Hoosiers like to celebrate our accomplishments. When we complete civic projects, the festivities often include things like ribbon-cuttings, speeches from dignitaries, balloons, music, and even fireworks. Pretty low on the list of a typical commemorative event is s 2,000-person confederate raid, but that’s what the Ripley County Courthouse in Versailles went through in 1863 just as construction was wrapping up.
The perpetrator was General John Hunt Morgan, and his incursion took place over 1,000 miles of Union territory across Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. Until recently, Morgan’s Raid was just about a hundred percent irrelevant to our daily lives, but for a community weathering the Civil War, the story was entirely different: for a brief moment in time, Ripley County -always a step behind its better-developed neighbors due to swampy soil and heavy forests- was thrust right into the middle of the conflict.
In an attempt to divert Union attention from campaigns at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Morgan and his posse entered the county on July 13, 1863 after stealing two steamboats in Kentucky. At Versailles, they were met by a rag-tag militia in front of the courthouse, though the confederates dismantled the locals in short order by seizing their weapons and destroying them. Though officials hurried to hide the county’s money, Morgan’s raiders still managed to swipe several thousand dollars of treasury funds (a thousand bucks then was equal to about $20,000 today) along with jewels from the Masonic Lodge located in an adjacent county office building1.
Thankfully, the spoils were returned once Morgan -a Mason himself- found out about it. Equally thankfully, the courthouse, along with the rest of the community, were spared destruction. After capturing 6,000 Union soldiers, sabotaging 34 bridges, interrupting rail travel at sixty different points, seizing countless amounts of food and supplies, and generally spreading chaos and havoc through the northern states, Morgan and his men were finally captured in eastern Ohio2 two weeks after they first set foot in Ripley County. All told, the raid lasted just over a month and a half.
It goes without saying that nothing as dramatic as Morgan’s Raid has happened at the Ripley County Courthouse over the next 157 years. Heck, the only event that remotely matches up is probably when Milan -just northeast of Versailles- beat first-ranked Muncie Central in the 1954 state basketball championship that inspired the movie Hoosiers. The day after the game, more than 40,000 people3 came to Milan (population 1,150) to help celebrate as the team returned home. No weapons were destroyed, temples looted, or treasury funds were stolen, though any celebrants who did so would have probably been quickly forgiven. At least until they got to Ohio!
Now, I’m the kind of person who hates when carpetbagging journalists oversimplify things. I hate to distill the entire history of Ripley County down to two events, so let’s go back a bit to the early 1800s, when the county was made up of fresh land. Settlers first began to appear in the area around 1815 and the county was quickly formed two years later. In 1818, a committee was formed to select a site for that county seat. It was a painless process compared to some of Indiana’s other settlements, since wealthy Madison speculator John Paul donated a hundred acres for that purpose (knowing he could buy the land back on the cheap once the town was incorporated and then sell it again at a premium), and the committee was paid for all of sixteen total days of work. That initial sale of lots funded the first courthouse, though- a brick building measuring forty feet square that was preceded by a basic jail and a stray-pen4. Containing wild animals was a huge problem back then! As early as 1859, a fence had been constructed around the courthouse square to keep pigs and chickens out, but the animals might as well have included local residents in the eyes of county officials: people were forbidden to engage in games and amusements on the courthouse lawn, although commissioners did allow public meetings and the use of the courthouse bell to signify funerals and church services5.
Construction on the current courthouse began in 1860. It took three years to build it, a timeframe that was probably protracted by the Civil War. Though the Greek Revival style was very common amongst government buildings up to those days, the Ripley County Courthouse features an equal Italianate influence, rare for Indiana courthouses constructed this early. Where Greek Revival buildings tended to be rectangular, the courthouse in Versailles was originally T-shaped, like a schoolhouse. Unlike most classical-type designs that included columns that supported a triangular pediment, this one features rectangular, nine-over-nine windows and flat brick pilasters underneath a glass oculus. The building’s thick, projecting cornice and brick construction are both taken directly from Italianate designs. Overall, the building is a unique mishmash of styles.
