The County Seat of Elkhart County, Indiana
From: Pioneer History of Elkhart County, Indiana
With Sketches and Stories
By: Henry S. K. Bartholomew
Press of the Goshen Printery
Goshen, Indiana 1930


AS ALREADY stated in another chapter, the legislative act which created Elkhart county, also provided for the selection of a county seat and named five commissioners to make the selection. These commissioners met according to their instructions on the 24th of May 1830 at the home of Chester Sage on the north side of the St. Joseph river and about a quarter of a mile below the mouth of the Elkhart river. After inspecting several sites they again met on May 26 to make a report of their proceedings. As there was at that time no organized county government and no county offiicers to receive their report, they adjourned to meet again July 12. Before the last named date three justices of the peace had been commissioned by Gov. Ray and these justices acted at that time in a similar capacity as the board of county commissioners does now. These justices were James Mather, Arminius C. Penwell and John Jackson. The justices met for the first time June 28, 1830 at the home of Chester Sage and organized by electing James Mather chairman of the board. They adjourned to meet July 13, at which time the commissioners appointed to select a site for the county seat submitted their report.

The controversy over the county seat which lasted for almost three-quarters of a century, had alrady started at that time. The two groups of settlers which have been mentioned elsewhere, were both anxious to have the county seat. The prairie group desired that it should be located near the center of the county and the group at "the forks" of the two rivers wished it to be located there. At the special session of the board of justices July 13, the commissioners reported that they had inspected the several sites proposed for a county seat, but did not choose either of the sites which have been mentioned. Instead they selected a site approximately half-way between the two and described as a part of the southwest quarter of section 24 in Township 37 north of Range 5 east. The place selected is on the north side of the Elkhart river west of the Sugar Grove school house in Concord township. In an early day the land was purchased by Daniel Spohn, Sr., and was the boyhood home of former Mayor Samuel F. Spohn of Goshen and Dr. G. W. Spohn of Elkhart, (later of California and now deceased), two of Elkhart county's most prominent citizens.

Col. Jackson expressed the opinion, which was also held by a number of other old settlers who were familiar with the transactions of the commissioners, that they were influenced in their choice by William G. Ewing, one of their number. Ewing, who was a resident of Fort Wayne, was a standing candidate for the legislature and did not wish to offend either group of settlers. This county was at that time a part of the Fort Wayne legislative district.

The location selected displeased everybody but one man, John Andrews, who shortly afterward erected a brewery in that vicinity. Both groups of settlers decided to petition for a re-location of the county seat and their petition was granted. About that time it was learned that a similar situation existed in St. Joseph county. The county seat of that county had been located about six miles down the St. Joseph river from the present city of South Bend, which also led to a petition for a re-location. The prairie settlers in this county ascertained by some means or other that they could secure an advantage by uniting with those at South Bend. A petition was presented to the legislature asking that a strip three miles wide be cut off from Elkhart county and attached to St. Joseph county. The petition was granted. This brought the site of the prairie settlers very near the exact geographical center of Elkhart county and it also brought the South Bend site nearer the center of St. Joseph county. The prairie settlers had another advantage. The site which they wanted was on government land which, by virtue of a law passed by congress in 1824, was subject to preemption for county seat purposes. The other site was on an Indian reservation which belonged to Pierre Moran. Moran had sold it to a man named Godfrey, but had not given a good title to it and the matter was then in litigation.

After granting the petition for a re-location, the legislature of 1830-31 passed an act, approved February 10, 1831, entitled "An act for the re-location of the county seat of Elkhart county." Another set of commissioners was named. These were to examine the site which had already been selected and also such other sites as might be considered eligible for a county seat and decide whether or not the public interest demanded a re-location. The commissioners appointed were L. G. Thompson and Anthony L. Davis of Allen county; Hiram Todd and Walter Wilson of Cass county and David Miller of St. Joseph county. They were instructed to meet at the mouth of the Elkhart river on the third Monday in March 1831 and to proceed immediately to the discharge of their duties. The records of the board of justices show that but three of these commissioners met at that time. These were Anthony L. Davis, L. G. Thompson and David Miller. As they constituted a quorum, they proceeded to view the several sites and make a selection.

By this time the paririe settlement had grown in numbers and those people determined to make every effort to secure the location of their choice. It had been arranged that all who were interested should be on hand at the appointed time. Several of them had become acquainted with Mr. Thompson and Mr. Davis and were to use all the influence they could with those two. Mr. Miller, the third commissioner, was a member of the Dunkard church as were Messrs. Weybright and Cripe who were to use their influence with him.

In describing the transaction Col. Jackson says; "At length the time arrived. All were present according to arrangements. Old Father Cripe invited the commissioners to dinner. I also was invited. He brought out a little keg of wine that he had for his own use (being an old man) and treated us all.

"George Crawford was our most prominent opponent. After viewing the sites proposed and also the site of the first location and after hearing some loud speeches from the different parties the commissioners agreed unanimously to relocate and establish the county seat at its present location."

The commissioners did not submit their official report to the board of justices until the 26th of May, 1831. At that time they reported that they had examined the several sites under consideration, including the one previously selected, and recommended that it be vacated and the county seat re-located. The site which they selected is described as the south fraction of the northeast quarter of Section 6 in Township 36 north, Range 6 east. The record shows further that the commissioners recommended Goshen as a suitable name to be given the town which would be built at the proposed seat of justice. The report was accepted and approved by the board and the name of Goshen was officially given to the site which had been selected. The meeting at which this report was made to the board of justices was held at the house of Thomas Thomas.

