Indiana was pretty much a rough-and-tumble wild west frontier back in its early days. Hoosiers didn’t wear cowboy hats back then, and no, we weren’t all that far west given the scope of the Illinois and Missouri territories. But we sure did ride horses, and we engaged in all manner of skullduggery to ensure that our hometowns got the title of county seat, which was a big deal in those days!
We’ve talked about some of these political battles before- tons of early, angry maneuverings happened all over the place! Holding onto the county seat -especially if a city was near a natural resource- meant instant economic prominence. Nevertheless, one of the most intriguing cases of courthouse one-upmanship occurred in Perry County over the course of more than a century.
In 1817, Perry County set up a seat of government in Troy, a community located on a bluff high above the Ohio River. Officials stayed there for a year before they moved to Rome, twenty-three miles due east. There, the county government put up its feet for thirty-eight years before they left, again, for Cannelton1. To do so, officials floated the community’s records fifteen miles down the river to the new county seat.
Cannelton lacked a proper courthouse, so county officials made one out of an old school. The arrangement worked well until 1893 when the floor of the second-story courtroom shifted during a big trial thanks to the accumulated weight of the spectators2. After that, officials got serious about building a permanent courthouse.
For a long time, Cannelton was a great place for the county seat to be located. For one thing, it was home to the Cannelton Cotton Mill, once the country’s largest industrial building west of the Allegheny Mountains3. Despite its commercial prominence, though, trouble was brewing: the community of Tell City, located just north of the city, grew to more than 2,000 people by the 1890s and dwarfed Cannelton. The people of Tell City started thinking about how nice it’d be if their hometown became county seat, so Mayor A.P. Fenn got to work. In 1896, the city preemptively broke ground on a new county courthouse.
Mayor Fenn’s efforts weren’t as ridiculous as they sound now since the seat of neighboring Crawford County had relocated from Leavenworth to English a year prior. By the end of 1896, Fenn and his constituents had erected a fine, modern courthouse. They offered it to the county government for one dollar. Unfortunately for them, Cannelton had been busy building its own new courthouse. It was finished around the same time Tell City’s was, and they marketed it to commissioners for the same price, a buck.
Officials in Tell City planned for this, and hired a special agent to travel to the nearest circuit court in Boonville to obtain a restraining order that would prevent Cannelton residents from moving official documents from the old schoolhouse to the new courthouse. But Cannelton residents planned for that as well, and hatched an ingenious scheme to put their new courthouse into use and ensure that their city would stay the county seat.
Although Tell City’s agent left for Boonville on horseback earlier in the day, John Tull, a County Commissioner from Tell City, stayed at the old courthouse in Cannelton until business closed. As soon as he made his way home, Cannelton sprung to life: a brigade of residents relayed a series of hand signals to operatives stationed at Cannelton’s firehouse. After the all-clear was given, more citizens descended upon the old school to move the county’s records to the new courthouse, just as they’d done by barge thirty-eight years earlier. Once everything was relocated, Cannelton celebrated with a huge bonfire.The restraining order from Boonville arrived the next day4, but it was too late. Cannelton remained the county seat for nearly a century.
Tell City’s prospective courthouse was repurposed as a new city hall. The building sits on a square in the middle of town and looks like it could be the Perry County courthouse if a bystander didn’t know any better. Rising two stories above a raised basement, the Romanesque structure’s brick walls and whitewashed belfry dwarfed Cannelton’s courthouse. The residents of Tell City probably recognized that, and their dream of usurping Cannelton as the Perry County seat never died.
Good for them, though, as Tell City eventually landed the Perry County courthouse. A 1992 election that sneaky Cannelton officials tried to pad by nominating friendly candidates to the board of county commissioners backfired when those new officials voted in favor of moving the courthouse by a margin of 2-1. The County Council agreed after 5-2 vote5, and that was that.
Their reasoning was clear: by 1990, Tell City had emerged as Perry County’s obvious commercial center. Beyond that, though, the courthouse in Cannelton, at 10,400 square feet, was simply too small to adequately administer justice despite a modern annex that stood behind it. That building was dated, too, and estimates of refurbishing the old courthouse cost significantly more than the cost of building a new, purpose-built structure. Unfortunately for Cannelton, the only place it made sense to build anew was in rural Tell City, something that landowners in Cannelton underscored by refusing to sell. In 1994, a new courthouse was built on a 4.5 acre lot just outside of Tell City6.
Cannelton officials were unhappy with the development. “It will leave a cavity, a void in the city, which we really can’t afford to have,” said the city’s mayor Hargis Hafele7. However, Tell City officials were thrilled to have finally made the change.
“I know they’re disappointed, but hopefully these are the type of wounds that can heal,” Tell City mayor William Goffinet said in response.
“I think the decision was made long ago by people wanting to move this thing down the road,” Mayor Hafele countered. “They ignored all the petitions, the hearings,” Hafele complained, citing a 4,500-signature petition against moving the courthouse. “If there’s any [legal recourse], we will exercise it. If not, we’ll say we’ve been robbed and go on through life.”
In turn, Perry County commissioners released a statement indicating that they “believe the best interest of the entire county needs it. We also would like to believe that old competitive barriers of one city pitted against the other are, and should rapidly, diminish8.”
I don’t know whether those competitive traits have diminished or not since I only spent part of a morning in Perry County. Overall, the current courthouse looks like a large, modern, bank or a Carmel veterinary clinic. The building follows an H-shaped plan, with a central atrium and administrative offices in the middle with courtrooms in wings that jut off to its sides. A cupola over the central portion, along with a modern interpretation of a monumental entryway, gives the building some gravitas.
It would have been neat if Tell City’s historic city hall could have been used for its original purpose. I’m sure it’s too small, though, and it almost certainly lacks the infrastructure required of a modern courthouse. At any rate, we have Perry County to thank for the most recent skirmish of Indiana’s various courthouse wars in a battle that took more than 150 years to resolve.
At least for now!
Perry County (pop. 19,347, 75/92)
Tell City (pop. 7,323)
Cost: $2.6 million ($4.2 million in 2016)==p[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[.ll.jmnjm
Architect: Andrew Churchill
Courthouses Square: None
Height: One story
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 National Register of Historic Places, Perry County Courthouse, Rome, Perry County, Indiana, National Register #81000006.
2 “Perry County Old Courthouse Museum in Cannelton” Little Indiana. February 24, 2015. Web. Retrieved from http://littleindiana.com/2015/02/perry-county-museum-cannelton/1 county boundaries.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Perry County Courthouse, Cannelton, Perry County, Indiana, National Register # 75000011.
4 Enyart, David. “Perry County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. December 19, 2018.
5 “Cannelton may lose status as Perry County seat”. The Times [Munster]. November 7, 1992. Page 10. Print.
6 “Perry County seat moving”. The Kokomo Tribune [Kokomo]. August 6 1994. Page 7. Print.
7 “Move slated for Perry County seat”. The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. June 29, 1992. Page 1.
8 “Commissioners Vote to Move County Seat” The Star Press [Muncie]. June 30, 1991. Page 31. Print.