As of 1883, the courthouse square featured three buildings: the courthouse, of course; a two-story Masonic Hall- the office building that Morgan’s men stole from at the southwest side of the square, and another T-shaped building at the northwest corner containing the sheriff’s office. Today, both of those latter structures are gone6 and a modern cannon sits where the Masonic building once stood. A recent brick and limestone building that looks like it belongs on the campus of Purdue University sits across the street as the home to most of Ripley County’s administrative offices. Like many of its modern peers, the Ripley County Courthouse Annex lacks the gravitas that the 1860s building supplies. See a Google Street View image of it above.
The courthouse reached its golden anniversary in 1912, and officials celebrated by upgrading it for another fifty years through the addition of terrazzo floors and marble wainscoting in the hallways, and by finishing its partial basement with a furnace and restrooms. Immediately inside the building’s main entrance, a steel staircase replaced the original wooden version. 1932 brought even bigger changes when resident Mrs. Florence Wingeate Grether died and bequeathed a memorial for her dead husband Charles in the form of a new clock. Until then, the courthouse had only featured a small, octagonal cupola rising from a low base attached to its gabled east side, so a three-part tower had to be constructed to contain Ms. Grether’s gift. A clock was purchased from the I.T. Verdin Machine Company of Cincinnati while Walter Rump, a contractor from nearby Dillsboro, designed and built the tower we see today. Interestingly, Mrs. Grether’s bequest stipulated that the clock faces and works were to be owned by the town of Versailles, not Ripley County. That weird arrangement continues to this day.
The courthouse remained in that configuration until 1970 when, upon turning 108 years old, it received a once-over by architects David B. Hill and Associates from Seymour. In order to address space concerns as well as the building’s accessibility as a whole, an addition to the west was completed to house an elevator and second staircase. Because the second floor of the courthouse was naturally much taller than the first since it held the courtroom, a third floor was carved out of it7, providing space for another. For the price of $392,000, Ripley County received a courthouse that functioned just as well as any of its peers. Unfortunately, the structure had been painted white over the years, so commissioners decided to sandblast it to restore the building back to its original buff state. It seems as though the aggressive sandblasting left the brick in too fragile8 a condition to remain naked so today the courthouse is painted the same color of brick that approximates its historic hue. It’s sort of pinkish in person.
As it has been for most of its existence, Versailles is a sleepy community. More than John Hunt Morgan and more than Milan’s Bobby Plump, the town seems indebted to and defined by James H. Tyson, the co-founder of Walgreens, who provided funds for the striking Art Deco Tyson Temple Church, a high school, a gymnasium, a library, and a water treatment plant9. Nevertheless, the 1863 Ripley County Courthouse still stands at the center of Tyson’s gifts, Morgan’s raid, and Plump’s miracle shot. What’ll be next for this town of amazing events and buildings? It certainly wasn’t my trip there!
Ripley County (pop. 28,419, 55/92)
Built: 1860, remodeled 1932, expanded 1972
Cost: $16,250 ($432,718 in 2016)
Architect: Thomas Pattison
Style: Greek Revival/Italianate
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2 stories
Current use: Courts and some county offices
1 An Atlas of Ripley County, Indiana. D.J. Lake & Co. [Philadelphia]. 1883. Print.
2 McHenry, Lawrence. “Ripley County History” WPA Library of Congress. 1938-39. Web. Retrieved 4/13/20.
3 “Relive the ‘Milan Miracle’ in new documentary” WTHR. March 30, 2016. National Broadcasting Corporation [Indianapolis]. Web. Retrieved 4/13/20.
4 Smith, Alan F. Tales of Versailles. Foursep Publications [Milwaukee]. 1999. Print.
5 Ripley County Commissioners Record, March Term, 1859
6 National Register of Historic Places, Ripley County Courthouse, Versailles, Ripley County, Indiana, National Register # 09000762.
7 ) Indiana Landmarks (2013). Ripley County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 4/13/20.
8 Ripley County Commissioners Record, Book 22, p.14. Print.
9 ”Our Town’s Rich History” Town of Versailles. 2020. Web. Retrieved 4/13/20.