Court Houses, Jail and Poor Farm, Fayette County, IA
From: Past and Present of Fayette County, Iowa
B. F. Bowen & Company
Indianapolis, Indiana 1910


A plat of ground, four hundred feet square, was donated to the use of Fayette county for public buildings, to be used for such purposes so long as the county seat remained at West Union; but in case of removal, the "Square" was to revert to the village. The proprietors were William Wells, Jacob Lybrand and J. W. Rogers. The ground was surveyed and platted by John M. Gay, county surveyor of Clayton county, on the 29th of April, 1850. The construction of the first court house was commenced in the fall of 1856, and was completed and occupied the next year. Its ground dimensions were forty by sixty feet, two stories in height, built of brick, and cost eight thousand dollars. It was destroyed by fire September 15, 1872. The county realized five thousand nine hundred and one dollars and fifty six cents from insurance on the burned building. Many of the county records were destroyed in the fire, as there was not a fire proof vault in the building.

This is, in substance, the history of the first court house, and yet the details of this procedure would cover many times as much space and not be of any material interest. It seems that no less than three contracts had been let for the building of the court house, first, by acting County Judge Burdick, with one Hutchinson, who was to erect the walls of a brick structure, but this project was abandoned in 1854. At the August election of that year Gabriel Long became county judge, and the effort to build a court house was renewed. The people subscribed liberally in money, and J. W. Rogers and William Wells had previously donated town lots and other lands in furtherance of the enterprise. In February, 1855, Judge Long entered into a contract with Samuel Hale to build a court house, this bid being accepted from among a number submitted. Mr. Hale gave a mortgage on four hundred and sixty acres of land as a guarantee for the faithful performance of the conditions imposed in the contract, this in lieu of personal security by bond. Mr. Hale at once made a contract for the brick with Mr. Eggleston, and proceeded to hew and prepare the building timbers, but did not deliver them on the ground. It appears that Mr. Hale was paid for this labor by Judge Long, on the 14th of March, 1855, when two hundred dollars was paid him on court house contract.

Judge Long was succeeded by C. A. Newcomb, as acting county judge, about the middle of April, 1855. The southern part of the county made determined opposition to the building of a court house at West Union, and such strong pressure was brought against the project that Judge Newcomb finally decided that he 'would not confirm the Hale contract. About this time the town of Fayette offered liberal inducements to have the county seat removed to that place, among which was an offer to build a court house without expense to the people. The question of voting a tax to build a court house at West Union had previously been decided adversely by a very substantial majority; and this decision, rendered by the people on the first Monday in April, 1854, was taken as an indication that the voters were undecided as to where the county seat should be located, and this was made the ground work of the present opposition to building at West Union. On the other hand, the people in the northern part of the county felt that the building of a court house at West Union would serve as an "anchor" to hold the county seat at that place.

It is probable that the action of acting Judge M. V. Burdick was hasty and not authorized by the circumstances, in that he made the contract with Amos Hutchinson during the absence in St. Louis of his principal, Judge Woodle. and in face of the fact that the people had recently voted against the proposition to tax the county to build a court house.

When Judge Woodle returned he refused to ratify the contract made in his absence between his assistant, Burdick, and Amos Hutchinson, and it is said that the Judge was soundly abused by Hutchinson in consequence. Judge Woodle died of typhoid fever, May 12, 1854, and Burdick became acting judge until the August election, when court house contract number one became a thing of the past, and retired with its promoter.

