Courthouse centennial celebration held

The Greene County courthouse was heralded as “the best-preserved courthouse of its vintage” at a celebration Friday of the 100th anniversary of its dedication.

About 100 persons attended the 2 pm program, seated around the mosaic on the rotunda floor and standing around the second floor railing. Don Van Gilder, chair of the Courthouse 100 committee and emcee of the program, noted that the dedication had started at 2 pm on Oct. 27, 1917.

He said the goal of the celebration was to increase county residents’ awareness and appreciation of the beauty of the structure. “People come into the courthouse with their heads down to pay a speeding ticket or pay taxes or report for jury duty. They don’t look up and really look at things,” Van Gilder told the 50 or so people who attended Java and Juice in the morning. “I can always tell when someone comes in who isn’t from here. They first look down at the cornucopia, and then they look up at the dome, and they love what they see. We want people to be tourists in their own courthouse, to see it like people who don’t live here see it.”

Judge Robert Hanson was guest speaker | photo by Chuck Offenburger

Judge Robert Hanson, a 1974 Jefferson Community High School graduate and now a judge in Iowa’s Fifth judicial district, was guest speaker. His father, federal district court Judge William Hanson, was guest speaker when the courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

The younger Hanson has lived in Des Moines more than half his life, but he has always stayed in touch with Jefferson. He said he has realized that “this is a pretty remarkable place… The people who have lived here in the past, who live here now, who will live here in the future, have done some remarkable things. The town has an incredible heritage,” he said.

He saluted the Greene County heritage book, compiled by volunteers and published in 2011, as “a wealth of information, particularly about the courthouse.”

He noted that he has worked in between 30 and 35 of Iowa’s county courthouses. “I can tell you right now that this is the best-preserved courthouse of its vintage in that entire group, without a question.”

Steve Stimmel, retired architect from Brooks Borg Skiles Architecture Engineering, a successor to the firm that designed and engineered the courthouse, had spoken before Hanson. According to Hanson, the company learned a few things between building the Polk County courthouse in 1906 and the Greene County courthouse. Polk County is now embarking on a $20-$30 million renovation of its courthouse.

Woodbury County is marking the centennial of its courthouse with a $12 million repair project, Hanson said.

“Isn’t it amazing that this building still exists in basically the same condition? There have been no fundamental changes to this building in 100 years,” he said.

“These kinds of structures need to be maintained, need to be preserved. The folks of Greene County have done that,” Hanson said, and concluded his remarks by thanking the people of Greene County for preserving a key part of the county’s heritage.

Mike Piepel | photo by Chuck Offenburger

Courthouse 100 committee member Mike Piepel, who served as county auditor for 12 years, noted that the original 1917 time capsule is buried in concrete. He read a list of items in the time capsule created by the Courthouse 100 committee. That time capsule is in a custom-made steel box and will be stored above ground.

Also speaking at the ceremony were state Representative Chip Baltimore and John Muir, chair of the county board of supervisors.

Roger Aegerter | Scranton Journal photo

Roger Aegerter, director of the Greene County Historical Society, provided a light moment, offering the gift of a rubber chicken in reference to a story written by Courthouse 100 committee member Chuck Offenburger about live chickens being dropped from the courthouse roof during the Depression years.

Greene County High School singers opened the ceremony singing the National Anthem from the second floor. Their harmonies and the acoustics of the building provided a memorable rendition. They closed the ceremony singing the spiritual “Deep River.”

Singing the National Anthem | photo by Chuck Offenburger

Courthouse 100 committee member Tori Riley read a poem, “The Courthouse in Jefferson,” written by Colleen O’Brien, a 1962 graduate of Jefferson High School.

Chuck Offenburger leading a tour Friday | GCNO photo

The Courthouse 100 committee hosted tours of the courthouse throughout the day. The tours included the attic and the basement, which aren’t generally open to the public. The attic was the highlight for most, with “Wow!” being the most-heard comment. Persons were surprised by the quantity of records stored and by a very close look at the top side of the stained glass dome.

About 150 adults signed the guest registry Friday. Over the course of a week, 750 county students toured the building. Courthouse 100 committee member Jean Van Gilder coordinated the student tours.

Other Courthouse 100 committee members were Mary Weaver, Dianne Piepel, Pat Richards, Pete Bardole and Denise O’Brien Van.

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