The Blackford County Courthouse in Indiana (1894-)

Although it’s been long since bypassed by the interstate, Indiana State Road 3 still provides a scenic route through the countryside of northeastern Indiana that can be traveled relatively quickly. I became acquainted with the road from trips to visit family during my childhood, but it took constant weekend drives back home to Muncie from my Fort Wayne apartment to become really close with it. Without question, the highway’s most prominent landmark is the Blackford County Courthouse in Hartford City. I eventually wondered how such an impressive courthouse wound up in a county seat that seemed so ordinary.

The 1894 Blackford County Courthouse in Hartford City, Indiana.

I know now that I was being uncharitable since there’s certainly a story there. Although Blackford County was founded in 1837, it didn’t officially exist until the following year when a state house resolution passed that authorized its creation1. Choosing a county seat wouldn’t be as straightforward as a simple legislative proclamation, though: a cutthroat political skirmish soon erupted between the residents of centrally-located Hartford and its rival Montpelier. Although Montpelier’s establishment predated the founding of the county by nearly a year, commissioners repeatedly selected Hartford as the county seat. But even that wasn’t enough: it took four acts by the Indiana General Assembly to finalize Hartford’s place of prominence. Shortly after it was made the county seat, the town’s name was changed to ‘Hartford City’ once leaders found out about another Hartford in the state2.

The 1894 courthouse is only the county’s second.

Although a modest brick courthouse was constructed in 18433, growth was lean in the early years. Back then, the area was mostly just acres upon acres of swamp and forest, and all that nature would have to go to provide space for suitable development. As you can imagine, all of the draining and lumberjacking took a while, but as luck would have it, both Hartford City and Montpelier were located right between the prominent cities of Muncie and Fort Wayne. Plans were soon made to build a railroad to connect the two to jump-start progress. It ended up taking more than twenty years to complete the Fort Wayne, Cincinnati, & Louisville Railroad4, and growth still wasn’t incendiary. But then something inflammatory happened.

In 1876, a group of backwoods entrepreneurs in nearby Eaton was earnestly drilling a hole in search of some coal to mine. They got as deep as 600 feet down when, shockingly, a screeching noise and horrific odor erupted from the pipe! Absolutely sure that they’d breached the ceilings of Hell, the miners quickly plugged everything up and scattered, vowing never to drill in that location again.

I’ve been to Eaton many times, and horrific aromas and screams aren’t uncommon there! I don’t fault those mistaken miners, but when natural gas was discovered across the border in Ohio a few years later, residents remembered what had happen and re-opened the well. More were drilled in short order, and the Indiana Gas Boom was underway.

Semicircular turrets rise from the east and west elevations of the building.

The boom spread across the region and although prospectors in Blackford County took their sweet time, they finally struck oil just south of Montpelier in 18905. Incredibly, the sleepy county with only 8,020 residents sat above the center of the 5,120-square-mile Trenton Gas Field! The field contained more than a trillion cubic feet of natural gas and another billion barrels of oil. Naturally, industry jumped on this development, and Blackford County was in a perfect position to capitalize on it. Glass manufacturers in need of cheap power and heat moved in right away, and gas companies sprung up in nearly every town in the county.

Growth had finally picked up! In 1880 the county only had 171 people working in the manufacturing sector. By 1901, 1,346 were employed and making things- seven times more workers in only two decades. Hartford City’s population went up too. Per the census, only 1,470 people made their homes in the sleepy county seat in 1880. However, the influx of manufacturers rocketed Hartford City’s population to nearly 6,000 at the close of the century. That’s a 214% increase!

The 165-foot clock tower is a landmark from miles away.

County officials knew that a certain responsibility came with being located in the middle of a gas field the size of Connecticut, so they set out to prove that Hartford City could stand head-to-head with the other gas boom county seats. To stake that claim, commissioners set out to build the grandest courthouse in the area, and may have succeeded. The sandstone building, finished in 1894, dominates the city square by rising three stories, not counting the pairs of semicircular turrets on its east and west sides or the 165-foot-tall clock tower. Architects LaBelle & French designed the courthouse in the popular Richardson Romanesque style that epitomized the sense of permanency that officials believed would embody the county’s economic successes for years to come.