Judge Long was the successor of Judge Woodle, and with his induction into office the court house matter was urged upon him, resulting in the contract with Samuel Hale, as previously mentioned. Then followed the rescinding of the Hale contract by Judge Newcomb, who succeeded Long by appointment and served as acting county judge until the general election in August, 1855. Newcomb was a candidate for the office 'which he was holding, and the question of building a court house at West Union became the paramount issue in a heated and animated campaign. Mr. Newcomb was unquestionably between two fires, and it is said that he adopted the policy of many other politicians in the matter of ante election promises. But he was elected, and at once proposed to the people of Wiest Union that if they would raise three thousand dollars by popular subscription to aid in the erection of a court house, he would proceed to pays the balance out of the county funds. The people, fully aware of the importance of prompt action, soon raised the required amount, with the stipulation that if the county seat should be removed from West Union within ten years, the amount subscribed should be returned to the subscribers, with ten per cent interest per annum. Late in the year 1855, Judge Newcomb made a contract with William Redfield and Dr. J. H. Stafford for the erection of a court house; and during the winter of 1855-6 the contractors got out the timbers (previously prepared by Mr. Hale), provided other necessary materials and made preparations for a vigorous effort when spring opened. Plans and specifications had been before all the county judges, who awarded contracts, and it is reasonable to suppose that this matter had been pretty thoroughly canvassed; but whether these were available in the present case does not appear. However, on March 12, 1856, William R. Montgomery was allowed three dollars for "making specifications on court house contract and draughts." On the same date, William Redfield and J. H. Stafford were allowed two thousand five hundred dollars, as first payment on court house contract.

Work was commenced in April, 1856, and on the 29th of May the first stone was laid in the foundation. The building was to be completed in September, 1857. Ezra Crosby made the brick and laid the stone work. Judge Newcomb went out of office in August, 1857, and the building was then so nearly completed that his successor, Judge Rogers, commenced his official term in the new building. Judge Newcomb had not settled with the contractors, and Judge Rogers objected to taking the responsibility of auditing accounts for work over which he had no jurisdiction. By mutual agreement three arbitrators were appointed, whose decision should be final, these being Samuel F. Shepard, William T. Perry and D. J. Marvin. They met on the 26th of August, 1857, and awarded to William Redfield and J. H. Stafford one thousand eight hundred and forty five dollars in full settlement of all their then existing claims against the county. County warrants were drawn in favor of these contractors for the net sum of seven thousand eight hundred and twenty dollars; but it is not definitely known whether this amount included the pay for the timber hewed by Hale, as an order was drawn in his favor by Judge Long, on "court house contract," March 14, 1856.

The question of taxation for county buildings had been decided unfavorably by a decisive vote of the people, and as the county had no jail or suitable place to confine criminals, it was decided to improvise one. The matter of voting a tax to build a jail had been three times decided adversely, first at the general election in 1859, when there were one thousand one hundred and fifty one votes cast against the proposition to two hundred and seventy six for it; in 1863 the same question was before the people, and with like results as formerly, except that the majority against the proposition was somewhat reduced; in 1866 another vote was taken, and the jail matter was again decided adadverselyy a majority of over one hundred votes. It was then decided by the board of supervisors that they would appropriate five hundred dollars to build a substitute, and this "substitute" proved an expensive luxury, as will appear later. The deciding vote of the people was cast on the second Tuesday in October, 1866, and on the 17th of that month the board appropriated the money and let the contract for building a "cell." This was located in the northwest corner of the court house, and the inner wall was constructed of oak boards laid flatwise upon each other and spiked together. The boards being six inches wide, they presented a rather formidable barrier to the liberties of those confined within, but it was not impervious to fire! On Sunday morning, September 15, 1872, one James Thompson, alias Benson, was confined in the single cell in this improvised bastile, and burned his way to liberty by setting fire with matches and enlarging the stove pipe hole until he could crawl through. It was then an easy matter to knock a hole through the brick wall of the court house and make his escape. This he did, but he left the building on fire, and the court house and many valuable records were destroyed. R. D. Williams and C. C. Zeigler were sleeping in the treasurer's office, guarding the county's strong box, and were aroused by some noise in the direction of the "jail." An investigation found the prisoner escaped and the jail on fire. The alarm was given, and the two men commenced to throw out the books and records. When re-arrested, four or five days after his escape, Thompson denied any intention of burning the building, and said the fire crept beyond his sight and reach, but his "good intentions" did not restore the county's loss. Temporary quarters were soon found for the county offices. and after some delay in preparation of a building, they were installed in the "Stone block," opposite the northwest corner of the public square, where they remained, at an annual rental of four hundred dollars, until re-installed in the new court house.

