Have you ever heard the story of Timothy Dexter, the world’s luckiest idiot? A rube from Massachusetts, he made his first fortune by buying up huge sums of worthless Contintental currency that the government unexpectedly made good on after the American Revolution. Fortune in hand, he took his jealous rivals’ sarcastic advice to send bed warmers and woolen mittens to the tropical West Indies. Amazingly, the bed warmers were sold as molasses ladles and the mittens were gobbled up by Asian merchants to export to Siberia1! Other transactions involving sending gloves to Polynesia, Bibles to the East Indies, and stray cats to the Caribbean all worked out in his favor, and Timothy Dexter died a rich man in 1806. I mention the guy because it’s only by a similar series of events that the town of Coldwater, Michigan ever became the seat of Branch County.
Shortly after Branch County was founded in 1829, a prospective village called Masonville that consisted of little more than a hotel near an old trading post emerged as the commercial center of the area. Early settlers were absolutely certain that the place would inevitably grow to statewide prominence, and in 1831 commissioners designated Masonville as the new county seat- or tried to: anxious to be done with their work for the day, “the worthy members of the commission had forgotten to take the official oath, and their action was thus rendered void2,” as Crisfield Johnson wrote in his history of the county.
That was the first foolhardy event that ultimately handed Coldwater the title of county seat. Officials could have called a proper meeting to order once they realized that they’d bungled the first one, but news of their decree spread fast to settlers who lived elsewhere in the county. Unaware of the ruling’s illegality, they began to protest the decision. In response, commissioners quickly established the village of Branch -at the geographical center of the county- as the new seat, dooming Masonville towards a rapid extinction3.
Branch’s location at the top of a hill near the Coldwater River made it an ideal location for an early county seat. Over the next several years, the village grew to consist of a post office, a distillery, and a schoolhouse. In 1837, officials built a log jail at Branch that measured thirty feet square and featured a second floor which was set aside for court proceedings4. Soon after, a group of speculators came to Branch in hopes of establishing a mill there, but couldn’t settle on acceptable financial terms with area landowners. Unfortunately for Branch, the group decided to build their mill at the village of Coldwater, recently founded on a site near that of old Masonville.
That was the second event that turned Coldwater into the county seat: Overnight, the place became a boomtown! The state legislature moved the county seat there in 1842 and Branch failed nearly as quickly as Masonville had. Today, there’s nothing left of the place. In fact, the road that ran through the old county seat was even re-routed to go through Coldwater instead5.
In 1802, at the age of fifty, Timothy Dexter wrote a book called A Pickle for the Knowing Ones. You can read it online here if you’re brave, but be forewarned that the tome is not punctuated. At all. The denizens of Coldwater could probably write a similar book called A Courthouse for the Lucky Ones.
After the county seat moved to Coldwater, the courts originally met in a rented apartment until the first courthouse was built at a cost of $5,000 in 18486. That building was used until 1879, when a Second Empire courthouse with a corner tower that rose a hundred feet tall7 was built from plans drawn up by the local architect M.H. Parker.
The second courthouse was the pride of the community. Despite standing only two stories tall with an attic, the brick-and-limestone structure was visible from miles away thanks to its tower, which housed a twenty-ton clockworks8. On the night of December 5, 1972, that massive clock fell through the ceiling when a fire -later determined to the result of arson- swept through the courthouse.
Firefighters believe that the flames originating in the building’s circuit courtroom. The fire was discovered around midnight, when a radio mast affixed to the building’s roof refused to respond to the prompts of the county sheriff’s department. From the courtroom, the blaze swept up to the attic -unused at the time- towards the clock tower. The top of the tower collapsed after forty-five minutes, and the roof of the building fell in fifteen minutes later9.
Thankfully, the county’s records were stored in fireproofed areas and were saved. A week after the fire, a twenty-year-old named Patrick Loose was arrested and held on a $250,000 bond for arson. In 1973, he was found guilty11.
That year a committee comprised of local stakeholders called the Citizen’s Courthouse Advisory Team debated what to do with the burned-out structure. That May, the committee advised that the old courthouse should be demolished, though its bell and clockworks should be retained. The committee also recommended that a new courthouse, of “transitional design” featuring components of contemporary and traditional architecture should be erected13.
That’s pretty much what happened, although committee members that recommended a “transitional” structure got hoodwinked: the current courthouse -designed by architects Haughey, Black and Associates of Battle Creek and dedicated on March 27, 1976- features scant elements of traditional architecture except for what was once its primary entrance which calls to mind something from the 1930s if I’m being charitable.
The current courthouse sits in a depression and is accessed by means of bridges and ramps from all sides but the west. Above ground, it’s two stories of concrete, glass, and stone with a flat roof and narrow windows separated by concrete dividers. What I take to be its original entryway -an arched, three-tired projection of concrete or stone- no longer serves that function, as a $1.75 million remodel in 2003 closed it off from the inside in order to provide for more office space14. As of my visit there, the old entrance serves as a plaza.
Probably the most interesting part of the Branch County Courthouse the ornamental clock tower that sits nearby thanks to the efforts of the Branch County Clock Committee. Initially formed in 1974 with the goal of restoring the rescued clock, bell, and finial from the 1879 courthouse, the group was relaunched in 198715. Because of the group’s efforts towards fundraising and awareness, a replica of the old clocktower was unveiled on July 30, 1988. The first story of the tower features a window that exposes the 143-year-old clockworks.
Timothy Dexter once said that “An ungrateful man is like a hog under a tree eating acorns, but never looking up to see where they come from.” Uninspired as the architecture of the modern Branch County Courthouse may be, the clock tower provides us ungrateful fans of courthouse architecture with a tree to look up at in order to see where it came from. Maybe Timothy Dexter wasn’t such a dummy after all.
Branch County (pop. 44,985, 32/83)
Vernon (pop. 13,894)
Cost: $1.9 million ($10 million today)
Architect: Haughey, Black and Associates
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Courts and county offices
1 Stillman, J. (November 15, 2006). “Lord Timothy Dexter of Newburyport, Massachusetts: Wealthy by Mistake?”. Yahoo! Contributor Network. Archived from the original on July 19, 2012. Web. Retrieved November 30, 2022.
2 Johnson, C. (1879). History of Branch County, Michigan. Everts & Abbott [Philadelphia]. Print.
3 (See footnote 1).
4 Collin, H.P. (1906). A Twentieth Century History and Biographical Record of Branch County, Michigan. The Lewis Publishing Company [New York]. Print.
5 (See footnote 4).
6 Branch County Courthouse Site (1992). The Michigan Department of State Bureau of History. Historical marker.
7 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Coldwater, Branch County, Michigan. Sanborn Map Company, May. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/sanborn03968_005/.
8 Barnes, T. (1972, December 6). Fire sweeps Branch County courthouse. The Battle Creek Enquirer. p. 1.
9 (See footnote 8).
10 Arrest made in Branch County Courthouse fire (1972, December 12). The Battle Creek Enquirer. p. 1.
11 Loose found guilt of arson in Branch courthouse case (1973, April 12). The Battle Creek Enquirer. p. 29.
12 Branch board authorized more land for courthouse (1973, May 8). The Battle Creek Enquirer. p. 22.
13 Demolition suggested for courthouse tower (1973, May 25). The Battle Creek Enquirer. p. 2.
14 Courthouse project nearly complete (2003, July 7). The Battle Creek Enquirer. p. 2.
15 Branch County Courthouse Site (1992). The Michigan Department of State Bureau of History. Historical marker.