I like Hartford City and Blackford County a lot, but a quick drive through the area today demonstrates that local officials were very wrong. Shortly after the courthouse was completed, the boom began to show signs of slowing, despite increasingly-urgent attempts by the state legislature to regulate the gas field’s use. By 1902, nearly 90% of the fuel had been squandered through wasteful practices such as lighting flambeaus, defiant torches that signified that the gas was still flowing.

Primary entrance arches rise nearly three stories from the ground.

I’m all for hubristic, excessive displays of grandeur, but allowing those flambeaus to burn for twenty straight years was probably a bad idea. By the turn of the century, the displays had become noticeably weaker6, and they began to peter out as the gas supply was exhausted. Blackford County petered out too. Once the gas was gone, businesses didn’t have much reason to stay. Most closed up shop or moved out entirely, with only a few exceptions.

About a hundred and fifteen years later, there aren’t a lot of relics from the gas boom left in Blackford County. Hartford City and Montpelier are still there, but they’re the only cities left. Roll, Trenton, and Millgrove -former boomtowns all- now exist largely in name only. They dried up soon after the gas field did.

Towering incongruously over Hartford City’s downtown, he Blackford County Courthouse is unquestionably a reminder of the gas boom. Whether seen up close, in passing, or from afar, the building serves to remind us all of an aspirational time in our state’s history. To me, it even represents a little bit more. Since it was the first courthouse I went to on my project to document all of them, it brings to mind an aspirational time in my own life.

The courthouse still towers over its surroundings as a monument to rural Hoosier industry.

But the courthouse isn’t the only remaining memento of the gas boom. Today, 90% of the oil -900 million barrels– is thought to still slush around the Trenton Field underneath Hartford City! Unfortunately, the area is too big to pump gas back in to increase pressure enough to extract the remaining oil7. As of this writing, artificial lift technology isn’t an economically viable option to remove it either, but maybe some petrochemical engineer in Eaton is on the verge of a discovery that can restore the county’s prosperity just like his forebears. Hopefully he’ll have the presence of mind to bring his discovery to Blackford County before he seals it up in fear of having breached Hell’s infernal laboratory. I guess we’ll wait and see!

Blackford County (pop. 309,697, 85/92)
Hartford City (pop. 12,298).
1/92 photographed
Built: 1894
Cost: $129,337 ($3.72 million in 2016)
Architect: Labelle & French
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 165 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 8/15/15

Sources Cited
1 Indiana State House of Representatives. “Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Indiana during the Twenty-Second Session of the General Assembly”. Indianapolis. Bolton and Livingston. 1837. Print.
2 Biographical and Historical Record of Jay and Blackford Counties, Indiana. Chicago. The Lewis Company. 1887. Print.
3 Enyart, David. “Blackford County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. March 30, 2018.
4 A History of Blackford County, Indiana, 1838-1986. Hartford City, Indiana. Blackford County Historic Society. 1986. Print.
5 “Annual Report” Indianpolis Indiana Department of Geology and Natural Resources. 1897. Print.
6 Glass, J. & Kohrman, David. The Gas Boom of East Central Indiana. Charleston. Arcadia Publishing. 2005. Print.
7 “Natural Gas Lies Beneath Carwash”. The Star Press [Muncie]. December 27, 2005. Print.

2 thoughts on “The Blackford County Courthouse in Indiana (1894-)

  1. Ted—enjoyed this article about Blackford County.

    Noticed you mentioned Eaton.

    Suggestion: Maybe another article about the WWII German prisoners of war camp in Eaton??


    Bill Miller

    PS. Also liked your comment about Hwy 3. The farm where I grew up boarded Hwy 3 (east side) at road 800 north

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

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