But the burning of the court house re-opened the county seat controversy with renewed vigor, and precipitated the most animated campaign in the history of that long continuing contest. The "North" and the "South" became fully alive, and though the capitulation at Appomattox had nominally obliterated "Mason and Dixie's line," its effect had not yet reached the northeast corner of Iowa! Petitions and remonstrances, and re-petitions and re-remonstrances, were filed with the board of supervisors with surprising rapidity, and apparently every able bodied man was employed in arraying the people on one side or the other. A legal controversy finally arose, and the determination of the vexed question went into the courts, where it remained in "statu quo" until the "time limit" placed an embargo on further proceedings, and the final vote on the removal Of the county seat was not taken. But it was an animated campaign of red hot speeches, and the best talent of both sides had nightly engagements at the country school houses and in the towns. Rev. J. L. Paine, of Fayette, was an active speaker and worker for "removal," while Capt. C. H. Miller, then a promising young lawyer, usually met him in joint debate. Dr. Levi Fuller was one of the most active defenders of West Union's interests, and devoted much time to the work, though others were equally as zealous as he in other lines of "defense."

The county was now without either jail or court house; and since the legal tangle into which the county seat question was precipitated was still operating to the detriment of those favoring removal; and realizing that "possession is nine points in law," the West Union end of the controversy took advantage of this and at once began to canvass the matter of rebuilding the court house. A proposition was submitted to the board of supervisors, signed by nineteen of the then leading business men of the town, in which they offered to rebuild the court house on the old site for an appropriation of five thousand dollars from the county funds, the contractors to have the old foundation, brick and debris free of cost. These petitioners also agreed to cause the title to the public square to be perfected in Fayette county, Iowa. Another proposition was filed at the same time (April 12, 1873) and signed by nine of the business men of West Union, eight of whom were signers on the document previously mentioned; in which they proposed to reimburse the county for the five thousand dollars expended, in case the county seat should be removed from West Union at any time within five years; the stipulation was made in this proposition that Fayette county should relinquish to them its rights in and to the court house square and the building thereon. Here followed the remonstrance signed by about two thousand five hundred voters, protesting against any appropriation being made for the erection of a court house, or other public building, until the question of such appropriation has been submitted to the people of the county. On the 11th day of April, 1873, in furtherance of the conditions mentioned in the proposition first above written, the mayor and city clerk of West Union executed a deed conveying all the city's interests in the court house square to Fayette county, Iowa, its "heirs and assigns forever." This instrument was acknowledged before Levi Fuller, notary public, April 18, 1873, by J. J. Berkey, mayor, and William E. Welsh, recorder.

By reason of the formidable opposition to rebuilding the court house, and the legal tangle into which hasty and ill advised action had precipitated the whole matter, nothing further was done for about a year, except to continue the "sparring" and await results.

The board of supervisors at this time was composed of Fielding Snedigar, Hiram Hoagland and Rev. H. S. Brunson. Of these Snedigar and Hoagland were favorable to continuing the county seat at West Union, and consequently to rebuilding the court house, while Mr. Brunson ably represented the interests of those favoring removal.

After a heated contest, covering nearly two years, both in the board and outside of its deliberations, the appropriation of five thousand dollars asked by the committee of citizens was granted, and the contract let May 7, 1874, to Curtis R. Bent, J. S. Sampson, H. B. Hoyt, Levi Fuller and John Owens. This committee sublet the contract to David Winrott and William H. Houck, for six thousand seven hundred and fifty dollars, and work was commenced at once. The work was prosecuted with such vigor that by the loth of September, following, the house was completed and ready for occupancy. The brick work and plastering was done by George Ogsbury, the wood work by Winrott and Huyck and the painting by A. Pauch.

The building being erected on the site of the old one, the ground dimensions of which were forty by sixty feet, two stories high, it is evident that there was no superfluous room, and the question of adding to the court house began to be agitated, almost as soon as it was rebuilt. The sheriff and county superintendent's offices, as well as jury rooms, had to be provided outside, at an annual expense of about five hundred dollars. This was considered an altogether useless expenditure of public money, to say nothing of the humiliation of being unable to properly "house" the county's business. But the "make shift" jail had been destroyed, and the expense of transporting and feeding prisoners in the jails of other counties had been tested, even before the building of the pen in the corner of the court house, and now must be resumed.

