130-year-old courthouse offers architectural treasures

Staff Writer
Geneseo Republic
The Henry County Courthouse is celebrating its 130th year. Construction of the courthouse began on March 29, 1876. Initially, the building was to cost $68,000, but a very rainy spring caused delays and costs soared to $77,000.

    The Henry County Courthouse in Cambridge is celebrating its 130th year.  It is located at the west end of town adjacent to College Square Park, where it stands three stories tall.  It provides a magnificent view of the town from any window on any side of the building.  The courthouse walls have become a shrine for local artists willing to donate their work so others can experience the trials and tribulations that make up the past and present of Henry County.

    Construction on the courthouse began in March 29, 1876.  Initially, the building was to cost $68,000, but a very rainy spring caused delays and costs soared to $77,000.  In fact, a windmill and well were built on site to provide a continuous stream of water.  The county board first expressed an interest in building in 1866, but decided to postpone starting the structure as it was too soon after the war to undertake such a big financial burden.

    The architect hired to design the courthouse was Julian Hinckley from Indianapolis.  The county board committee that was first appointed for the building included:  James Blish, James Reherd, Thomas Mowers, John Morgan, and Nathaniel Gould.  They hired Hiram Dickinson of Galva to oversee the daily work.  The heating contractor was Haxtun Steam Heater of Kewanee, which is now Kewanee Boiler. 

    The foundation is unfinished stone that is three feet thick.  Originally, Sagestone Sandstone was used, but it began to erode away and was replaced with Bedford Limestone in 1942.  There are sixteen distinct fireplaces throughout the courthouse at an original cost of $45.00 each.  Every fireplace is unique in color and finish.  The woodwork used is oak with some trimmed in black walnut.  All the offices at one time had a sink tucked away in some small corner of the room.  Some have now been removed or replaced with something more modern.

    Stone that was used were four by six feet and one foot thick.  By May of 1879, the walls were up to the 2nd floor.  A large drum in the cellar used horse power to lift the stones into place.  Horse drawn carts were used to carry the stones into the cellar.  Some construction was delayed while waiting for iron beams.

    Help in laying the bricks came from Philadelphia.  Two men were employed from Philadelphia because the bricks were of a type that local bricklayers were not experienced in laying.  In October 1879, roof work began.  In March 1880, Mr. Dirksen of Pekin was employed to adorn the ceiling of the main courtroom.  He was an artist of some note in frescos and decorative painting.  Some were disappointed that the ceiling was not a dome, but instead was crafted as a lowering of the ceiling in the middle of the room.  Mr. Dirksen did the views of the four villages including Cambridge, Kewanee, Galva and Geneseo with accurate detail.  In the renovation during the 1950’s, the painting was not touched.  However, Mr. Dirksen had painted corn and flowers on the ceiling in each of the corners.  These were not kept.

    Once completed, decorating of the offices began.  The earlier blinds on the windows were made of cherry and maple.  In 1897, electricity supplanted the initial kerosene lamps.  A system of pipes was installed throughout the building for gas lights, but they were never used. 

    A wing was added on the west side in 1940, and the west porch was removed at that time.  In 1955, the interior was remodeled at a cost of $158,000, and the remaining three porches were removed.  Then in 1969, some additional remodeling occurred, which created four new offices and a meeting room on the third floor.  The most recent addition took place in 1998, when construction began on a new judicial wing.  The expansion contains the jail, two courtrooms and offices for the circuit clerk, court services, states attorney, public defender and sheriff. 

    The Henry County Courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  It remains a pillar in the county and continues to be the hub of daily trafficking for people to do all sorts of business throughout the building each day.  The clock no longer strikes time and is in need of some major repair, but its face serves as a reminder of just how many years this building has provided essential services to the residents of Henry County. 

    For more information, please call the Deputy County Administrator’s office at 309.937.3400.  To learn more about the history of Henry County or to view photos of this historical Courthouse visit and click on the link About Henry County or select In the News.