The abandoned Dearborn County, Indiana Courthouse (1836-1843)

I stumble across abandoned schoolhouses, Marsh Supermarkets, and theaters pretty often, but it’s rare that I run across an abandoned courthouse! Nevertheless, one sits just off the beaten path in a forgotten community called Wilmington. Although it might not seem like it now, justice in Dearborn County was administered from this simple structure for seven years before it was promptly forgotten about.

The 1836 Dearborn County Courthouse in Wilmington, Indiana.

Lawrenceburg was Dearborn’s original county seat from 1810 to 1836. That year, the government moved to Wilmington, which was closer to the center of the county’s population1. Residents of Lawrenceburg didn’t have much say in the move since it was dictated by the state legislature, but officials obliged anyway and quickly built the two-story brick courthouse in Wilmington at a cost of $4,000.

The move meant that Lawrenceburg’s status as the epicenter of county government and trade would end, so its boosters were upset. Residents in the burgeoning city of Rising Sun actually favored the relocation, though! They’d been campaigning since 1817 to be granted their own county, but their efforts were constantly rebuked by their political rivals in Lawrenceburg.

The courthouse, as built, cost the county $4,000.

After the move, officials in Rising Sun began to hatch a plan that capitalized on the misfortune of their neighbors. Here’s what the three-part scheme entailed:

  1. Lawrenceburg would endorse the formation of a new county with Rising Sun as its seat.
  2. That new county would absorb residents who favored a move to Wilmington, which was closer to Rising Sun than Lawrenceburg.
  3. The new county would negate Wilmington’s status as the most central location in Dearborn, which meant he county seat would move back to Lawrenceburg2

The plan was executed after seven years of planning. It worked, and Ohio County was organized in 1845 with Rising Sun as its seat.

The courthouse was last used as a Masonic Hall.

Wilmington’s courthouse wasn’t so lucky. Information’s hard to come by, but after it was abandoned as a courthouse, the structure was used as a Masonic Hall3. Today, it sits abandoned at the corner of Wilmington Pike and King Street. The county assessor’s database system the old courthouse as a commercial/industrial building in very poor condition. 

Wilmington dried up after it lost the county seat, and a 1958 rerouting of State Road 350 completely bypassed the place4. Today, Wilmington’s only other non-residential structure is the Wilmington United Methodist Church, built down the street from the courthouse around the turn of the twentieth century. Until at least 1999, a two-story, federal-style I.O.O.F. Hall still stood to the west of the abandoned courthouse5, but it was gone by the time I made it to Wilmington in 2016.

The courthouse (in green) and the Oddfellows’ Hall (in red), as they appeared in a blurry USGS satellite image from 1999.

The courthouse itself is in pretty rough shape too. At some point, its owners installed a sliding barn in place of its original entrance along with set of ramshackle wooden stairs to access to a new entryway, an old window. Almost all of the building’s other windows are boarded up or covered in plastic, and entire segments of brick have fallen to the ground. Pieces of the ornamental cornice are missing at various areas and the cupola is gone. It’s a real train wreck.

Entire sections of brick have collapsed and most of the windows are boarded up, but at least the roof’s okay!

Despite its poor condition, it’s not a far stretch to imagine the courthouse as it once was compared to two of its contemporaries in Rome and Corydon. Although the cupola is long gone, the only real concessions to style the building retains are the brick soldier courses above some of its windows. The metal stars visible about halfway up the building aren’t ornamental; they’re modern anchor points for long, threaded rods that span the length of the courthouse and keep it from falling in on itself6. I’d imagine they were installed when the brick above the lower windows started to crumble. 

I haven’t been back to Wilmington since I first ventured there seven years ago. I left the hamlet with a sense of awe coupled with a little sadness. In a melancholic way, the courthouse connects us with history and asks us to reflect upon the passage of time. Unfortunately, it probably won’t for long; it looks as though its days are numbered.

Today, a forlorn historical marker is all that commemorates Wilmington’s brief former glory.

As one of three remaining coffee mill-style courthouses in the state, I think the building’s worth saving. Although Wilmington’s best days are firmly in the past, a stabilized and restored courthouse could anchor a unique history park! As much as I doubt it will happen, I’d love to see that before I go back to find it’s been too late. 

Dearborn County (pop. 49,904, 28/92)
Wilmington (pop. 0)
Photographed 3/20/16
Built: 1836
Cost: $4,000 ($87,053 in 2016)
Architect: Unknown
Style: Federal
Courthouse Square: No Square
Height: Two stories
Current use: Non-governmental

Sources Cited
1 Enyart, David. “Dearborn County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. July 18, 2018.
2 Enyart, David. “Ohio County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
3 Masing, Milton A. Dearborn County, Indiana in Vintage Postcards. Arcadia Publishing. 1999. Print.
4 Indiana State Highway Department (1957). State Highway System of Indiana (Map). Indiana State Highway Department. OCLC 78547924. Retrieved November 11, 2016 – via Indiana State Library and Historical Bureau.
5 Masing, Milton A. Dearborn County, Indiana in Vintage Postcards. Arcadia Publishing. 1999. Print.
6 “What are the Metal Stars on the Side of Buildings For?” Blue Collar Workman. June 3, 2013. Web. Retrieved July 18, 2018.

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