The Perry County Courthouse in Rome, Indiana (1818-1859)

Historians have examined the cities of Rome and Troy for years, trying to ascertain whether one was founded by descendants of the other’s ancient heroes or whether the story was a legend. Rest assured- through my diligent research, I’ve finally cracked the case: though the two cities were founded at different times by different people, they remained fierce rivals for nearly fifty years. Just like in ancient times, Rome, Indiana managed to outlive its Hoosier counterpart, Troy, at least for a while.

The 1818 Perry County Courthouse in Rome.

Perry County has one of Indiana’s most active geopolitical histories: the county seat has moved four times, most recently in 1994. That’s almost unheard of! Troy served as the center of Perry County’s government for four years, and officials built a log courthouse there1. As a 20-year-old, Abraham Lincoln operated a ferry out of Troy, but it didn’t last after the state legislature dealt it two hard blows in 1818. First, a bill passed that designated a new county -Spencer- to be split off from Perry, an act that cut the massive, 778-square-mile county in half. Unfortunately, cleaving off so much land meant Troy was no longer centrally located. The newly-established town of Rome was, though, so the state legislature forced county officials to relocate.

Louvered panels in the building’s cupola were replaced over the years.

A two-story brick courthouse in Rome was built by 18192. Residents of Troy were outraged by the turn of events, and there’s actually some evidence that the citizens of Rome may have changed its name in response to usurping Troy as the county seat3. If so, it’d be the ultimate act of pioneer pettiness since, at various points, the place had been called Washington and Franklin. I love it!

A hero of the American Revolution named Samuel Connor helped administer the effort to relocate the Petty Perry County seat to Rome, and he helped build the courthouse, too4. The yellow-brick structure, designed in response to the 1816 state capitol in Corydon, is exemplary of Ball State professor David Hermansen called the “coffee mill style” due to its resemblence to that old-timey appliance. Each side of the two story building features three window bays except the western front, which has only two. The “coffee mill” part of the design has to do with the building’s hipped roof and octagonal cupola that rise from a functional, wooden cornice.

David Hermansen called these structures “coffee mills”. I prefer to keep with modern language and call them “pop-socket” courthouses, after the thing you stick on your massive cell phone to hold it properly.

The building originally sat on a sandstone foundation above an unfinished basement and featured a southern entrance. Inside, the courthouse was simple. The first floor consists of two rooms and a pair of modern bathrooms along by two stairways. The second story features a long hall with a room on either side. As was common in the era, I’d imagine that downstairs held offices for the fledgling county, and upstairs held a courtroom and sheriff’s office. 

As the county seat, Rome began to grow. By the 1840s, numerous groceries, a warehouse, a wharf, several taverns, a cobbler, a distillery, a tannery, a post office, and a flour mill all called the place home. Unfortunately, other communities in Perry County were growing as well- namely Cannelton about seventeen miles west and only seven miles south of Rome’s old rival Troy.

After it served as the courthouse, the building was a parochial school, then the Rome school until the mid-1960s. Now it’s a community center.

Conscious of their growing stature and tired of the discomforts that frequent trips to the inconvenient courthouse in Rome brought6, Canneltonians petitioned the state to move the seat of government in the late 1850s. They got their wish in 1859, though the move was fought by none other than the people of Troy! It turns out that the people of Cannelton had defeated their 1852 attempt to make yet another new county out of Perry and Spencer with Troy as the county seat7! The county seat moved again, for the third time, to Cannelton. Rome dried up.

After county officials left, the old courthouse was used as a school, first on lease to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cannelton and later to St. Alban’s Academy. According to a school circular, the former courthouse was located “on a high bluff, commanding a beautiful view of the Ohio River and of the surrounding county. The town of Rome is a pleasant and very healthy place, with good society and free from the noise, bustle, and enticements of the city8.” Who knew that Cannelton was such a repository of vice! I certainly never got that impression when I drove through it several years ago.

Parts of the building are rough, which is why it was included on Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list a decade ago. That second story door to nowhere is a remnant of a 1930s fire escape.

After its stint as a parochial school, the courthouse was used as the Rome public school, educating grades 1-12 until 1935 and then grades 1-8 until 1966 when the Perry Central consolidated school was constructed9. Incorporated in 1973, Rome Community Center, Inc. now uses the building for elections, meetings, private functions, and various events.

Today, the courthouse is just about all that’s left of Rome since it’s the only non-residential building left in the sleepy community of about a hundred people. Its been altered over the years- the sandstone foundation was plastered in 1917, the entrance was moved from the south to the east in the 1930s, two chimneys were removed in 1960, the cupola roof was replaced with redwood seven years later, and a modern fire escape was removed. Even so, the building’s still there as Indiana’s second-oldest historic courthouse, although preserving the building has proven difficult10. Rome may have outlasted Troy as the county seat by forty years, but it’s now just an unincorporated hamlet. As of this writing, Troy boasts a post office and population of 385 as of the 2010 Census.

The 1818 Perry County Courthouse in Rome still watches over its largely-forgone hamlet.

Ultimately, Perry County justice of the peace Henry P. Brazee summed up Rome’s tenure as county seat best with his 1850s poem that referenced Lord Byrum’s The Coliseum:

While stands the courthouse
Rome shall stand;
When falls the courthouse

Rome shall fall.
And when Rome falls-
Look out for a general scam-
pering of officeholders.

We chortle at Brazee’s sentiment, but both Rome and Troy got the last laugh in 1994 when Cannelton, their rival, was stripped of the county seat in favor of Tell City. Though that saga presented a new chapter in Perry County’s courthouse wars, the 1818 Rome Courthouse still stands -despite its officeholders scampering- as a reminder of the conflict’s initial skirmish more than two-hundred years ago.

Perry County (pop. 19081, 474/92)
Rome (pop. 0)
Built: 1818
Cost: Unknown
Architect: Also unknown
Style: Federal
Courthouse Square: Lancaster
Height: Two stories
Current Use: Non-governmental
Photographed: 11/23/17

Sources Cited
1 Enyart, David. “Perry County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 10/9/19.
2 National Register of Historic Places, Old Perry County Courthouse. Rome, Perry County, Indiana, National Register # 81000006.
3 “Town of Rome, Indiana”. Southern Indiana Connections. Riley Lamkin. 2014. Web. Accessed 10/9/19.
4 “Elderly man tries to save deteriorating Rome courthouse” The Tribune [Seymour]. April 24, 1989. 11. Print.
5 “History of Warrick, Spencer, and Perry Counties, Indiana: from the earliest time to the present.” Goodspeed Bros & Co [Chicago]. 1885. Print.
6 “Editorial”. The Cannelton Reporter [Cannelton]. January 12, 1856. Print.
7 “Rome and Troy Old Hoosier Rivals” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis]. August 22, 1952. 9. Print.
8 Annual Circular. Rome Academy [Rome]. Date unknown. Web. Accessed 10/9/19.
9 “History” Rome Indiana Historical Courthouse. Rome Community Center, Inc. Web. Retrieved 10/9/19.
10 “Perry County Courthouse Marks 200, but Needs New Use” Indiana Landmarks [Indianapolis]. November 20, 2018. Web. Retrieved 10/9/19.

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