The Clay County, Indiana Courthouse (1914-)

I’m the only one of my siblings not to have been a foreign exchange student. Years after my brother’s trip to Brazil and my sister’s time in Germany, though, it looks like I can finally say that the joke’s on them: here in the Hoosier state, a six-hour drive can take you all over the world from Mexico to Peru, Mecca, Brazil, Lebanon, Galveston and back- even cramming in a stop at Kokomo to see the Beach Boys on your way home.

The 1914 Clay County Courthouse in Bray-zul, Indiana.

I guarantee that neither my brother nor my sister has been to all those places, and although I left the translation guides at home during my homegrown international road trip, it would have been smart to bring an English dictionary along just in case: even if residents in Peru, Brazil, and Lebanon Indiana aren’t speaking Spanish, Portuguese, or Arabic, it’s sometimes not clear what version of English they are employing. Through my travels, I’ve heard locals in Lebanon pronounce it as leh-BANNin, and people in Peru call the town PIER-ooh. Some citizens in Clay County even refer to their city as BRAY-zuhl! It’s probably best not to mention how Hoosiers mangle the name of Russiaville.

If you guessed that an Indiana courthouse in a city named after a South American country had a convoluted geopolitical history, you’d be right. Before Brazil, BRAY-zuhl, or whatever you want to call it was even a place, the seat of Clay County was established at Bowling Green near a bend in the Eel River. Established in 1829, the settlement was named after the area’s imagined resemblance to a park in New York that served as a venue for lawn bowling1. The first courthouse was a two-story log building that stood across the street from the town square. 

Two pieces of Civil War artillery sit on the courthouse square in Brazil; here’s one.

Other communities sprung up around Clay County as investors threw money towards the land surrounding what were expected to become feeders for the Wabash and Erie Canal2. Towns like Anguilla and Jonesboro were founded quickly, only to be abandoned as fast as work on the waterway stalled. Back in Bowling Green, county officials had no intention of relocating and ordered a new brick courthouse in 1839, hoping it would dissuade any dissident attempts to move the county seat. Area resident Dempsey Seybold won the contract for a new, two-story courthouse on the square that added 640 square feet to the old building’s size.

Elsewhere, Clay County continued to grow. As Seybold built the new courthouse in Bowling Green, a farm about fifteen miles to the northwest was gaining enough geographic prominence due to its position on the burgeoning National Road (now US-40) that the postal service demanded that its owner, a settler known as Yankee Bill(!), come up with a name for it. Yankee Bill wanted no interruption to his mail service, so he named the farm Brazil. Apparently, that country was the frequent subject of American newspaper articles at the time3.

Seybold’s work soon finished, and the new courthouse put any serious notion of moving the county seat to rest. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last very long -only twelve years- before it burnt down in a catastrophic 1851 fire that consumed all county records except for those of the county recorder, who kept his documents in the tailor shop he owned across the street. The courthouse burned the Saturday before the state legislature was set to convene, and relocationists immediately flooded the general assembly with petitions to move the seat of government away from Bowling Green.

From up close, the two-story dome of the present courthouse is barely visible.

By 1852, the town of Bellaire was platted to snare away the seat. Even though it ultimately grew to feature warehouses, stores, a post office, a church, and a school4, local officials reconstructed the courthouse in Bowling Green despite the public’s opinion. That building, similar to courthouses still standing in Nashville and Angola, was a close approximation of its predecessor. Bellaire quickly dried up sometime during the Civil War and is invisible to the contemporary traveler.

Residents were still unhappy with Bowling Green’s asymmetrical location within the county. They kept petitioning for a courthouse move regardless of their new facilities, and by 1860, a new town called Ashboro had been platted close to the center of the county. An 1861 petition to move the courthouse and jail there garnered 1,635 signatures but was flatly denied.

County officials passed documents from the former courthouse to the current one- through these southwest windows.

By the mid-1860s, Yankee Bill’s Brazil had grown from a farm to an official town due to its location next to a prominent new mode of transportation- the railroad. Undaunted by their neighbors’ newfound prominence, Ashboro stakeholders tried to move the seat to their town again in 1871. Unfortunately, an alternative faction formed to move the county seat even further north to Brazil. Brazil’s boosters won, and the community became the seat of Clay County in 1876.