A petition was presented to the board of supervisors on the 8th of June, 1881. asking that a special election be held to decide the question of bonding the county in a sum not to exceed fifteen thousand dollars for the purpose of building a jail, sheriff's office and residence, office for the county superintendent and jury rooms. The election was held on the 9th of August, 1881, and resulted in one thousand seven hundred and fifty seven votes for the proposition and two thousand one hundred and seventy three against it.

During a political campaign which followed the canvass of this vote one of the three members of the board of supervisors was.a candidate for re-election. It is well known that in an emergency the board has the discretionary power to vote to expend five thousand dollars from the county funds for building or improving county property, but cannot exceed that sum except as authorized to do so by a vote of the people. In this canvass it was stated, and generally believed, that the candidate seeking the suffrages of the people had promised that if re-elected, he would not vote to appropriate the five thousand dollars. This established the value of the proposed new jail at a lesser sum; and accordingly two members of the board voted to accept the proposition of Edward Easton, to build the jail for four thousand nine hundred and ninety five dollars, payable in advance. The plans and specifications submitted by Mr. Easton provided for a county jail twenty four by twenty five feet, eleven feet high in the clear; and a jailor's residence attached, thirty five feet one inch by forty feet six inches square, two stories high; both to be brick buildings with stone foundations, equipped with two of Pauley's steel clad cells, and including the iron doors and iron window guards, together with a cistern and cess pool. Mr. Easton filed a bond in the sum of twenty thousand dollars, which was approved, and he immediately began the work. On the 29th of September, 1882, the buildings were completed and accepted by the county, all members of the board voting in the affirmative. The board of supervisors at this time were T. H. Whiting, J. A. Stevens and E. B. Stillman.


On the 16th of September, 1891, the board of supervisors passed a resolution to submit to the people a proposition to build a fire proof building to cost about twelve thousand dollars, for the better protection of the county's records and books. This proposition was decided adversely at the polls on the 3d of November, 1891, the vote standing nine hundred and twenty four for erecting the building and levying a tax to pay for same, to three thousand and eight against it. Realizing the need of the proposed improvement, as a means of protecting the books and records from dust and fire, the board decided to again use its prerogative of appropriating five thousand dollars a year to make necessary improvements on the county property. June 23, 1893, they entered into a contract with William H. Houck to build two fire proof vaults, and otherwise improve the west side of the court house. The cost of this enlargement, including the vaults, was four thousand five hundred and ninety seven dollars and fifty cents. Members of the board were J. A. Thompson, W. L. Wells and H. M. Wing. A contract for the enlargement of offices and two fire proof vaults on the east side of the court house was entered into with William H. Houck, January 26, 1894, for a consideration of four thousand nine hundred forty two dollars and thirty eight cents. These two additions, being each two stories in height, provided suitable offices for the county superintendent of schools, council and jury rooms. On the 5th of June, 1905, a contract was made with Kiple and Watkins for improving the front of the building, the court room, and the building of a suitable tower. The consideration on this contract was four thousand nine hundred ninety eight dollars and thirty five cents. After the contract was let, plans and specifications approved and material ordered, the city of West Union proposed to furnish a tower clock, keep the same in repair, and purchase the old tower for the school building, in case the court house tower was built in such a manner as to admit of the use of a clock. The plans were slightly changed to meet this proposition, the county having an additional expense of one hundred dollars, which, however, is included in the cost stated above. The city furnished a tower clock for the court house at an expense of five hundred and fifty dollars. The increase in the size of the building necessitated enlargement of the heating plant, and a new system was installed at a cost of two thousand eight hundred and fifteen dollars. Cement walks were laid across the square as needed, and guaranteed for two years by the builder, at a cost of six hundred and ninety one dollars and thirty one cents. Thus it will be seen that the total cost in improvements during the period of twelve or fifteen years, netted eighteen thousand five hundred ninety four dollars and fifty four cents.


The grand jury of 1908, after a careful investigation, condemned the old jail as insufficient, unfit and unsanitary, and recommended that a new jail be built consistent with the needs of the county. The board of supervisors, recognizing this need, and the wisdom of prompt action, proceeded to invite plans and specifications, and on the 19th of June, 1908, awarded the contract for supplying the structural iron to the Pauley Jail Building Company, of St. Louis, Missouri, for the sum of eight hundred and sixty seven dollars.