While the county seat had been definitely located, the troubles were not all over. The land had to be entered at once, as the land sales were to be held soon and there was danger that somebody else might buy the new county seat site. Nobody in the community had any money and the situation was discouraging. Again fortune favored the prairie settlers. Samuel Hanna, who was a rival candidate of W. G. Ewing for the legislature, when passing from Fort Wayne to South Bend, stopped over night with Col. Jackson. The colonel told him of the situation and he voluntarily offered to loan the necessary sum of money until the town was laid out and enough lots sold to pay it back. Cola Jackson gave his personal note for the money. The next day he started for Fort Wayne on horseback and entered the land. Although the county seat was located in 1831 the first court house was not completed until 1833. The first session of the circuit court held in the county was at the residence of Chester Sage in accordance with a provision of the law which authorized the formation of the new county. That session convened November 30, 1830, and was held by the two newly elected associate justices, William Latta and Peter Diddy. But one session was held at the Chester Sage residence, the court availing itself of the authority granted it to remove to other places for holding its sessions. The second session was held at the residence of Thomas Thomas, the county clerk, about three miles east of the present city of Elkhart on Two-Mile plain. At this session the Honorable Charles H. Test, the president judge, presided and the two associate judges were also present. The third term was held at the residence of James Frier on Elkhart Prairie, at that time called Elkhart plain. This place has been known for three-quarters of a century as the McConaughy farm and is now owned and occupied by Leonard McConoughy, a grandson of Mr. Frier. Tradition has it that the session was held under the trees in front of the log house in which Mr. Frier lived at that time. The fourth term was held at the residence of Henry Dusenberry, located on the east side of Main street a short distance north of Washington street in Goshen. The court records do not state where the fifth term was held. The sixth term convened at the home of Henry Dusenberry. Why the sessions were not continued there is explained in the following item taken from the court records.

"The court met at the home of Henry Dusenberry May 20, 1833. Present, Honorable Gustavus A. Everts, president judge; Wiliam Latta and Peter Diddy, associate judges; Thomas Thomas, clerk, and James Beck, sheriff of said county. The sheriff informed the court that a new court house is now in readiness for the reception of the court and thereupon the said court adjourned from the house of Henry Dusenberry to meet and hold its session at said court house. And the said court, now, to wit: at the hour of 11 o'clock on the said 20th day of May, 1833 convened in said court house to hold its session. Present, the same judges and officers aforesaid."

There is apparently no record of any contract for the building of the county's first court house. The public records, from the time the county seat was established in 1831, up to the time when the court house was ready for occupancy have been searched diligently and no such record has been found. The late P. M. Henkel, who served as county auditor eight years, in a paper read before the Elkhart County Historical Society in 1905, states that the contract was awarded to Jacob Studebaker, who modeled the building after the court house at Dayton, Ohio. The late Dr. M. M. Latta, several years before his death made the same statement, and he also stated that the Dayton court house was modeled after the main building of Princeton University as it was nearly a century and a quarter ago. There is also a tradition that Mr. Studebaker walked to Dayton and took exact measurements, inside and outside, of the court house there in order to build the Elkhart county court house just like it. Whether this tradition is correct or not can not be said. In the absence of any public record, the words of Mr. Henkel and Dr. Latta, both of whom were reputed to be men of absolute truthfulness, are the best authority that can be cited in the matter. It might be added that Mr. Henkel was a resident of Goshen for fifty years and Dr. Latta nearly sixty years, both locating there about 1840.

About a year after the foregoing statements were written an article on "Early Days in Elkhart County", written by Col. Jackson, was discovered in the old files of the Goshen Democrat. Along with much other information concerning the county's early history is the following account of building the court house.

"When it became necessary for the commissioners to build a court house, we were at a loss to know how to go about it. We knew of no architect, that could draw a plan or no workmen that could build it if they had a plan, and making some inquiry among the people, at last we were referred to Jacob Studebaker as a good home carpenter. We applied to him for advice on the subject and we found he was a pretty good architect. We told him what size we wished to build and then he drew up a plan which we considered as good as any we could get under the circumstances. We made an agreement with him to do the whole woodwork agreeably to the plan he suggested and depended on his honesty to do it right. We had determined to build with brick and engaged Henry Davis to make the brick, find lime and put them in the building. Then another difficulty arose. What shall we put in the foundation? As there was but one stone or brick mason in the county, Henry White. we consulted him about laying the foundation with "nigger heads". He said he could do nothing with them; that if we undertook to build a brick wall on them, they would crush apart and the wall would fall down. We then determined to select the hard burned brick at the bottom of the kiln and put them in the bottom of the wall, the best thing we could do under the circumstances."

Col. Jackson does not mention Mr. Studebaker's trip to Dayton or his modeling the building after the Dayton court house. That information was obtained from some of Mr. Studebaker's descendants who were reputable citizens and there is no reason to question their statements. The building served its purpose well and was considered a model public building in its day. The writer was a small boy when it was torn down but has some recollection of its exterior appearance, but none concerning its interior. It was a square brick structure with a square cupola on top. There was a wing at the south and one at the north. The main part was not much larger than one of the additions which were built in 1904-5 to the present court house. That building stood for thirty-six years, from 1833, when it was completed, until 1869, when it was torn down to make room for the one which we now have. Like its successor, when it was built the supposition was that it would be sufficient for the needs of the county for several generations, but in three decades the county had outgrown it.

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