac Hodgson
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 80 feet
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
1 “Population and Housing Unit Estimates” United States Census Bureau. U.S. Department of Commerce [Washington, D.C.]. Web. Retrieved 5/14/20.
2 “Hannah Milhous Nixon” State Historical Markers. Indiana Historical Bureau. 2020. Web. Retrieved 5/12/20.
3 Counts, W. & Dilts, J. “The Magnificent 92: Indiana Courthouses” Indiana University. Rose Bud Press [Bloomington]. 1991. Print.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Jennings County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 5/15/20.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Vernon Historic District, Vernon, Jennings County, Indiana, National Register # 76000024.
6 “Vinegar Mill” Jennings County Parks & Recreation [North Vernon]. Web. Retrieved 5/15/20.
7 Enyart, David. “Jennings County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 5/14/20.