It took six years to build Brazil up to the standards demanded of a county seat, but county records were finally moved to Brazil on wagons in early 1877. The courthouse there was another brick structure, this time resembling the Ripley County Courthouse in Versailles. The old courthouse in Bowling Green stood another thirty-three years until it was destroyed by a lightning strike5. In Ashboro, a post office continued through 19186.

An old postcard I own of the Clay County Courthouse in Bowling Green.

Clay County’s population continued to grow. By 1912, officials had run out of room! Architect John W. Gaddis designed similar courthouses in Putnam and Huntington Counties and was awarded the design contract to draw up the massive neoclassical building that graces downtown Brazil today. The courthouse sits at the far east side of its square since it was built immediately adjacent to the previous one. The two courthouses were so close, in fact, that officials transferred records from building to building by passing them through open windows7! The old courthouse was demolished a week after the present structure was completed, giving Clay County a unique, asymmetrical square.

The unusual WWII memorial at the northeastern corner of the square.

That square features some great monuments. Chief among them is the 1945 Clay County American Legion memorial to World War II veterans, a strange-looking, octagonal building coated in locally-manufactured blue tile. The courthouse lawn also features two pieces of Civil War field artillery and an F-86 fighter jet from the Korean War.

The courthouse towers over all of its accouterments. Built of limestone and rising three stories over a raised basement, the structure features a flat roof with central gables. Twelve windows in the building’s two-story dome bring light to an internal, octagonal skylight. Long after falling into disrepair, a community-based effort in 1986 restored the skylight and added four clock faces to each of the building’s pediments- a detail which, for budgetary reasons, had been left out during its original construction8.

Clock faces were added to the building nearly seventy-five years after they’d been planned.

After I returned home from Brazil, Indiana, I asked my brother about his most vibrant memories from the time he spent studying in Brazil, South America. Chief among them were the best cheeseburger he’d ever eaten at a local place in Porto Alegre, along with that the capital streets were completely silent and deserted thanks to Brazil’s World Cup match against the Netherlands. My time in Brazil was similar. Streets were barren, and I had a great Flamethrower Burger at the National Road Dairy Queen there.

I’ll take what I can get! Even though I’ve never seen Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, Copacabana, or Ipanema Beach, I have seen the outstanding results of when Hoosiers in Brazil, as well as residents of several other Indiana communities, rally around their old courthouses by restoring them, regardless of the how they pronounce the towns that they call home or the complex history that leads to their construction. In Brazil (oh, fine- BRAY-zuhl), here’s hoping that Clay County’s monumental courthouse continues to anchor the southwest approach to downtown for another century.

Clay County (pop. 26,198, 59/92)
Brazil (pop. 8,078).
57/92 photographed.
Built: 1914
Cost: $225,000 ($5.74 million in 2016)
Architect: John W. Gaddis
Style: Neoclassical
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 100 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 3/13/16

Sources Cited
1 Blanchard, Charles. Counties of Clay and Owen, Indiana: Historical and Biographical. Chicago. F.A. Battey & Co., 1884. Print.
2 “Wabash-Erie Canal Corridor Area” Greene County Indiana. Greene County Tourism Advisory Board. 2019. Web. Retrieved March 23, 2019.
3 Cabral, Paulo. “Economy and Iraq divide votes in the city Brazil”. BBC Brasil. The British Broadcasting Company. October 11, 2004. Web. Retrieved March 23, 2019.
4  “Bellaire” Clay County Genealogical Society. CCGS. 2019. Web. Retrieved March 23, 2019.
5 Enyart, David. “Clay County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. March 23, 2019.
6 “Clay County”. Jim Forte Postal History. Web. Retrieved March 23, 2019.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Clay County Courthouse, Brazil, Clay County, Indiana, National Register #99001109.
8 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Clay County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved March 23, 2019.

One thought on “The Clay County, Indiana Courthouse (1914-)

  1. Thanks, Ted, for your coverage of Clay County, Indiana.. We visited there many times, walking cemeteries and perusing library records.. I am, paternally, descended from the Hoffa(s) – yes, even Jimmy Hoffa. Some of them worked in the mines in the area. I’ve found so much information about them, coming from Pennsylvania to Indiana. When we lived west of Martinsville, Morgan County, Indiana – it was great to be so close to able to see some of their homes and where they are buried. They had the annual Price-Hoffa reunion where we met many descendants, that I’m still in contact with today. I so appreciate you covering these areas of interest to me..

    Liked by 1 person

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