The Benton County, Indiana Courthouse (1874-)

An inept county government! Back-room, special-interest scheming! Second Empire masterpieces and decapitated clock towers! We’ve talked about several of these topics as they relate to county courthouses on their own, but they all dramatically combine to tell the story of Indiana’s Benton County Courthouse. In my view, the convergence of those intriguing stories makes it perhaps the most compelling of Indiana’s old courthouses.

The 1874 Benton County Courthouse in Fowler, Indiana.

Although Benton County was founded in 1840, a county seat wasn’t finalized until three years later. The place was originally known as Milroy, but commissioners learned that a Milroy had already been established more than a hundred miles away in Rush County, so they changed its name to Hartford. However, officials were again caught off-guard by the fact that there was already a town -the seat of Blackford County- of the same name a hundred miles away in the other direction! Finally, the settlement was renamed Oxford after commissioners made absolutely sure there wasn’t another one in the state. The name stuck, and a 70-foot-tall brick courthouse was built to seal the deal in 1854.

What was originally the rear of the Benton County Courthouses is now the building’s most impressive side.

Oxford flourished, but the real story was happening twenty miles southeast in Lafayette where a guy named Moses Fowler was scheming to make his mark on the area. Fowler was one of western Indiana’s most successful and prominent citizens, and he amassed an estimated $3 million fortune ($83 million in 2017) by the time he died in 18891. A grocer and wholesaler at first, Fowler eventually turned his attention to banking and wound up controlling four financial institutions in Lafayette alone. Eventually, he acquired 20,000 acres in Benton County to hold cattle for a meat-packing company he organized in another wildly successful business enterprise2. As the scale of his dealings grew, Fowler and his partners needed a reliable form of transportation to transport their cattle from Indiana to Chicago. To address that requirement, Fowler planned a railroad to connect the two cities by way of all that Benton County farmland he owned.

Hedley Lamarr from Blazing Saddles could have learned a few things from Moses Fowler. In 1872, Fowler platted his own town (named after himself, of course), just as the railroad was finished. By that point, all he had to do to maximize his investment was wrest the county seat away from Oxford. If the scheme was successful, it would have made the career of a lesser man! But for Moses Fowler -who was used to creating empires out of nothing but the force of his will- it was all simply part of a day’s work.

The 1995 jail annex of the courthouse is visible to the right of the photo.

Although Oxford blossomed into a worthy county seat, the courthouse and nearby jail were in an embarrassing state of disrepair by 1873. Commissioners turned a blind eye to the buildings’ conditions until a convicted murderer named James McCollough carved his way out of jail through the decomposing wall of its foundation. Appalled, officials finally took notice and hired architect Gurdon Randall to assess the condition of their government buildings shortly after the escape.

Randall -fresh from designing Indiana courthouses in Marshall and Warren counties- was highly respected in his field and merciless in his assessment of the buildings3, calling the decaying courthouse foundation “hardly in a condition to carry the walls resting upon [it]”and proclaiming the entire building “a complete wreck from foundation to cupola4.”  Commissioners were so shaken by Randall’s report that they immediately decamped to Oxford’s city hall across the street to make plans for a new courthouse! Randall’s firm won the contract and completed the design for a new courthouse within a month.

Fowler and his partners watched the debacle from the sidelines and sensed that it was time to pounce. They deeded the county rights to two lots for a new courthouse in Fowler, and they submitted a petition to move the county seat there. Moses Fowler even provided $250 to cover the moving expenses! Unfortunately, the effort didn’t go over well- the county freaked out at Fowler’s show of force. An influential commissioner named Robert Atkinson actually resigned in protest, and Fowler withdrew his petition in order to wait the situation out until county elections took place later that fall.

The courthouse sits at the geographical center of the county, away from Fowler’s downtown strip.

As Fowler suspected, two new commissioners who were sympathetic to his efforts were reelected. Unfortunately, so was Atkinson, the commissioner who had resigned to protest his strong-arming. Fowler presented his petition again after the results were in, this time with more than a thousand signatures from community residents. In 1874 the commissioners, (minus Atkinson, who had mysteriously disappeared) voted in favor of relocation to Fowler, and Atkinson reappeared the next day. Even now, it’s unclear whether he’d returned from urgent business elsewhere or if he’d managed to finally kick his way out of a locked steamer trunk his opponents had sealed him in.  Regardless, the vote was cast, and $40,000 (more than $880,000 today) streamed in to fund construction of the new courthouse- funds that were provided by Moses Fowler himself5.

Fowler became the county seat and the monolithic, Second Empire courthouse that stands there rises a striking three-and-a-half stories above the surrounding prairie. It served the county largely unmodified until 1936. Fifty-two years of high winds and lightning can’t be good for the tallest building in twenty miles, and postcards during that timeframe showed a gradual loss of specific architectural details such as the clock tower’s spire, dormer windows, and the actual clocks themselves.  Like so many others at the time, the soaring tower that the courthouse once featured was removed for safety reasons. The bell was later recovered by a local Eagle Scout who placed it on the front lawn6.

The courthouse sits at the geographical center of the county, away from Fowler’s downtown strip.

It took more than 120 years for Benton County to finally run out of space at the courthouse. In 1995, officials hired Pyramid Architecture/Engineering to complete an 8,000 square foot addition7 to the rear of the building that accompanied a new jail that was erected at the west side of the courthouse. Attached via glass hyphen to the courthouse’s southern front, the addition provided desperately-needed room and accessibility, but doesn’t quite match the scale of the 1874 building. Thankfully, it did preserve most of the masonry from the building’s original entrance within the lobby.

The addition is adorned with architectural details that resemble the original building, and the historic part of the courthouse is visible for architectural purists to appreciate from the north. The new jail was designed to be mostly flush with the lawn in order to not detract from the overall scene, and in time, the both parts of the 1995 addition will become historic as well.

The 1995 addition does not quite match the scale or grandeur of the original building, but it provides necessary updates of space and accessibility.

Despite its architecturally-compromised state, the Benton County Courthouse squeaked its way into the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. More than its design, what stands out about the building is the sum of each element of its history: in concert, the incompetent officials, the crafty scheme of rich special interests, the destroyed clock tower, and the modern addition all encapsulate the story of many of Indiana’s courthouses in a nutshell.  While there are more prominent courthouses in the state in larger county seats, the legacy of tiny Benton County and its courthouse remains a favorite of mine.

Benton County (pop. 8,767)
Fowler (pop. 2,296).
50/92 Photographed
Built: 1874, decapitated in 1936, expanded in 1995.
Cost: $54,000 ($1.14 million in 2016)
Architect: G.P. Randall
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3.5 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 3/13/16

Sources Cited
1 “Moses Fowler had far-reaching influence” The Journal & Courier [Lafayette]. Retrieved from
Past and Present of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, Illustrated, Volume II. B. F. Bowen &
Company: Indianapolis. 1909.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Benton County Courthouse, Fowler, Benton County, Indiana. National Register # 08000741.
4 Birch, Jesse Setlington. History of Benton County and Historic Oxford. Crawford and Crawford, Inc.: Oxford, IN, 1928.
5 “Counties of Warren, Benton, Jasper and Newton, Indiana, Historical and Biographical….” F. A. Battey & Co: Chicago. 1883.
6 “Benton County’s Tower Bell in New Home” The Benton Review [Fowler]. 1992. Print.
7 “Benton County Indiana Government Center” Projects. Pyramid Architecture/Engineering. 2018. Retrieved from

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