What constitutes a building? No, really. What does? When I was twelve, my dad gave me a booklet of graph paper and told me to go design an addition to his house. As a big fan of architecture, I happily obliged! Would the changes I’d suggest turn it into a completely different structure? I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not sure today. I have the same questions about Wayne County’s 1811 log courthouse, which has an extraordinarily convoluted history.
The log courthouse in Centerville makes me think of the philosophical trope of the Ship of Theseus. The idea is that a historic ship, sailed by a mythological hero, is now in a museum’s harbor. Wood bows, cracks, and gets replaced. A few centuries later, none of the boat’s original components remain. Is that ship the same as the original? What if every rotten piece of lumber was sent to a warehouse somewhere and reassembled? What’s that ship? Is it the original, the same as a replacement, or something else entirely? Several possible answers exist.
Wayne County was organized in 1810, and the community of Salisbury was made county seat just a year later1. The log courthouse was built in 1811 by William Commons and lasted just a year before a brick version was constructed2. Despite that, residents of Centerville quickly formed a scheme to relocate the county seat to their burgeoning community. Back then, being named county seat carried a lot of political and economic weight! The state legislature soon determined that Centerville could claim the title if its residents could build a better courthouse than Salisbury’s.
As the courthouse in Centerville neared completion, state officials came to both towns to compare the structures. Sensing defeat, residents of Salisbury refused to let them go inside their own courthouse, so officials did what you or I’d do when judging a courthouse- they counted their bricks3! The delegates reasoned that whichever courthouse had more must be the better building. Centerville won, and Salisbury dried up. Today, there’s nothing left of the town aside from Salisbury Road that led to it.
Building materials were hard to come by back when Wayne County was pioneer country. By the mid-1820s, most of Salisbury’s businesses had moved to Centerville, and the logs from the old courthouse were sent northeast to Richmond, where they were used to build a house on North 5th Street. In 1952, the house was torn down, and the logs were removed and rebuilt in Centerville on the grounds of the high school4. The old courthouse sat in the school yard for forty-six years until it was moved yet again to its current location behind the Mansion House downtown.
The three-story Mansion House, one of downtown Centerville’s most prominent structures, was built in 1840 as an upscale hotel and tavern5. Today, it’s a museum, so it only makes sense that the historic Salisbury courthouse sits behind it. The courthouse is what I would describe as a typical, two-story log cabin, four bays wide and featuring a gabled roof perpendicular to the building’s front. Windows on the bottom floor match the height of the asymmetrical door, while a plaque presented by the local chapter of the Daughters of American Colonists certifies that the building was re-built in Centerville in 1952 as the only remaining log courthouse in the entire northwestern territory. A smaller plaque below indicates the courthouse’s reconstruction behind the Mansion House. The courthouse is open during local festivals or by appointment for tours.
Just like Salisbury, Centerville eventually fell victim to progress and population patterns. By 1873, it was clear to many that Richmond -several miles east- was a better site for the county seat6, and citizens began to mobilize around that notion. After a political battle involving literal cannon fire, the county seat moved shortly after. Centerville’s courthouse is long gone, but its jail remains a few blocks west of the old Salisbury courthouse. Today, the town is essentially a bedroom community for Richmond, but it’s well-known today for the quality of its antique stores. The log courthouse is just visible on the north side of US-40 downtown.
Unfortunately, the many times the old building has been torn down, moved, and rebuilt mean that its important to view its history skeptically. In fact, the official 2011 Indiana Landmarks report on our state’s historic courthouses nearly skips over it entirely, dismissively listing it only in a footnote as “[appearing] to be the 1811 Wayne County Courthouse…disassembled and rebuilt several times, most recently at Centerville7!”
So is it the original courthouse, a house built from the original courthouse, or a reconstruction of one or the other? No one knows for sure, just like the ship of Theseus. It’s not like there’s another log courthouse in Indiana to compare it to! For a completionist like me, though, it’s another oddball to add to the portfolio, regardless of its dubious provenance.
1 Fox, Henry Clay. Memoirs of Wayne County and the City of Richmond, Indiana. Madison. Western Historical Association. 1912. Print.
2 Enyart, David. “Wayne County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. May 6, 2019.
3 Nunemaker, Jessica. Little Indiana- Small Town Destinations. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 2016. Print.
4 “Salisbury Log Courthouse” Morrison-Reeves Library History. Morrison-Reeves Library, 2016. Web. Retrieved from https://mrlhistory.org/salisbury-log-courthouse/.
5 “Mansion House Museum” Visit Richmond. Richmond / Wayne County IN Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2019. Web. Retrieved from https://visitrichmond.org/listing/mansion-house-museum
6 Spahr, Walter E. History of Centerville, Indiana. Richmond. Wayne County Indiana Historical Society. 1966. Print.
7 Indiana’s Historic Courthouses. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
One thought on “The Wayne County, Indiana Courthouse? (1811-1812)”
Aww, man! I was just through Centerville this weekend! I strayed from Route 40 only to hit the big antique mall. By the time I was done there (hours later) I didn’t even think to do my usual grid search of the town. This is a cool story. Guess I’ll have to go back! Lol.