Courthouse 100 starts with ground breaking commemoration

Courthouse 100 GBGround was broken Tuesday afternoon for the Courthouse 100 celebration just as it was broken exactly 100 years ago for the Greene County courthouse.

County supervisors (from left) Tom Contner, Mick Burkett, Dawn Rudolph and John Muir used the shovels at a brief program held on the south side of the courthouse.

Don Van Gilder, chair of the Courthouse 100 committee and unofficial courthouse historian, provided a brief history of the two courthouses that preceded the current courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

  • Greene County court was first held in 1854 in the log cabin of Judge William Phillips four miles southeast of Jefferson.
  • A wood frame courthouse was built in 1856 on the west side of the town square in Jefferson. The building cost $1,825 and also served as the first Jefferson school during the winter of 1856-57.
  • A two-story red brick courthouse was built in 1870 in the center of the town square. The building faced north and featured four white wooden columns and a cupola with a bell at the top. Cost was $37,000.
  • In January 1915 a grand jury determined that the vaults in which county records were stored were unsafe and not secure enough, and suggested adding vaults and reinforcing the existing vaults. The board of supervisors in March of that year decided instead to build a new courthouse rather than spend money on a temporary fix.
  • In May 1915 a $150,000 bond issue for a new courthouse was approved by voters by a nearly 2:1 margin. A tax of 2-1/2 cents was levied with the retirement of the bonds projected to take eight years.
  • In June 1915 a Cedar Rapids company began the job of jacking up and moving the red brick courthouse to a location just to the west. The building continued to be used as the courthouse while the new three-story limestone courthouse was constructed on the site. The new courthouse was planned to face south to the new Lincoln Highway.
  • Proudfoot Bird and Rawson of Des Moines was hired as architect and construction supervision. That company is still in existence as Brooks Borg & Skiles, and the original plans of the Greene County courthouse are in the company’s archives. The Rowles Company of Onawa was hired as general contractor. That company also built Jefferson High School, now Greene County Middle School.
  • Ground was broken for the courthouse Nov. 3, 1915. Van Gilder named the supervisors involved: A.E. Cole of Franklin Township, A.P. Fuhrmeister of Churdan, M.F. Fry of Rippey, Frank A. Newton of Jackson Township, and William Grivey of Dana. He noted that the $140,000 the county borrowed to build the courthouse in 1915 is equivalent to nearly $3.3 million in 2015 dollars.

Van Gilder shared comments made by Courthouse 100 committee member Chuck Offenburger about the 1915 project. “What jumps out at me from this is what a bold and far-sighted project this new courthouse was back in 1915 and the next year or two,” Offenburger said.  “They built a building that has not only lasted 100 years, but it’s still inspiring people after 100 years.  The supervisors and building planners back then took extra steps, like including the unique ‘The Land of Plenty’ tile mosaic in the rotunda floor, the murals in the dome, stained glass and other distinctive touches.  Of course, back then, the supervisors were dealing with amazing growth in the county.  It’s neat that 100 years later, we’re dealing with some amazing growth in the county, too.”

Members of the committee planning Courthouse 100 observances along with Don Van Gilder and Offenburger are Jean Van Gilder, Mary Weaver, Mike and Dianne Piepel, Denise O’Brien Van, Hollie Roberts and Tori Riley.

The next commemoration will be of laying the cornerstone in May 2016.

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