On the 7th of July, 1908, the board awarded the contract to G. L. Smith to remove the old jail and erect a new two story building, to be completed by the 1st of October, 1908, at a cost of two thousand eight hundred forty five dollars and forty five cents. On the 14th of October, following, they awarded the contract to Smith Brothers for heating and plumbing the jail and residence for a consideration of six hundred and twenty five dollars. January 6, 1909, a contract was entered into with the Adams Steel Wire Works, of Joliet, Illinois, to install six tool proof cells, a juvenile cell, a female cell and twenty window screens, for three thousand six hundred and sixteen dollars. This work was completed in April, 19o9, the entire building and all appurtenances costing the county the sum of seven thousand nine hundred fifty three dollars and forty five cents. This brings the total expenditure for the period mentioned above, to twenty six thousand five hundred forty seven dollars and ninety nine cents. It is not within the province of this work to decide the question of right or wrong in the methods employed to build a court house and jail in apparent defiance of the expressed will of the people. It appears that every effort made at any time in the history of the county to tax the people for public buildings was defeated at the polls, sometimes with very decided disapproval. This cannot be taken as an indication that the intelligent people of this county did not recognize the needs of the county in this respect, but that the question of a permanent location of the county seat had not been fully decided. Ignoring a further discussion of this matter, we will close the subject by expressing the opinion that Fayette county is much better provided for in the matter of public buildings, and at much less expense, than most of the agricultural counties of the state. The public money seems to have been expended judiciously and with superior intelligence in recognizing the needs of the people. Fayette county may justly feel proud of her public buildings, and of the economical manner in which her servants have administered public affairs in the people's interests.


Liberal provision has always been made for the poor, first by boarding indigent persons in private homes (a policy which exists to some extent at present) and next by purchasing a farm and establishing a permanent home for all worthy poor residing in the county.

The first farm was purchased by the board of supervisors (then consisting of one member from each of the twenty townships) on the 7th of June. 1864, through their representatives, Hon. D. G. Goodrich and. Hon. C. R. Bent. This committee purchased the William Morras farm in Illyria township, embracing one hundred forty two and one half acres in sections 9 and 16, for a consideration of two thousand dollars. In September of the same year, two thousand dollars was appropriated by the board to stock the farm and provide necessary grain, provisions, furniture, farming implements, etc. Something over one thousand dollars was expended for this purpose, the balance of the appropriation being returned to the county treasury.

Lewis M. Allen and wife were installed as the first steward and stewardess, and the poor of the county were gathered in and assigned quarters in an old log house on the premises convenient to the farm residence occupied by the steward and his family. The salary of the first steward and stewardess was fixed at five hundred dollars a year, which, of course, included house rent and board. Mr. Allen died while serving the county in this capacity and his wife and hired help conducted the farm and looked after the poor until a successor to her husband was selected and installed. The successor was Rev. William Moore, a pioneer in Illyria township, who, with his wife, entered upon the duties of steward and stewardess in 1867. On June II, 1868, the board of supervisors, realizing that much money must be expended in erecting proper buildings, and also realizing that the farm was too small to provide for present and prospective needs, took favorable action on the recommendation of the committee on poor farm and decided to sell the old farm and purchase a larger one. In accordance with this resolution, the old farm was sold to Major D. B. Herriman, then a member of the board from Illyria township, the county realizing the purchase price. It was at once transferred to Joseph Holsworth, and subsequently became the property of James and Rachel Wilson and Lewis Hunsberger.


The committee on poor farm recommended the purchase of land in Westfield township, in which the board concurred, and three tracts of land were purchased from as many different owners, the whole aggregating two hundred eighty three and twenty seven hundredths acres, at a total cost of two thousand two hundred fourteen dollars and ninety two cents. This land was unimproved, except that some of it had been fitted for cultivation, but there were no buildings which could be utilized for the purposes of a county poor farm. The erection of a barn thirty by forty feet was commenced soon after the purchase of the land, and Mr. Moore moved the inmates of the old quarters, together with his own family and the movable property of the county, into the unfinished barn, and all lived there together until the house (which soon followed) was inclosed and ready for occupancy. On June II, 1869, the committee reported that they had built a barn of the dimensions above mentioned, and that the total cost was one thousand four hundred twenty six dollars and thirty six cents. The completion of the house was reported by the committee at the session in January, 1870; total cost of same, two thousand four hundred dollars.

These accommodations were considered sufficient for a great many years; but as the population increased, the demands for caring for the poor were correspondingly increased; and besides this, it was determined that the incurable insane could be cared for within the bounds of our own county at less expense than in the asylums. Accordingly, on the 8th of April, 1898, the board of supervisors decided to submit the matter of building a new county poor house and insane ward to the people of the county at the general election of that year. The board estimated the cost at fifteen thousand dollars, and proposed that a tax of one mill be levied in the years 1899, 1900 and 1901, sufficient revenue being derived therefrom to liquidate the indebtedness. This proposition was voted on at the November election, 1898, and carried with a wholesome majority. A large and commodious brick building was at once commenced, it being two stories in height and suitably partitioned and arranged to meet the requirements with as little labor for the nurses and attendants as possible. It has the external appearance of a public institution of modern times, and is equipped with all necessary appliances for the comfort and protection of the unfortunates whose only home is provided by public charity. The insane ward is a characteristic feature of this institution, being modeled after the larger hospitals in the matter of multiplying conveniences and minimizing dangers. The large farm produces nearly everything consumed at the institution, and the luxury of fresh milk, butter, eggs and vegetables is something to be appreciated, even by mildly insane people who have been inmates of the state institutions in the larger cities.

The installation of a complete electric light and power plant is the latest investment in needed appliances around the home. This was completed and started on the 17th of February, 1910. The total cost was one thousand one hundred and eighty four dollars and twenty three cents. Five acres of land have been added to the original purchase, the total acreage being now two hundred and eighty eight. This property, including buildings, is appraised, conservatively, at forty five thousand dollars. The personal property at the institution was appraised at nine thousand three hundred and eighty five dollars and nine cents, which includes stock of all kinds, poultry, grain, hay, vegetables, farm machinery, harness and robes, household goods and furniture, kitchen utensils, beds and bedding, clothing and miscellaneous articles.

During the year 1908 (the period covered by the foregoing figures) there was realized from the sale of products of the farm, a total sum of one thousand nine hundred and sixty one dollars and thirty two cents; and during the same period there was expended one thousand eight hundred and eighty dollars and thirty eight cents, which shows a small balance to the credit of the farm. The average number of inmates, poor and insane, from January 1, 1908, to January 1, 1909, was forty eight and one third. During this period the total mortality was seven, of whom five were in the insane ward. The present steward and matron are Mr. and Mrs. A. E. Smith, who are employed at an annual salary of eight hundred dollars.

In addition to the provisions of this institution, there are many persons in the county who receive partial support at their homes, on order of the township trustees of their respective home townships. The sum thus expended aggregates several thousand dollars annually. The largest expenditure for this purpose within the last twelve years was in 1904, when twelve thousand three hundred and eight dollars was so expended. The smallest within the same period was in 1906, when the cost was four thousand eight hundred and seventy one dollars and seventy seven cents, and the average expenditure on this account for the period mentioned above was seven thousand four hundred and seventy five dollars per annum.


There is another class of indigent persons who are cared for in part, at their homes, or in the families of friends, and who are exempt from the humiliation of going to the poorhouse by reason of having been soldiers in the service of their country. An average of about one thousand six hundred and fifty dollars per year has been paid to the indigent soldiers or their widows during the last ten years. This sum has been distributed among thirty five families during the year 1908.

Return to [ Iowa History ] [ History at Rays Place ] [ Rays Place ] [ Iowa Biographies ]

Iowa Counties at this web site Audubon County - Buchanan County - Dickinson County - Fayette County - Hancock County - Iowa County - Madison County - Marion County - Plymouth County - Sac County - Wapello County - Winnebago County - Woodbury County

Also see the local histories for [ CT ] [ IA ] [ IL ] [ IN ] [ KS ] [ ME ] [ MO ] [ MI ] [ NE ] [ NJ ] [ NY ] [ PA ] [ OH ] [ PA ] [ WI ]

All pages copyright 2003-2013. All items on this site are copyrighted by their author(s). These pages may be linked to but not used on another web site. Anyone may copy and use the information provided here freely for personal use only. Privacy Policy